Hip- hop has been around for nearly four decades (“PBS”). It rose from the youth party scene of the South Bronx and turned to a billion dollar global sensation that combines politics, style, and technology. Hip-Hop is more than music; it is a youth movement, a culture, and a way of life. Hip-Hop is the culture and rap is a form of music that comes out of the Hip-Hop culture (Pough 3). Thinking about hip-hop as a culture, allows one to understand the key elements of hip-hop including breakdancing, the MC, the Deejay, and graffiti, which is the visual element. Also, the musical element of hip-hop is not just limited to rap music. There is rock/rap and hip-hop soul. There is also hip-hop literature and poetry. Hip-hop culture has also expanded to mainstream pop culture. Now hip-hop beats and rapping can be heard in various commercials on television.
The South Bronx has been named “the home of the hip-hop culture” (Rose 200). In the 1970s, a renewal project involved a great deal of black and Hispanic people from all different areas of New York to move to the South Bronx. Between the 1930s and 1940s, Robert Moses, a powerful city planner carried out various public work projects, including highways, parks, and housing projects that changed the way New York was shaped (Rose 200). In 1959, city, state, and federal authorities began to put into action his plan called the Cross-Bronx Expressway. The Expressway was created to link New Jersey and Long Island communities. He decided to carry out a plan that involved destroying hundreds of homes and commercial buildings. Also throughout the 1960s and 1970s, 60,000 homes were demolished (Rose 201). Robert Moses called these areas “slums”. His Title I Slum Clearance Program forced 170,000 people to move to different locations. These areas he called “slums” were populated with working and lower-middle class Jews, but also included Italians, Germans, Irish and black neighborhoods. Although the neighborhoods that were being demolished had a high number of Jewish populations, the black and Hispanic population was extremely affected. In the late 1960s and mid 1970s, the lack of residents in the South Bronx area was mortifying. Landlords began to sell their properties quickly to slumlords, which caused white tenants to move to northern sections of the Bronx and Westchester (Rose 201). Shop and business owners were afraid and sold their shops and moved to another location. City administration believed that Moses’ plan was a complete success and ignored the tragedies that occurred in these areas. The black and Hispanic residents that moved to the South Bronx were left with few resources and broken leadership. The media did not notice the effects of these devastating policies until 1977, when a power outage blacked out New York, and several stores were vandalized and robbed. The South Bronx was now a symbol of ruin and isolation. There was no life and energy in the images of black and Hispanic neighborhoods. In spite of these images of devastation and no energy, the youth of the South Bronx were finding ways to remain hopeful and build a creative place for them to be expressive and find identity. These ethnic groups made the South Bronx their home, but faced social isolation and a loss of social service organizations. Instead, they created their own networks. Jamaicans, Puerto Ricans, Northern American blacks, and other Caribbean people reshaped their community. Although city leaders and the media had shut out the South Bronx and its residents, the youth had their own message and decided to speak out.
After the destruction of their community, the youth of the South Bronx created a new identity and social status, and thus the hip-hop culture emerged. This new identity included fashion, language, street names, and creating neighborhood crews. Hip-hop’s identity is rooted in the identity of status of a local group. The postindustrial city provided the framework for the creative development of the hip-hop’s early inventors, by shaping their access to space, materials, and education (Rose 208). One of hip-hop’s key elements and technologies, I will analyze is graffiti. The advances in spray paint technology heavily supported graffiti artists’ work, and they used the subway system as their canvas. Graffiti is known as a social movement that first emerged in New York in the late 1960’s, but it wasn’t until ten years later that it began to establish complex styles and recognition (Rose 209). In addition to this it was not until the 1980s that graffiti was showcased in art galleries. Young people were key players in the graffiti movement. One of graffiti’s first modern artist’s was named Cornbread. He was a high school student from Philadelphia who would tag walls to try to get the attention of a girl (“The History of American Graffiti”). Even though the majority of graffiti artists were black and Hispanic, one of the artists responsible for inspiring the movement, Taki 183 was a young Greek boy named Demetrius, from Manhattan (Rose 210). He was working as a messenger and would write his name on the subway cars and stations. A New York Times writer published a story about the movement, and when Demetrius’ peers saw this they were inspired and developed a sense of pride in their work. They realized that their work could potentially reach and be recognized beyond their own block.
