50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture

Crystal Endsley Taylor

Issues/Topics Covered in this Chapter
  • Celebrating the 50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture: A Milestone in Musical History.
  • The South Bronx: Ground Zero for Hip-Hop and a Hub of Socio-Economic Protest.
  • Legal Battles: Exploring the Political Dynamics of Censorship and Obscenity in Hip-Hop.
  • Hip-Hop’s Political Economy: From Underground Movement to Commercial Commodity.
  • Mainstreaming the Movement: Hip-Hop’s Evolution into a Global Phenomenon.
  • Gangsta Rap: Controversy, Criticism, and Cultural Commentary in Hip-Hop.
  • Protest Language: How Hip-Hop Lyrics Challenge Power Structures and Injustice.
  • Black Lives Matter: Hip-Hop’s Response to the Ongoing Crisis of Police Violence.
  • Protest Music: Hip-Hop’s Role in Amplifying Voices of Resistance and Change.


The year 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Hip-Hop culture. In the South Bronx, New York, Black, and Latinx youth were determined to create against and within the conditions they were living in and what they knew to be possible. This chapter will explore the limitations and possibilities that “free speech” signifies for Hip-Hop artists, the creators of this culture, through two specific examples and related questions about censorship. To begin, this chapter offers a brief historical context on the birth of Hip-Hop as a cultural art form created as a method of protest against the socio-economic disparities faced by Black and Latino youth in the Bronx, New York. Demands for social justice and pushback against law enforcement’s historic reputation and abuse of power especially targeting Black and Brown communities are infused in lyrics and songs, and have always been a part of Hip-Hop culture’s messages about resistance to oppression. To better understand the contestation of power bubbling up within the political dynamics that legal cases over censorship and obscenity reinforce, the culture must be contextualized. This chapter delves into two noteworthy examples of Hip-Hop songs classified as protest music, along with an exploration of the artists behind them. It further scrutinizes the repercussions and reception of these songs, offering an analysis of their relevance amidst ongoing contemporary struggles for justice. Specifically, I compare Ice Cube’s debut album as a member of the music collective known as N.W.A. and the single “F*** the Police”, and Kendrick Lamar’s song “Alright.” Protest language and protest songs are the rallying cry and coded language of citizens’ pushback against government and state oppression applied through the law. The First Amendment is often casually referred to as the “freedom of speech” law and has been weaponized against artists, lauded as a banner and entrenched within the tension between justice and the struggle for creative freedom.

More than Music – Background on The Birth of a Culture

There are five elements of Hip-Hop culture, including the DJ, the Emcee, Breaking (B-boy/B-girl), Graffiti, and Knowledge of Self (Aldridge & Stewart 2008; Dyson 2004; Love 2018; Petchauer 2012).[1][2][3][4] Through these elements, the culture of HIp-Hop can be produced, but it must also always incorporate values that Afrika Bambaata named “peace, love, unity, and having fun” (Chang & Watkins, 2007; Alim, 2009).[5] The values and elements of Hip-Hop evident from its conception have shaped and produced global movements and socio-political resistance to authority (Chang, 2005).[6] In the pre Hip-Hop era, the landscape of the Bronx was shaped by city planner Robert Moses’ “urban renewal” project which transformed the infrastructure and created what we know now as the projects–government housing condensing mostly Black and Brown people who lived below the poverty line into high-rise buildings. When the Bronx was burning, a sense of abandonment and lack of professional economic opportunity made up a large part of the environment that initially incubated Hip-Hop culture. Young folks from the Puerto Rican, Caribbean, and Black communities resisted the discrimination they faced through creativity  (Rivera 2003, p. 14).[7] The tradition of the re-mix, or making something new out of whatever is at hand, with the goal of representing the core values of the community continues to be an integral part of Hip-Hop culture.

The Verdict Is In

From NWA’s epic track from the late 1980’s “F*** the Police” to 2Live Crew’s “Banned in the USA” which debuted in 1990, Hip-Hop music, and rap in particular, have a long record of public controversy and pushing back against policy and governments that unjustly attempt to censor Black artists over their White counterparts.

