Dean Benitez: The Exploitation of Hip Hop
Our own Michael Benitez, Dean of Diversity and Inclusion at Puget Sound, recently contributed to a book about music and youth counter-culture called Rebel Music: Resistance through Hip Hop and Punk. Benitez uses “Hip Hop is Dead” as a muse and writes with passion and intelligence about his hopes and fears for the future of hip hop.
Benitez explains that ever since record producers figured out that the genre had enormous potential to rake in cash, they have tried to take hip hop out of the hands of the community who created it.
The appropriation of hip hop is doubly tragic because the genre began as a source of shared experience, power and self worth for people who were neglected by a society with deep roots of racism and classism. It gave a voice to the voiceless, lifted artists out of poverty.
But music companies were quick to diminish those voices in order to sell records.
Benitez notes that most of the kids who buy mainstream hip hop records have no idea what it is like to live in a ghetto or be a victim of racism and poverty.
As a result, pleas for social justice have been obscured from mainstream hip hop music. Lyrics have shifted from spitting in the face of oppression to spouting misogyny and romanticizing poverty.
Growing up, hip hop was important to Benitez.
“It provided me an outlet to be validated. I could listen to music that talked about racism, that talked about police brutality… It talked about poverty, you know, it was music that really spoke to the questions that I was having to ask, not only as a young kid, but also as an adolescent. So questioning life, questioning fairness, questioning the haves and have-nots, you know, questioning ‘why am I in this situation and why are other people privileged?’” Benitez said.
Benitez watched the culture he belonged to be appropriated before his eyes, and saw talented artists with important things to say get overlooked.
He pointed to artists like Immortal Technique, Invincible, Jasiri X, Quadir Lateef, Maimouna Youssef and so many others who, in spite of their raw talent and lyrical brilliance, are so often overlooked in the industry.
Benitez suggested that people don’t pay mind to these artists precisely because they reveal injustice and discuss important issues.
Despite all the challenges facing hip hop, Benitez doesn’t think hip hop is dead.
“I don’t think hip hop is dead and I don’t think it’s ever going to die. It cannot because it belongs to the youth,” he said. “I don’t think hip-hop will ever die, because unfortunately, I wish it wasn’t the case, there will always be racism, and there will always be poverty.”
But Benitez always spoke with a glimmer of hope.
“Whether in the school, or in hip hop, or in punk, the youth are always going to question, and eventually carve a space for their voices to be heard, and to expose the issues that are facing them,” Benitez said.
At its heart, hip hop is a platform for marginalized youth to reject the society that undervalues them. Aspiring artists will always find new ways to be creative and fight for their community; it’s just in the air they breathe.