Furthermore, in the mid-1970s, the advancement and focus of graffiti had expanded. Now it did not just involve tagging, or writing the artists’ name on a wall, but included skillful techniques, styles, and formats. The purpose of these new techniques and styles were to gain individual identity and status, but to also gain more exposure. The new themes included hip- hop slang, rap lyrics, and hip- hop fashion. The artists also used various logos and images from television, comic books, and cartoons. The use of more colors and patterns were also growing. These developments in style, technique, and themes were possible through the advances in marker and spray paint technology. The advances included better spray nozzles, marking fibers, paint adhesion, and texture enhanced the range of expression in graffiti writing. Creating a piece takes an extensive amount of time, work, and risk. The artists drew out designs and patterns, and tried new spray-paints and colors before creating a piece. Gaining access to a subway car for long hours involved knowing the train schedule, and breaking into the areas where out of service trains were located. Graffiti artists walked along the board that covers the electrified rail, climbed walls, and went through holes in fences. Train murals are an important element for graffiti style. First, graffiti murals depend on the size and color for visual impact. Subway trains are so important to graffiti because the trains pass through diverse neighborhoods, which allowed communication between black and Hispanic communities throughout the five boroughs and the greater New York area (Rose 211). Second, there was a negative reputation for graffiti artists, and it was even considered criminal to buy spray paint, permanent markers, and the other supplies needed to create a piece.
In Marshall McLuhan’s, The Medium is the Message; he gives us his definition of medium. McLuhan defines a medium as any extension of some human faculty physical or psychic (26). He explains that a book is an extension of the eye, and the wheel extends our legs and feet. These mediums enable us to do more than our bodies ever could on their own. Graffiti is a great example of this definition McLuhan gives us. For example, Cornbread used graffiti and specifically spray paint to convey or get a message across to a certain girl by tagging city walls. So he used graffiti as an extension of his voice, giving him the ability to speak or be recognized by a girl, which he may not have had the courage to do on his own. Graffiti was also an extension for the youth of the South Bronx to allow communication throughout the five boroughs and the greater New York area, because their pieces were created upon several subway trains that passed throughout theses areas. This technology gave them a voice in and throughout their communities since they did not have many resources due to the destruction of their community. Graffiti also was a message itself to the city authority and administration. The youth used graffiti again as a voice to let the city administration know that they are here, and that their community is important. It was also a way to respond to the violence and crimes taking place in their community, but to also visually reflect what was going on it.
Today, many people may not think that graffiti is still around or important, but that is not the case at all. Recent research done by Joe Austin indicates that graffiti artists continue to create pieces. Joe Austin explains these artists create murals, videotape and photograph them, and share the videos and photos through graffiti fan magazines all over the world (Rose 213). Additionally, communities in New York such as Harlem, Brooklyn, and the Bronx continue to use many graffiti artists to create logos. We also see graffiti art in music video sets, different rap artists clothing, and tee shirts. Most recently we have seen graffiti used in the 2008 Presidential campaign. Los Angeles based street artist Shepard Fairey created the iconic image of President Obama, which was seen on stickers, posters, and tee shirts. This piece became “a pop culture phenomenon and an important symbol in the political landscape of 2008 and beyond” (Arnon).
Out of the relocation of new places, and the destroying of their community, the youth of the South Bronx created their own identity and because of this we have the birth of the hip-hop culture. Out of the hip-hop culture emerged the technology and one of hip-hop’s key elements, graffiti. Although many viewed graffiti as a juvenile delinquent act, it had a message behind the pieces and murals that were created. Graffiti was a way for the youth of the South Bronx to communicate, to show their creativity and talents in such a hopeless community. This community was isolated and abandoned by the city. This community had no resources, no power and no voice, but they used this specific technology to be their voice to tell their stories and what was going on in their communities.
1) Arnon, Ben. “How the Obama “Hope” Poster Reached a Tipping Point and Became a Cultural Phenomenon: An Interview With the Artist Shepard Fairey.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
2) McLuhan, Marshall. “The Medium is the Massage”
3) PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
4) Pough, Gwendolyn D. Check It While I Wreck It: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture, and the Public Sphere. Boston: Northeastern UP, 2004. Print.
5) Rose, Tricia. “All aboard the Night Train: Flow, Layering, and Rupture in Postindustrial New York.” Signifyin(g), Sanctifyin’ & Slam Dunking: A Reader in African American Expressive Culture. Amherst: U of Massachusetts, 1999. N. pag. Print.
6) ‘The History of American Graffiti:’ From Subway Car to Gallery.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.
image also from: ‘The History of American Graffiti:’ From Subway Car to Gallery.” PBS. PBS, n.d. Web. 27 Apr. 2015.