The Message Behind The Music

February 04, 2016

Kane SmegoKane Smego, international touring spoken-word poet, visits SJC Long Island to talk hip-hop history and its cultural impact.

"Is hip-hop a thermometer, or a thermostat?"

Kane Smego's February 4 presentation on SJC Long Island centered on this question. Is hip-hop reflective of the culture in which it's surrounded, or does it dictate societal action? It's a question that's existed since gangsta rap and parental advisories permeated the '90s.

"Hip-hop is dead," Kane Smego said. "This is the message we've heard for years now."

Through spoken-word performance and discussion, Smego took the numerous students, faculty and staff in attendance on a journey across the history of hip-hop. From the ancient bards and poets of the Renaissance to the jazz age, Smego demonstrated how hip-hop's roots encompassed more than just an MC's words over beats. 

"In the early days of hip-hop, MCs would introduce their DJs," Smego said, explaining the advent of rap. "It wasn't long before MCs blew up, and DJs were complementing the rhymes of MCs." Smego described the five elements of early hip-hop, which included the aformentioned MC and DJ, as well as graffiti artists, b-boys and the fifth component: Knowledge.

Kane Smego with students

"When was the first time you heard the word 'hip-hop,' and what did you think it meant?" Smego asked, prompting one woman to recall KRS-One and the mid-80s, before an undergraduate student referenced her memories of listening to Akon in the early 2000s. A third student commented on her parents' and grandparents' revulsion at the music at face value. 

Smego then asked the room to discuss the climate of hip-hop, the stigma behind the music, and for participants to share their opinions. 

"In the 80s you wouldn't hear hip-hop songs describing gun violence and misogyny." One woman commented, which prompted a student to comment on hip-hop's place within contemporary culture — a culture that includes violence in film, video games, etc. Was it justified to claim hip-hop generates violence while ignoring prevalent violence in other media? 

Either way, the popularity of hip-hop is undeniable. In the past 30 years hip-hop has spread globally, from a fringe subset of music to a phenomenon. Smego told of how today, hip-hop is played over the same airwaves it was exiled from. He lauded the talents of rappers who use descriptive language and storytelling to positive effect, such as Kendrick Lamar and Chance the Rapper.

Smego encouraged the audience to seek out hip-hop beyond the radio, to the wordsmiths who are not censored by their labels or production companies — artists who made their own voices heard. 

"Is hip-hop a thermometer, or a thermostat? I think it's both." Smego said.

The undeniable truth is the new age of hip-hop is in its golden age, with independent artists garnering larger and larger audiences, and popular rappers selling out arenas. And with that expanding audience, comes the importance of that all-important fifth element: Knowledge.

Kane Smego with students and staff