The Importance of Race in 90’s New York Rap Songs

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Lil’ Kim

The communication of the importance of race in 90’s New York hip-hop and rap music has become a form derived from both male and female rappers including famous 90’s female rapper Lil’ Kim exemplifying the racial stereotypes of promiscuity in black women, at the same time “embracing sexuality of the self” (Peoples 2008 p.25).

“Hip-hop provides a language for and a way of conceptualizing (black) American subjectivity”

Jenkins 2013 p.5

The exclusion and race inequality in 90’s New York is communicated through many famous lyrics and it is through the power of lyrics in music, that the topic of race emerged during this time. The race differences were emphasised through lyrics in many songs including a song by Mos Def and Q-Tip called Mr. Nigga (1999) with lyrics including “Late night I’m on a first class flight / The only brother in sight the flight attendant catch fright… An hour later here she comes by walking past / ‘I hate to be a pest but my son would love your autograph.’” Which further emphasises the impact that race had in this culture and the outskirts of this culture and community. Mos Def is showing that if it wasn’t for his fame, the later response from the flight attendant wouldn’t have been a likely outcome.

There are a number of cultural analysts who argue that Hip-Hop and Rap in 90’s New York provided and communicated mostly problematic political scrutiny in terms of race, gender, economic topics, the authority (police) and community violence and there are not many that argue for the positive influence that was exercised during this time (Peoples 2008).

“African American rappers’ increasing use of language features associated with the use of specific words like nigger constitute a reaction that reinforces their identity by strengthening the barriers that separate their ethnic group from another.”

Álvarez-Mosquera 2015 p.64

Hip-hop began in New York in the very early 90s in response to the class exclusivity of the New York disco scene as well as the gradual growth of ‘gang’ cultures in inner city New York (Peoples 2008). This culture and appropriation of topics such as race created a discourse and topic for discussion throughout society, people started to question what they saw in terms of inequality surrounding different races because music and lyrics were bringing attention to it. This movement started because of a community that was created amongst the alienated, working-class people who were “pushed to the fringe of society and forgotten” (Peoples 2008 p. 22). This closely relates to identity and like Hall (1996) explains, power and exclusion are what create identities and units of cultures and identities, which is how the culture of hip-hop in New York began.

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Mos Def and Q-Tip

In response to the alienation in society, a rap and hip-hop community formed in 90’s New York as a social and recreational common space for the racially marginalized. Race is an important factor in the contribution of what created the 90’s hip-hop and rap culture in New York and it is strongly linked to gender as well. Women who were growing up in 90’s New York as Black women influenced by both hip-hop and feminism developed their identity through this together with their community (Peoples 2008). Because of the exclusion these men and women shared, it created a community and this shows how having a shared identity in some ways can become very important (Hall 1996).

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