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What Are Those Afros Hiding?

As someone who has never “jammed out” to anything but Bollywood and the occasional Taylor Swift breakup song (don’t lie- we all do it) my first thought upon glancing at the AP English summer assignment essay prompt- “Compare and Contrast Rock n Roll vs. Hip Hop!” - was something along the lines of: “Aaaaaaaaaahhhhhhhhhhh!” (Which is really the abridged, edited, and thoroughly censored version.) And then to top it all off, because Someone Up There apparently decided that this alone was not enough for my weak teenage heart, my eyes came to rest upon the dreaded words: “No research; rely only on your knowledge and observational insight.” And so, after much nail-biting, procrastination, and “no research”, I am forced to answer the question- What are the similarities and differences between Rock n Roll and Hip Hop? The first of these genres of music brings to mind wobbling afros, glittering disco balls, bright blue electric guitars, and a vague remembrance of a famous pelvis. The second is a bit more clear in my mind, the climax of the Hip-Hop movement being far more recent than that of Rock. Heavy rings, swinging silver chains, red graffiti in stark contrast with cold dank cement, and lyrics that, if painted, would be only a blur on canvas- that’s how fast those rapper’s mouths move. But what of the world beyond those cussing lyrics and harsh words; the symbolism within the shouts and screams that are loved by so many today? What of the origins, the cultures, the enormous impacts on changing lifestyles, especially those of young adults? I truly want to know- what are those afros hiding? Whether you are a fan of  the buzzing scream of electric guitars that have become a symbol for rock ‘n roll or the steady yet fast-paced thumping beats of hip-hop, it must be acknowledged that these two genres of music are so different in sound; yet taking a closer look will also reveal that there are some similarities in the two that you may not have thought of before.

   

Rock n’ roll- a musical sensation that swept the whole of America off it's feet long before I was born, most likely before even my parents were born; probably somewhere around the 1940’s or ‘50’s. Close your eyes for a moment and picture in your mind’s eye a ‘50’s rock-n-roller; what do you see? I myself picture the king of rock music, the one and only, Elvis Presley. Thanks to the constant drone of modern technology in our lives, he appears in my brain as I have seen and heard and watched him on TV, in movies, and in several of the tens of thousands of music videos floating about cyberspace at this very moment- a man with jet black hair that curls into dramatic side-burns (I can only assume they were considered attractive at the time), standing center-stage under a blazing spotlight, and an abundance of curly chest hair poking out of a deep-cut tunic and tight white pants that flare out into bell-bottoms to match. Though I myself have never attended a single concert in the 16 years of my existence, I have gained some knowledge of rock concerts from various friends and acquaintances over my time in high school. Based on breathless retellings of overcrowded stadiums, excited accounts of screaming fans, and one too many incidents of hearing that over-used phrase “best time of my life”, I have pieced together several solid if somewhat inaccurate conclusions concerning rock n roll: first, that New York, Chicago, and Detroit are big rock centers in the US even today and are therefore “the place to be”; secondly, that rock music is generally performed by a band of several members- typically there is one obnoxiously loud drummer, a screeching guitarist, and some jazzy piano player who is the “strong and silent” type; and lastly, recounted word by word from the mouth of a  close friend when asked what exactly rock songs were about: “ Sex, love, drugs, and hard times… among other things.”

   

