“Ours is not the age when poetry died, it is the age where poetry triumphed in the form of song,” wrote Jonathan Gottschall, author of The Storytelling Animal. He is absolutely right. Over the last few decades, musicians, including (but not limited to) hip-hop artists have changed cultural history forever.
Who comes to mind when we think of the most renowned poets and writers of all time? William Shakespeare? Walt Whitman? John Milton? Jane Austen? Yes, all of these legends went down in history as the best of best, and they resurface in our literature classes in high school and college.
But if we’re measuring memorability and greatness in terms of audience size and profundity, then don’t luminaries such as Tupac, Dr. Dre, and Eminem also deserve a place in the halls of cultural history?
Words of the Masses
History’s great writers have composed works that have reached millions, if not billions, of people throughout the years. Shakespeare is taught in pretty much every literature department in the world. Some of his works have been translated into over 75 languages. You’d be hard-pressed to find someone on the globe that has never heard of him.
Such is the case with many modern-day writers as well. J.K. Rowling, author of the Harry Potter series, sold a whopping half-billion copies. Undeniably, writers like Rowling have changed history forever.
But if we look at various measures of cultural impact and popularity, we can not deny that hip-hop kings and queens deserve just as much credit as the Rowlings and Shakespeares of literary history.
Music is a cultural phenomenon – found in pretty much every society in every period in history. In many ways, it’s the ultimate form of expression. Hip-hop has been one of the most influential genres to ever reach our ears and screens. Many hip-hop artists have been providing music to people in every corner of the globe for decades.
Even a quick glance at billboards and best-seller records (literally from any date between now and the early 1990s) shows that big hip-hop albums often sell 10s of millions of copies. Tickets to Jay-Z’s 2013 “Magna Carter World Tour” sold out in just a couple of minutes. The event brought in dozens of millions of dollars. Such examples are ubiquitous.
Some scholars say that Tupac and Biggie are so important to Western culture and history, that they are even starting to include them in academic curricula.
Entrenched in Our Cultural DNA
It’s no doubt that the raw material of hip-hop artists, their music, causes cultural tsunamis. But if we think about it for a sec, we see that their influence even goes farther than music. In fact, it even extends into language, body gestures, and beyond.
“Guess who’s back.” In your mind, chances are that this utterance is closely followed by “Back again” and then “Shady’s back, tell a friend.” Iconic lyrics like these are basically always at the tips of our tongues, and we can readily recite them whenever prompted. The gesture of brushing off your shoulder – which sort of indicates ridding oneself of undesirable baggage – comes from Jay-Z.
Have a look at our culture these days. Hip-hop’s influence and legacy are everywhere, not just in music. So, hip-hop as a genre, being the musical heavyweight that it is, has affected us on numerous deep levels, often more than we realize. When looking at the cultural state-of-affairs from this angle, it becomes clear why hip-hop gods are Shakespeare’s neighbors.