Origin and History Of Rap Music

Origins of Rap music

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The emergence of Rap music as an accepted mode of cultural expression has only been recognized by academic commentary in the last twenty years. “Twenty years after its genesis, Rap poetry remains a vastly popular art-form across the continent and around the world” (Ramsey 165).

One of the reasons given for the relative lack of attention to the development of the historical origins of rap music is, “… cultural differences between Euro-American and African-American sensibilities, the reluctance of academic poets and critics to embrace popular culture, and the inability of print-based analysis to deal adequately with oral artistry” (Wood 129).

However, these views have changed in recent years with regard to the importance of the history and origins of rap music. (Ramsey 165)

Rap music should be discussed within the context of the overall “hip hop” culture. In this sense, Rap music should be seen in terms of three interrelated modes of expressing. These are, rap music, graffiti writing, and break dancing. (Ramsey 165) This in turn is related to various cultural developments, which concern the issue of disenfranchised Black youth in Western societies. In this sense, the modern history and origins of contemporary Rap music style can be traced back to the perceptions of social and racial prejudice and the struggle for equally. Ramsey succinctly summarizes this aspect of the origins of modern Rap.

Disenfranchised youth created fashions, language, and musical and bodily performance styles and formed elaborate networks of posses (or crews) that expressed their local identities and affiliations through these modalities. While the origins of hip-hop expressions can be traced to specific locations, its mass-media coverage and broad-based consumption made it one of the most widely known popular musics of the late twentieth century.

Ramsey 165)

However, one has to look further back into history and particularly African cultural history to understand the origins of Rap music. Many studies state that the origins of rap music are deeply embedded in the general African-American culture and that these origins can be traced back even further. These studies refer to various African traditions that are seen as precursors of modern Rap. For example, “…sing-song children’s games; double-dutch chants; black vernacular preaching styles; the jazz vocalese of King Pleasure, Eddie Jefferson, and Oscar Brown, Jr.; the on-the-air verbal virtuosity of black DJs; scat singing; courtship rituals…” (Ramsey 165)

In an article entitled Rap Music and Street Consciousness by Cheryl Keyes (2002), the author stresses that the earlier historical foundations of Rap can be found in African culture. This refers to African oral traditions as well as chanting and story telling in African society that were the precursors to modern Rap. These traditions were continued by the slaves in America in the nineteenth century.

As Wood states in Understanding Rap as Rhetorical Folk-Poetry (1999); “In oral culture, poetry, music, drama and dance tend to function as complementary parts of an integrated, cooperative artistic expression” (Wood 129) the integration of these elements were present when slaves were being transported. While many of the earlier oral and traditional cultural aspects were lost in the process of enslavement, “…the forces that guided those customs survived and continued to organize the ways that African-Americans employed the English language, Christian religious codes, and European-derived musical instruments” (Wood 129). In other words, these early cultural traditions were assimilated into the new culture and were translated in terms of the new cultural modes and means of expression.

Combined with these early oral and vocal traditions was the element of political awareness and consciousness of their predicament as slaves and later as the disenfranchised in the New World. This was particularly evident in the United States during the 1960s. (Keyes 2002) These elements were to amalgamate in the unique form of musical expression that we know as Rap. Therefore, as Marino (2005) states, “…rap music is rooted both in a political consciousness and in African and African-American traditions. (Marino)

Related to the above is the view that the origins and history of the development of Rap music are strongly related to the resistance to various forms of colonialism and oppression that Black people have experienced and which has shaped the style and form of Rap music. This also refers to ideological and colonial hegemonies and perceived racial and cultural prejudice that has been a major motivating force in this form of artistic expression.

This can be linked to theories of ideological hegemony that are seen as pivotal aspect in the development of Black consciousness and consequently in the musical expression of that consciousness. According to theorists like Gramsci, ideological hegemony functions by control and domination not only through force but also through cultural forms of persuasion. In other words, the best way to achieve control over a subordinate group is by “…means of cultural domination among all sectors in society” (Kopano). However, these attempts at cultural domination by one group bring about a concomitant reaction for those who are being oppressed. This is in turn related to forms of political and cultural “action,” such as new forms of musical and artistic expression. These forms of cultural resistance can be seen in popularity of Rap styles and lyrics. Kopano (2005) expresses this important aspect as follows.

Blacks in the African diaspora have used language and music as a form of cultural resistance…. rap music was created and continues to be used as a form of cultural resistance. In doing so, Blacks have used sounds different from their oppressors and often tap into a Black rhetorical and cultural tradition to effectuate this resistance.


These factors in the development of Rap music are evident in the more recent form of this musical style. For instance, in the 1970s African – American composers such as Gil Scott-Heron and George Clinton began to use lyrics that were politically inclined. They also began to use rhythmic poetry that was sung or spoken over a simple but powerful background track. An example of this is the 1976 song, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” which include a sermon about political revolution in the country. (Wood 129). These were important precursors of the Rap style that was to develop and draw public support in the 1980s and 1990s.

Therefore, in summary, the history and origins of Rap music can be seen in terms of two main sources. The first is the African cultural traditions of oral story telling, vocalization and other cultural aspect that were retained by the slaves who went to America. Coupled with this aspect is the more political and social desire for freedom from oppression which has also shaped many of the characteristics of Rap music. The issue of cultural domination in the United States as well as in many other countries brought about a movement of resistance which, to a large extent, is voiced and expressed in the contrary and unconventional styles and lyrics of Rap music,

Works Cited

KEYES C.L. (2002) Rap Music and Street Consciousness. Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press.

A www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001926756

Kopano, Baruti N. “Rap Music as an Extension of the Black Rhetorical Tradition: “Keepin’ it Real.” The Western Journal of Black Studies 26.4 (2002): 204+. Questia. 31 Mar. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001926756.

A www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5009435925

Marino, Michael. “Rap Music and Street Consciousness.” Popular Music and Society 28.2 (2005): 271+. Questia. 31 Mar. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5009435925.

A www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=105683086

Ramsey, Guthrie P. Race Music: Black Cultures from Bebop to Hip-Hop. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2003. Questia. 31 Mar. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=105683091.

A www.questiaschool.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001869554

Wood, Brent. “Understanding Rap as Rhetorical Folk-Poetry.” Mosaic (Winnipeg) 32.4 (1999): 129. Questia. 31 Mar. 2008 http://www.questia.com/PM.qst?a=o&d=5001869554.