Fast forward to 2023, now 50 years in, iterations of Hip-Hop have been employed as political economy, commodified to sell children’s toys through commercials, and otherwise condemned and glorified through the US media. One of the most jarring examples of this capitalization has been recorded by the famous Kidz Bop group that produces radio-edited versions of popular music sung by elementary-aged children. In 2014, Kiz Bop singer Matty B recorded their version of “Ms. Jackson,” originally created and recorded by the South’s pioneering duo Outkast on their album, Stankonia (Wiener-Bronnner, 2014).[8] The original song, “Ms. Jackson” narrates a story between a father and his baby’s mother and her mother, detailing the tensions that arise during struggles involving child support, degrees of romantic neglect and parental involvement, and custodial battles. The juxtaposition of these lyrics, sung by a blonde-haired blue-eyed eleven-year-old boy with the profanity changed to less offensive language is both laughable and concerning. Yet, it provides a rich example of the political economy that would make this edited recording a profitable money move and approvable by White middle-class parents who Matty B appears to represent. Maybe he represents them, but he certainly does not threaten them. How has a culture of rebellion participated in by artists and producers who sometimes embody a perceived threat to governmental authority or “the system” transformed into a sing-a-long album for elementary school kids? In other words, why is it profitable to market a child-like Matty B singing about child support when Outkast was accused of perpetrating stereotypes about deadbeat fathers in the Black community when their song debuted and sparked pop culture debates around the politics of respectability (Bradley 2021; Ramsby 2013)?[9][10] Language, performance, race, and gender all contribute to the retaliation against Hip-Hop artists whose work frequently reflects the reality of their identity and lived experience. These artists often face public and legal backlash as a result of media standards which are driven by economics and the commodification of Hip-Hop culture and creativity by the media industry. While Outkast wasn’t sued in court or served with cease and desist notices from law enforcement representatives, there are plenty of MCs who remain targeted because they use their platform for protest. This struggle is not new and it is part of the reason why the First Amendment assigns the U.S. federal government the duty and responsibility of promoting “the useful arts.” Yet there is a long history of controversial Hip-Hop songs and artists being taken to court over their music in an effort to censor their language (Teninbaum, 2023).[11] I argue that although Hip-Hop’s popularity has been mainstreamed and is often presented as less dangerous or neutralized, the culture has not lost the political edge that fueled its beginnings fifty years ago because the circumstances shaping the social issues faced by youth of color also, unfortunately, remain the same. The saturation of mainstream media, social media, and the consistent exposure of the masses has arguably been more palatable for White stakeholders and in some cases seems to have invalidated the threat that Hip-Hop artists once posed because political economy means creative production can be modified for capitalist purposes. However, Hip-Hop culture continues to demand justice, equity, and the rejection of the respectability politics entrenched within the status quo. Hip-Hop has boomeranged around the world, across the Diaspora transnationally, and back to the U.S.. In this age of globalization and political upheaval–what is being echoed in contemporary times?

Globally, Hip-Hop matters politically more than ever; artists who find camaraderie in struggle, nuanced with localized context and politics are facing legal and criminal charges and persecution. In Russia, for example, Vladimir Putin has pursued criminal charges against Hip-Hop artists specifically, as recently as 2018, and stated that if the Russian government was not able to “ban” Hip-Hop artists from creating and performing, then the administration needed to be able to “lead and direct it” (Birger, 2019).[12] This echoes the failed but deadly attempts of the United States government to restrict and censor Black musical artists who are exercising free speech and artistic and creative freedom. In Senegal, rapper Gunman Xuman has rallied the youth of Dakar around contemporary power struggles in their government through his project Journee Rappe, a weekly news report that Xuman and his crew broadcast using only Hip-Hop lyrics and videos (Warner, 2020).[13] Xuman has been targeted by the military at different times because of his astronomical regional popularity and influence.

