Contextualizing the rise of hip-hop within the loss of manufacturing jobs, Jeff Chang narrates the impact of deindustrialization on poor communities of color, especially in the South Bronx. It was against this backdrop — nose diving average incomes and skyrocketing unemployment rates — that hip-hop was born. “If blues culture had developed under the conditions of oppressive, forced labor, hip-hop culture would arise from the conditions of no work.”27 Today as hip-hop continues to flourish, change, and adapt, these historical conditions are still ever-present.
More specifically, hip-hop was born out of the violence of racial capitalism—or rather, out of resistance to that violence. In December of 1971, in response to the murder of Ghetto Brothers member, Black Benjie, the Black and Latinx gangs of the Bronx gathered in the gymnasium of the Bronx Boys Club to form a peace treaty. Charlie Suarez opened the meeting with: “I would like for the police to leave or we got nothing to say.”28 After an undercover cop left, the group applauded, and the business of remaking the Bronx began. Taking lead from Benjy Melendez, the group decided: “The thing is, we’re not a gang anymore. We are an organization. We want to help blacks and Puerto Ricans to live in a better environment.”29 While local officials smiled for photo ops at the peace treaty, they rejected former gang members’ proposals for more jobs, recreation programs, and services in the Bronx. State-sanctioned poverty and racism continued to dominate the Bronx, but the peace treaty planted a seed that would grow into a cultural and political movement that would forever change the landscape of the United States.
Several of the gangs, like the Ghetto Brothers, became music groups soon after the truce. Though many of their albums didn’t sell, their block parties were powerful spaces of celebration, connection, and freedom in the Bronx. Among those present at the peace meeting was Black Spades member Afrika Bambaataa, a teen at the time who would soon, alongside DJ Kool Herc and Grandmaster Flash, become founders of the emerging hip-hop movement. This movement, still on the rise 30 years later, has evolved and changed shape, has been commercialized and strayed from its radical roots. Many hip-hop artists today, especially young hip-hop artists, continue to speak truth to power and use their art as a form of resistance.
Hip-Hop and the Youth of the Bronx - Questions, Connections, and Activities
- What were the conditions under which hip-hop was born? How is this reflected in the music?
- How has hip-hop changed over time?
- How does the spirit of hip-hop persist in the Bronx, especially in movements that resist gentrification of the borough?
- To what extent is hip-hop a political art form? What impact has it had, and what impact can it have on fighting back against racism?
- Rebel Diaz
- Take Back the Bronx
- Decolonize This Place
- Listen to prominent hip-hop songs of past and present, analyze lyrics and videos, discuss, and compare and contrast
- Watch excerpts of hip-hop documentaries and films listed in resources below and have a class discussion about this lesson’s guiding questions