At the dawn of the 19th century, those enslaved in New World America were sometimes granted plots of land to create gardens, grow crops, and manufacture products for sale.
For plantation owners, these provision grounds were not acts of kindness, but business decisions, as owning human beings was expensive (food, shelter, clothing). Slave gardens lessened the economic burden on the master and maximized the efficiency of both the labor and land.
The act of creation, which even onerous and exploitative work entailed, allowed slaves to affirm the humanity that chattel bondage denied. – Ira Berlin and Philip D. Morgan
Located in the wastelands of plantations, these environments are where the seeds of autonomy were planted. Slaves became creators and entrepreneurs, transforming the little resources available into products for trade.
Over time, underground economies began to organize activity. Internal marketing systems facilitated communication. And for some, freedom could be obtained.
Two hundred years later, a similar phenomena emerged in the wastelands of America’s inner-cities: hip hop.
Hip Hop As A Weapon of Power
An Engine of Independent Economic Production
Like the underground slave economy, hip hop is not just a foundation for creative expression, but an engine of independent economic production, helping build structures and systems that empower the powerless and sustain a capacity to create.
A Platform of Resistance
Too often we think of hip hop as a linear story, something born in the ’70s, refined in the ‘80s, shipped in the ‘90s. But in the context of American slavery, hip hop is not a genre of music or a style of dance – it’s a platform.
“The dangerous freedom embedded in the performance of musical artists is a form of taking back one’s powers in the face of one’s apparent powerlessness.” – Cornel West
More than just a means of providing visibility, amplification, and connection, hip hop is ultimately a framework of resistance – a communication infrastructure enabling its participants to be seen and heard.
As a platform, it facilitates education and the sharing of information while providing environments and opportunities that encourage and empower risk takers. It envisions a shared future and a common vision – meta-narratives – that empower artists and entrepreneurs.
A Weapon of Mass Communication
Hip hop’s afro-diasporic roots are significant because:
- Afro-Diasporic forms of resistance are specifically about re-appropriating the dominant discourse and questioning the political legitimacy of the state. It is a strain of creative expression that has always been situated outside of the dominant power structures – socially isolated and politically alienated.
- Afro-Diasporic music emerged as a primary vehicle for challenging dominance, providing tangible alternatives to the realities being lived. It said the unsayable, and in the process, constituted a legitimate crisis of power.
- Afro-Diasporic markets resulted in the formation of a sphere of slave organized activity that became an engine of independent economic activity.
The creative strain that gives hip hop its power and potency is rooted in the experience of chattel slavery. It is antifragile, born from displacement, unpredictability, disorder, constant change, and randomness.
In previous armies, soldiers used their time to clean their weapons and stock up on ammunition. Our weapons are words, and we may need our arsenal at any moment. – Subcomandante Marcos, “The Movement of Movements”
It’s Bigger Than Hip-Hop
The traditional narrative places hip hop on the continuum of previous black musics, mainly because the “song” is the atomic unit – the fundamental element – through which the genetic code of afro-diasporic resistance evolved over time. Slave songs represented a shared medium, a unit by which communication could evolve. They spread information, inspired movements, and told tales of progress. They birthed and preserved a new culture.
But hip hop shares much more in common with the underground slave economies than with other genres of music in that it became a platform of creative resistance, an engine of independent economic production, and a means of political empowerment.
Without the song, there is no hip hop
In a world of new languages, new people, and new cultures, songs meant the capacity to generate something new – to imagine new possibilities.
It’s not just that the stylistic continuities of hip hop are very similar to those of slave songs. Yes, the call-and-response of the emcee, the improvisation of freestyling, the vocality of beat-boxing, the accompaniment of dance all illustrate hip hop’s ancestral roots. But deeper than that, as an act of creation born against domination, oppression, and control, songs represent a weapon of power.
Born against the dominant power structure, songs were fundamental to the creation, evolution, and success of an independent slave economy, just as they were fundamental to the rise of hip hop.
To the powerful, they were noise. To the oppressed, they were a means of freedom.