Past Event

Notorious Hip Hop: Will the Real Poet Stand Up?

In a season when biographical and semi-biographical films about politicians and wrestlers are making headlines, another biopic film-this one about an assassinated rap artist-has made a few waves of its own. The film, Notorious, is about rapper Christopher Wallace (also known as Biggie Smalls), who was killed in an unsolved drive-by shooting in 1997. Film critics have been particularly harsh regarding the film. A.O. Scott writes in the New York Times: "The movie may not be an authorized biography, but it is if anything less critical, less ambivalent, than some of Biggie’s own semi-autobiographical lyrics."

While Biggie Smalls as rapper was complicated by Christopher Wallace as man, the film’s release has sparked conversations on performance politics and the historic role of hip hop and poetry in popular culture. With roots in West Africa, hip hop as a musical genre and culture was sprung in the ghettos of New York City in the mid-seventies. DJs Kool Herc and Afrika Bambaataa’s Universal Zulu Nation were pioneers in shaping what would become known as "the four elements."  Spanning the art forms of music, poetry, dance, and visual arts, hip hop-like jazz-has become symbolic of American culture. As rhymers "battled" each other on the corners of urban streets, griot-like performances of poetry and music had a lasting impact on the post-civil rights era and culture of the 1970s and early 1980s and continue to shape popular culture today.

Many are taking part in a cultural tradition of poetic performance that some say shaped the lyricism for which Biggie Smalls was known. During President Obama’s inauguration ceremony, Reverend Joseph E. Lowery closed his benediction with an old-playground rhyme that he cleverly rearranged in true hip hop style. For many it served two distinct purposes: a reminder of institutional racism and color preferences in America and a celebration of how far we have come. His rendering was substantive, something many say is missing from hip hop today. 

Shakespeare said "All the world’s a stage, and all the men and women merely players." Hip hop, a musical genre steeped in protest culture and art has become, for many, dedicated to consumerism and capitalist culture. While many in the "underground" hip hop community make music that’s not concerned with materialistic gains, the majority of radio play is given to what Teresa Wiltz terms "bluster and bling." Many blame Biggie Smalls’ form of lyricism for this shift. But can we blame it on one man or on one performance?

Regardless of whether it’s a factual or compelling biopic, the film, Notorious uniquely depicts the performance nature of rap. Teresa Wiltz of The Root writes: "From his perch on the stoop, Smalls sees that it is the drug dealers who have all the power, and not the regular, hard-working folks like his single mom, Voletta (Angela Bassett). In time, he’s made himself over, the nerd becoming the dealer on the corner passing rocks to pregnant crackheads. ‘F** a pregnant b***,’ he sneers." 

Will the film about Biggie Smalls reignite and promote negative concepts of hip hop, or does it serve as a complicated analysis of what the role a hip hop mentor should be? Do you think an art form should be held accountable for social woes? Should musicians play a mentoring role in the lives of youth? Does hip hop still have the power to persuade that it once had? Are there still positive elements to hip hop? How are hip hop and poetry similar or different in their appeal and or traditions? What are your personal experiences with hip hop? Do you think other musical genres are being blamed at the same rate as hip hop for violent and or misogynistic content?

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