In the section below, I present two close readings of examples of protest music that experienced very different reactions and responses from the general public, the media, and the law. The examples of NWA’s “F*** the Police” released in 1992, and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” released in 2015 provide unique contexts in the struggle for justice. Both songs and the responses they received are assessed and synthesized as examples of struggles for justice through creative expression. The songs are evaluated through the standpoint of the artist and reception of the public audience.

AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted: State-Sanctioned Violence and the Birth of Gangsta Rap

The year was 1992. Four police officers were filmed viciously beating and cursing Rodney King during what initially appeared to be a routine traffic stop in Los Angeles (Krbechek and Bates, 2017).[14] After a highly publicized and televised court case, the verdict of innocence came down for all four policemen. Los Angeles began to burn, not unlike the Bronx 30 years before, but with different fuel for the fire. Trouble with the police wasn’t a new experience for the Black community on the West Coast, and the rap group NWA was no exception.

For Ice Cube, then a 22 years old who just a few years earlier penned the lyrics to the track “F*** the Police” and who was a founding member of NWA, the riots were no shock to him at all as he noted in the LA Times that, “it was a protest against the conditions and the injustice, not just the verdict, but the years of injustice.” Property destruction was all a part of what Ice Cube called “an uprising” (Hilburn, May 1992).[15]

Cube was referring to sweeping riots in Los Angeles which included burning and looting and left 18 people dead after the King verdict. He had all but prophesied the violent protests as inevitable in his verses of the song “F***the Police” and used his role as an artist to speak out against the various types of violence and oppression that he witnessed in Compton. How could Ice Cube know his lyrical forecast would come true and why did the authorities target him?

In 1989, Associate Director Milt Ahlerich in the Office of Public Affairs at the Federal Bureau of Investigation sent Priority Records, the label that signed NWA, a firm cease and desist letter, warning the group that their lyrics of “violence and disrespect” against police would cause them problems. Soon, the FBI was accused of trying to enforce censorship and impinging on NWA’s First Amendment freedoms by the ACLU (F*ck the Police, 2024).[16]An informal network of law enforcement and politicians across the United States tactically worked to disenfranchise the music group as well as detain and cancel their concerts in states across the U.S..

Protest Language

What’s not often credited to Ice Cube and other California-based rappers during the peak time of these legal dramas and censorship battles is the city-wide truce that he helped to negotiate between rival gangs. The gang truce was the first of its kind documented in the mainstream press and marks a significant historical shift in Ice Cube’s career after NWA. Ice Cube recognized that his generation of young Black individuals wouldn’t be deterred by gang truces and their agreement to “take the fuel out the fire” (2020 June 13 interview). He continues to reflect on his life 25 years ago and the decisions he made as a Hip-Hop artist to consistently leverage his platform as an MC with the ear of all of America, including Hip-Hop’s growing audience of white middle-class teenagers. In the same interview, he shares, “As a youngster, I was saying what I wanted but it was the truth…as an artist, I owe it to the people to do it how I feel it.” Cube’s influence remains far-reaching and he explains his political activism as a demand for justice and economic equity for communities like Compton and the families living beneath the poverty line. “All I wanted was a fair shot, not just for me…not trying to overthrow the government…just want to be treated fair and equal” (2020 June 13). In an unanticipated but unsurprising trend, 2020 saw NWA’s controversial song climbing the music charts through online streaming numbers again. History was repeating itself in an uncanny echo through protests for Black lives and another masterful MC from California.

Good Kids, Mad City – Compton and Hip-Hop Strike Again

According to Blacklivesmatter.com, #BlackLivesMatter was founded in 2013 by three community organizers–Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi–after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer. The movement continues ten years later to illuminate and address, among other pressing issues, the life-and-death struggle with law enforcement faced by Black citizens across the United States. According to research published by the nonprofit, Mapping Police Violence, “95% of America’s major city police departments kill Black people at higher rates than [they kill] white people.” The list of Black people, as young as 12-year-old Tamir Rice, who died at the hands of police grows exponentially, as do the public and social medical protests.

