Hegemony can be described as the ideological dominant social group or class within society. Gwyn Williams explains hegemony as “an order in which a certain way of life and thought is dominant, in which one concept of reality is diffused throughout society, in all its institutional and private manifestations, informing with its spirit all tastes, morality, customs, religious and political principles, and all social relations, particularly in their intellectual and moral connotations” (Femia 1975).
Gramsci explains further that, “hegemony is the spontaneous consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group” (Crehan 2002: 102). In other words, hegemony is the most accepted and mainstream values, customs, etc. that are accepted as normal within society. In addition, these ideas are rarely challenged, making them more dominant. According to Gramsci, elites try to manufacture consent to their policies by promoting specific values and messages in the media favourable to their interests. As seen in many lectures throughout this semester, popular culture tends to be biased toward the wealthy, straight, able-bodied, white, males.
Rap music is historically known as a form of counter-hegemony. Rap music originated mainly out of young, inner city, working class and poor black males. Professor Tolmie states, “hip hop started in the New York City streets specifically the Bronx in the 1970’s” (March 18, 2014). Rap music can be considered critical and challenging of the traditional institutions. It should be understood as a mass mediated criticism of the dominant ideology of racism within the Western power structure. Much of rap music rejects dominant ideological assumptions. Tolmie explains rap music as an “anti-establishment outlet for those speaking ‘to’ and ‘for’ disempowered and disenfranchised urban youth” (March 18, 2014). Public Enemy is one example that is critical of the white power structure and its portrayal of the Western system as fair and meritocratic.
Jack Moore analyzes Public Enemy’s song “Fight the Power” and states,
While the song was hardly rap’s first assault on the establishment, it was a particularly explosive one. After witnessing their track get trashed by the music industry machinery, the group relocated their countercultural manifesto to the streets. Bootlegged live recordings of the track surfaced in metropolitan areas, and Public Enemy performed nearly nonstop throughout the boroughs of New York City to relay their militant message. Although the track was kept off the air because of its foul language and inflammatory political themes, record sales shot through the roof. “Fight the Power” became an anthem of urban black discontent, for better or worse (189).
The music video starts off by demonstrating ‘The March on Washington’ in 1963. It was a civil rights demonstration by several groups to fight for racial equality. The “demands of the marcher were the passage of meaningful civil rights legislation; the elimination of racial segregation in public schools; protection for demonstrators against police brutality; a major public-works program to provide jobs; the passage of a law prohibiting racial discrimination in public and private hiring; a $2 an hour minimum wage; and self-government for the District of Columbia, which had a black majority” (Ross 2007).
The introduction to the song paves the way. The whole song discusses racism that still occurs within society. It provokes another revolution to fight against racism instead of passively consenting. Each verse says something special. In verse one they rap,
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
Freedom or death relates back to the suffrage movement. Emmeline Pankhurst gave a speech declaring the women suffrage movement determination to fight to the death. In other words, it signifies fighting until they receive equal rights such as freedom of speech, or until they die. Either way, they will not stop fighting.
In verse two they rap,
To revolutionize make a change nothing’s strange
People, people we are the same
No we’re not the same
Cause we don’t know the game
What we need is awareness, we can’t get careless
The idea of the game here, is the fixed rules established by those in power to keep the black and white, rich and poor, abled and disabled, etc. separated. In addition, they are saying that instead of passively consenting to the power by stating everything is fine, black citizens must acknowledge racism and take strides to eliminate it themselves.
In verse three they rap,
Don’t worry be happy
Was a number one jam
Damn if I say it you can slap me right here
This message mocks Bobby McFerrin’s massive 1988 hit “Don’t Worry Be Happy.” They do so because they do not feel it acknowledge the state of the world, such as the inequalities that black citizens receive. The dominant structures that are in place make it easier for a certain kind of individual (white, straight, ablebodied, male) to be happy and a lot harder for other individuals such as black citizens to be happy. Ultimately it ignores cultural and social inequalities.
However, rap music today can be depicted as sending the wrong message. Much of rap music in contemporary society is considered misogynistic. This is extremely unfortunate that such a powerful counter-hegemonic structure has transformed into supporting the dominant.
Though, this may bring out another type of counter-hegemonic in the future. Hopefully, people will return to the message of Public Enemy, and “fight the power.” Although rap music can be viewed as changed, many people still admire Public Enemy for bringing awareness and creating entertaining music. They used popular culture and entertainment to create awareness and change structural problems within society. Although issues of racism still exist, hopefully new forms of resistance will learn from Public Enemy and eventually minimize and eliminate structural inequality altogether.
Chuck D., founder of Public Enemy says, “my job is to write shocking lyrics that will wake people up” (189).
Crehan, Kate. 2002. Gramsci, Culture and Anthropology. Berkely and Los Angeles,California: University of California Press.
FEMIA, & Femia, (1975). Hegemony and consciousness in the thought of Antonio Gramsci. Political Studies, 23(1), 29.
Moore, Jake. “Doin’ It Right.” Retrieved April 13, 2014 (http://www.nyu.edu/cas/ewp/mooresad10.pdf).
Ross, Schmuel. 2007. “Civil Rights March on Washington.” Infoplease. Retrieved April 13, 2014 (http://www.infoplease.com/spot/marchonwashington.html).