Lyricism in Hip-Hop

Throughout history Hip-Hop has never been just a genre of music, it’s been a form of culture and personal expression/storytelling that incorporates different elements of art. Yvonne Bynoe states, “Without apologies or fears, Hip-Hop was a vehicle that initially allowed its predominately young and Black participants to artistically express the complexities of their lives.” Lyricism in Hip-Hop began as a voice for the powerless and angry, artistically demonstrating the harsh reality of people or groups that were treated as outsiders. Many of these artists began to share their lives through music in a way they normally wouldn’t be able to. Lyricism as provided by Merriam-Webster is a quality that expresses deep feeling or emotions in a work of art; an artistically beautiful or expressive quality. Music is forever changing, there are different sounds and dances, but when it all comes down to it it’s all about the lyrics. In today’s age it is hard to find an artist in hip-hop that still values the importance of lyricism, but all hope is not lost. Artists like Kendrick Lamar and Kanye West appreciate the art of lyricism and continue to inspire listeners with their words. It is imperative to remind our people today of the power of lyrics in hip-hop.

Hip-Hop was influenced by many different forms of music, from Rock-n-Roll, to Jazz, to the Blues. The Blues hold an important place in musical history as a genre for storytelling as a way to express personal challenges, loss, perseverance, and success. In this sense hip-hop and the blues are very similar. Artist Gary Clark Jr. believed that the blues is our foundation,a music that we could express ourselves in a way we couldn't normally. The picture above represents blues singer Howlin’ Wolf who is well known for his song Back Door Man that follows the life of an unfaithful man. This type of song is one that blues artists create to express the events in their life or the life of someone who is unable to speak about it publicly. These lyrics open the eyes of other artists and allows them to create songs that people could relate to. This form of expression continued to trickle down and evolve into hip-hop.

The beginning quote from Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man.

The characters narrating the stories in hip hop are motivated by a physical and metaphorical hunger. The battles these artist fight exist on the level of tangible material needs. From the word go, hip hop’s subject matter was the invisible black/brown lives of those dispossessed, disinherited, disenfranchised people who created it. Similar to Ralph Ellison’s invisible man, a hip-hop lyricists rationale for existence, to exist as unseen but recognized. Thus the fact that the word “recognize” meaning to “identify as previously known, take notice of, acknowledge, especially with appreciation,” takes on another level of connotation within this culture. On the streets today, to be told “you better recognize” is to be issued an injunction, schooled to the facts, given a warning that there are consequences and repercussions for whatever has been done said or forgotten. This unique genre is indeed the musical equivalent to Ellison’s character deliberately careening into vision-impaired citizens on the street who do not know what hit them.