With the explosion of protests in 2020 after the deaths of Black men at the hands of police–specifically George Floyd and Eric Garner among others–explicit political protests took over not just the underground music scene, but the popular mainstream Billboard charts as well. To be clear, there has always been a contingent of conscious and overtly political Hip-Hop artists who uncompromisingly grapple with social issues in their lyrics and who use their platforms to leverage justice-oriented causes, many of whom are given a platform on the podcast, “Hip-Hop can Save America.”  Yet the Black Lives Matter movement foregrounded artists who sought and gained momentum without foregoing mainstream success. The lead singer on this soundtrack of protest songs for this generation, the maestro of this moment of mass appeal and movement music is Kendrick Lamar.

Protest Music

Hip-Hop culture was originally born during a rapid geographic and political shift, a “transformation [that] unfolded amidst the death of civil rights, the militarization of urban space, political infiltration, and the backdrop of massive joblessness” (Baszile 2009).[17] Another 50 years down the road and current events seem to be a more intense version of the same stories. From churches to grocery stores, Black boys and men remain the population that makes up the highest number of deaths at the hands of police. Just like the LA riots in the aftermath of the acquittal of the abusers of Rodney King were narrated and reflected by NWA’s “F*** the Police,” the #BlackLivesMatter protests taking place in Ferguson and beyond, were fueled through the music of Kendrick Lamar.

Also from Compton, like Ice Cube, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” track was the fourth single released on his album To Pimp A Butterfly in 2015. In a 2019 NPR interview, Lamar reflected, “Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on. Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that ‘Alright’ is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are.” Healing and music may be his focus as an artist, but Lamar’s song became the unofficial anthem for protests against state violence targeting Black people worldwide in 2016.

The recent protests from the last decade share similarities with the LA riots from Ice Cube’s emergence as MC. The widespread controversial public sentiments about the police mirror the 1990s as well. Ice Cube is without question a pioneer for political Hip-Hop music that voices the emotions and experiences of members of society who are so rarely listened to uninterrupted. What is remarkably different is the reception and lack of backlash directly targeting Lamar for his creative production compared to the FBI and legal court cases targeting Ice Cube and NWA for their music as soon as it hit the airwaves. There were more subtle ramifications for Ice Cube as well including censorship, being banned, concerts getting canceled because venues refused to play their music, or other community groups or parental organizations would rally against the artists. Finally, because the police refused to supply security during NWA shows, many venues were contractually obligated to cancel or postpone shows in cities across the United States. Financially, the impact of the protests and cancellations posed a significant threat to the economic and financial viability of Ice Cube as a debut artist signed to a major label. Thankfully, we can track his career to the fruitful expansiveness that he now enjoys. On the contrary, Lamar was awarded the 2018 Pulitzer Prize in music for his album DAMN. He was also invited to play for the 2016 Grammys and his performance was aired live on national television. The live performance, which is rich in nuance and complex symbolism and representation is also explicitly anti-police and undeniably points to the carceral system as a tool used by the government to oppress Black men and boys. The awards and accolades along with a Super Bowl Halftime Show that also featured controversial rappers and MCs like 50 Cent, Dr. Dre, and Eminem in 2022 demonstrate a broadened public acceptance and support of Hip-Hop music and culture. The number of White fans in the stands who the cameras zoomed in on mouthing the words to lyrics signals a similar coming-of-age of children who grew up on the Matty B Kidz Bop generation and matured into customers, consumers, and fans of more adult themed Hip-Hop music with no filters. Political economy seems to have increased for artists like Kendrick Lamar, and while his message is strikingly similar to what Ice Cube promoted, restrictions or repercussions seem far less apparent. In fact, he is rewarded. What has shifted in culture or the law now that mainstream media willingly spotlights and lauds the same Hip-Hop music that was once villainized?