By comparison, the vast world of hip-hop is not quite as shrouded in mystery in my thick skull as rock n roll is- although, admittedly, that’s not saying much. Hip hop- a strange name for an even stranger genre of music- one that is accompanied by an immense culture that includes almost all aspects of the lifestyle of a modern American teenager: music, art, politics, fashion- the list continues to grow. I can safely draw the conclusion that rock n roll in the ‘50’s was probably just as influential to clothing and speech as hip-hop is today. Though I myself do not listen to hip-hop, I am an observant bystander to its success in the society around me, and cannot help but notice the impact it has had on many of my fellow classmates. Based on my somewhat less than first-hand accounts of what hip-hop concerts are really like, I gather that most rap artists perform alone, typically not in a full band. In addition, it has come to my attention that hip-hop as not only a genre of music but as a powerful subculture movement has had an enormous hand in the everyday lifestyles of so many teens; in one school day, how many of these “signs” do I see? There is the slang that stems from the very roots of hip-hop in the poverty of South Bronx, now written and erased and  rebelliously re-written by students on sides of walls, on mirrors, in bathroom stalls. There are those sagging jeans, the overlapping silver chains, the hats that are only reluctantly taken off, and that too with a scowl of displeasure (I wonder- can rock n rollers with large afros even wear one of those hats?).   Rap, a major component of hip-hop music today, is something that continues to invoke in me a deep frustration that stems from the anger of  simply not understanding. I confess that when it comes to rap, my patience runs as thin as ice over a pond in the warmth of spring. Yet part of me now wonders- have I ever truly given hip-hop a chance? The honest answer is no. This may have something to do with the disagreeable and often negative images, symbols, and ideas that are linked to the hip-hop genre in my mind. I picture young black boys growing up among drugs and violence in the Bronx ( a community not exactly known for its cleanliness), becoming members of street gangs, repeating nonsense rhymes about b****es and hoes to a beat only they can hear. Yet I say this without ever having listened to rap music myself. How many people in America are guilty of the my crime? It has dawned on me that I am judging an entire African American-based subculture solely on the opinions of  my fellow middle-class whites and intellectuals who have probably never even searched the lyrics of a good rap for any deeper meaning beyond the literal. I, who consider myself to be above making assumptions about a subject as a whole based on only one or two samples- which, of course, do not logically summarize the entire topic- am guilty when it comes to hip-hop. I admit, somewhat reluctantly, that there may in fact be more to hip-hop culture and music than “silly” beatboxing and the common misconception that all rap is about senseless violence and crime, nothing more.

   

These are two different conceptions of two different genres of music from a sixteen-year old teen who has never even listened to either type of music in her life. However, I can say that, being a young adult in the United States of America, and thus being part of the “new generation”- “ the face of change”, some may say- I am not completely oblivious to the immense impact these subcultures have brought on the American lifestyle, especially that of the younger ones such as myself. It is true that one one hand you have Elvis, and in the other you hold the likes of Nicki Minaj (god help us); that the right ride of the scale is heaped with screeching electric guitarists, while the left balances the weight evenly with its own heavily-chained rappers and tattooed hip-hop artists. Now come with me on a journey beyond what our eyes can see, the obvious, the literal, the solid fact, to the very heart of the subject. This is a subject dearly loved by all, young and old, rich or poor, black or white, light-skinned, dark-skinned, conservative, liberal, man, woman, and child- music itself. As Bill Walton once said, “Music is critical in our lives and culture. It’s the inspiration that drives us. It’s also the window to our souls. It’s a reflection as to who we are, what we stand for, and where we are going.”

 

And what are the answers to those unanswerable questions, after all? We are humans… we stand for humanity… and as to where we are going- who knows? We cannot forget that, after all our disagreements, years upon years of needless bloodshed, and the endless torture and pain of loss that we purposefully inflict upon each other and later justify as trying to “improve the situation” ( I could mention a certain America in a certain Middle East) we are all only human. We are scientifically, if not socially, considered to be the same mammals. Music is one of the few things that every culture in the vast expanse of our world, no matter how secluded, have in common. Drum kits meant for heavy metal concerts or hand drums made laboriously in some village out there with a dried canvas of leather stretching across a wide frame- music is music. A polished and shining electric guitar or a classical sitar carefully hand-fashioned from seasoned toon wood- music is music. Fiercely lyrical or soothingly instrumental, Beyonce or Mozart, sung in English or sung in Afrikaans- you get the picture. Music, no matter what form it takes- rock n roll, bollywood, pop, jazz, blues, rap, country, classical, hip hop- reminds us of our humanity, and thus unites us because of it.


Once, not so long ago, I saw only the wobbling afros, so ridiculously outdated now in a world of smooth buzz-cuts and carefully-combed wavy locks; my eyes skimmed past the red-green-blue of graffiti covering the perpetual grayness of urban life, ears trained to simply tune out those cussing lyrics, words that exploded pop,pop,pop so fast I could barely understand them. Today I hesitantly add a Twenty-One Pilots song that is almost entirely rap to my Spotify playlist- and then I listen to it. And then I like it. And now, I start to love the simple beat of it, listening with my eyes closed and the corners of my mouth lifted up ever so slightly like the rind off a slice of watermelon. Writing this essay has been as much an educational experience as an enlightening one, and now that this strange road has come to a satisfying end, I close with a quote from one of the greatest American musicians of all time, Billy Joel: “I think music in itself is healing. It’s an explosive expression of humanity. It’s something we are all touched by. No matter what culture we’re from, everyone loves music.” And I must say that I agree.




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