An Essay by Elijah Harris
Where do we find our most prevalent commentary on social constructs and issues? Do we look for answers from the college educated elite writing for publications like The New Yorker or The Atlantic? Do we seek out prominent sociologists and anthropologists holed up in their social “laboratories”? Do we dare to trust the judgements of our elected leaders?
In actuality, a lot more people are influenced by the social musings of entertainers; Prominent actors, artists, songwriters, and singers. One of the most key examples of this is in the music of the urban streets, Hip-Hop, which serves movements and ideas that are not only motivated by economic disparity, but also racial intolerance. In what is considered the first Hip-Hop song to make commentary on these issues, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message tells a story of how poverty is cyclical and unavoidable for the black population of New York’s inner city.
Take the first verse as an indication of how pointed the observations of the song are:
Broken glass everywhere
People pissin' on the stairs, you know they just don't care
I can't take the smell, can't take the noise
Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat
I tried to get away but I couldn't get far
'Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car
The first of Flash’s observations, that people contribute to the squalor they live in due to lack of motivation, is representative towards the unavoidability of poverty for the citizens of the Bronx and Queens. “They just don’t care,” they understand there is no escape from destitution, and it ties in with the second half of the verse, where he, “tried to get away but [he] couldn’t get far ‘cause a man with a tow truck repossessed [his] car.” Poverty is cyclical, you need a baseline of wealth to be able to move up in the world, and for the poor black population of 1970’s New York, the system is built in a way to repress this possibility, the, “man with the tow truck.”
The second breakaway observation in The Message revolves around the concept of want:
You'll admire all the number-book takers
Thugs, pimps and pushers and the big money-makers
Drivin' big cars, spendin' twenties and tens
And you'll wanna grow up to be just like them, huh
Smugglers, scramblers, burglars, gamblers
Pickpocket peddlers, even panhandlers
This is a moral dilemma for Grandmaster Flash and the denizens of The Bronx, that, because money is the only avenue to a quality life, they end up idolizing the pimps, pushers, and even the burglars, that people normally disassociate with quality living. They have to adapt to completely different standards to keep themselves from giving in to despair.