Perhaps more important for us to consider is how should the lack of legal and personal persecution be interpreted; does it mean that Lamar’s songs are somehow less provocative than Ice Cube’s debuts? Or have the ears of the American government become accustomed to the steady resistance embedded in the rhythm of Hip-Hop music? Or, does money and profitability commodify even the protest language and protest songs of Hip-Hop culture into capitalist projects? Perhaps all three reasons contribute. Rather than fight the change, it appears that the legal system has foregone attempts at censorship in recent years.


Ice Cube and Kendrick Lamar share many experiences in life and music. Their impact is tied up through direct genealogy that can be traced from Cube to Lamar and beyond. The legacy that Lamar’s career was born into is a direct inheritance made possible only because of Cube’s career. The social and economic political landscape that their fans live in day to day is quite similar, too.

In 2022, a group of researchers conducted a study “Exploring the Impact of Racism on Black Youth: A Multidimensional Examination of Discriminatory Experiences Across Place and Time,” and their findings overwhelmingly conclude that in contemporary times, racial discrimination disproportionately impacts the lives of Black youth, especially those who live at or below the poverty line. Compounded with violence, mental health issues associated with racism, and inequitably resourced educational systems, the living conditions for the youth of color reflect many of the same systemic root causes as those seen in the Bronx in the 1970s.

Indeed, social issues remain the same, but the landscape of support for creative expressions depicting their impacts has shifted. The radical legacy of joy and resistance that birthed Hip-Hop is still making beats and keeping rhythm despite oppressive cycles of poverty, displacement, and the global struggle for Black band Brown youth worldwide. In the courtrooms of the United States, even in this unpredictable world, the law remains the same but the punishments have not. Is it because now that the culture is 50 years old, so many young people have never known a world without Hip-Hop? Or has the commodification of Hip-Hop just like the increasingly common and publicized state-sanctioned violence against Black language and Black bodies desensitized us? Only time will tell.

Course Related Assignment: 

In this assignment, students will embark on a journey through the cultural landscape of hip-hop, exploring its profound impact on social justice issues. Their task is to create a compelling 3-5-minute podcast reviewing a hip-hop artifact—be it an album or film—that addresses a social justice theme. Note: The artifact must have been released prior to 2013, allowing them to delve into the rich history of hip-hop and its enduring relevance in advocating for change. Students will dive deep into the beats, rhymes, and messages that have shaped generations and sparked crucial conversations about justice and equality.

Review Questions

1. What are some significant milestones and achievements within Hip-Hop culture that warrant celebration during its 50th anniversary, and how has it impacted the music industry and society as a whole?
2. How did the socio-economic disparities in the South Bronx contribute to the birth of Hip-Hop, and what role did the neighborhood play in shaping its development as a form of protest and cultural expression?
3. What are some notable legal battles in Hip-Hop history, and how have they reflected broader political dynamics surrounding censorship, obscenity, and freedom of expression within the genre?
4. How has Hip-Hop’s transition from an underground movement to a commercial commodity influenced its political economy, and what are the implications for artists, producers, and the industry at large?
5. What factors have contributed to the mainstreaming of Hip-Hop culture on a global scale, and how has its increased visibility impacted its authenticity and cultural significance?
6. How has Gangsta Rap sparked controversy and criticism while also serving as a platform for cultural commentary within Hip-Hop, and what are some examples of its influence on popular culture?
7. In what ways do Hip-Hop lyrics serve as a form of protest language, challenging power structures and addressing social injustices, and what impact does this have on listeners and society?
8. How has Hip-Hop responded to the Black Lives Matter movement and the ongoing crisis of police violence against Black communities, and what role does it play in amplifying these voices of resistance and change?
9. What are some examples of Hip-Hop serving as protest music, and how does it contribute to broader movements for social justice and systemic change?


About the author: Crystal Endsley Taylor is an Associate Professor at John Jay College and a member of the Gender Studies Program.


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50th Anniversary of Hip-Hop Culture Copyright © by Crystal Endsley Taylor is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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