This essay was written for the Expository Writing program class “Poets 2 Rockstars.” It was published in Brainstorm vol. VIII (2016). Brainstorm is the University of Oklahoma Expository Writing Program’s journal of student writing. All Expo students are invited to submit an essay from their Expository Writing class for possible inclusion in Brainstorm. At the end of each term, a selection committee will choose 3-5 of these submissions and invite the authors to revise their essays for publication.
Hip-hop, as a cultural force, has grown to mirror the culture it lives in and represents a narrative that had never been represented before in America. Rap, one of the five elements of hip-hop culture defined by Afrika Bambaataa (Aubry) that involves rhyming over a beat, has been highly controversial. One subgenre of rap known as “gangsta” rap still comes under fire today for its hyper-masculine lyrics involving violence, drugs, alcohol, money, and misogyny. The epitome of the “gangsta” rapper was Tupac Shakur (1971–1996), whose poignant and authentic portrayal of life on the streets in the Bronx and Brooklyn earned him unprecedented fame and whose scandalous personal life led to quite a bit of controversy. Tupac’s take on “gangsta” rap defined the hip-hop music industry and popularized the genre with American audiences. Tupac’s music expressed “realness,” an idea prevalent within hip-hop that artists must stay authentic and “true to oneself” (Williams 4). Tupac’s music was also special in the way that audiences could identify with it, especially those who grew up in similarly low-status conditions. This group of listeners, though, was very focused in comparison with the wider audience of hip-hop listeners from all races and backgrounds. Tupac had listeners who enjoyed and sympathized with his music and lyrics, yet they never lived in situations from which they could directly relate to his lived experience. Recently, hip-hop’s sound has been evolving and changing to reflect a different attitude in America. The idea of authenticity plays a large role for hip-hop fans, and, as times have begun to change, the idea of “realness” has been challenged. What constitutes authentic hip-hop, and what does this portrayal mean in terms of hip-hop’s cultural force? The answer lies within the audience—as listeners recognize authenticity, we define the impact that hip-hop artists make and the influence they have on the genre.