By Leah J. Mahoney
Special to The Communitarian
Spencer Parker, 22, spends most of his days nonchalantly accommodating mass consumers as a cashier at the Home Depot.
Parker is also known as ZeeRoh, a conscious hip hop artist struggling to make a name for himself, as a result of the mainstream hip-hop agenda.
Working at a home improvement store is a means of income for the hip hop artist who feels frustrated, he said, because his real passion cannot be pursued unless he changes his style and conforms to today’s “acceptable” hip hop mold.
“I understand the appeal of mainstream,” Parker said. “I have to keep that in mind, when writing sometimes.”
Yet Parker worries about his artistic integrity and appropriating his music to appeal to mainstream hip-hop fans.
“Every element of [mainstream hip hop] is either appropriated or shown at the shallowest depth,” he said. “It’s become a vacuous wasteland devoid of creativity and saves the very few who can make it,
without a generic trap bounce and nasally- toned voice.”
Parker is just one of a few artists who hassles with this dilemma in the hip hop game. Many hip hop enthusiasts believe 21st century rappers have changed the game with their increasingly vulgar lyricism and controversial ethics, perpetuating sex, money, and drugs.
According to Social Text, hip hop, also synonymous with rap, slowly arose in the Bronx, NY during the late 1980s and early 1990s. “Eventually,” writes Michael Ralph, New York University associate professor of Social and Cultural Analysis and Africana Studies, “hip hop emerged as a distinct cultural form as part of two interrelated developments.”
The manifestation of hip hop initially revolved around the artist’s struggle, such as growing up in “the ghetto” and speaking out against political doctrines, according to Johnathan Munby in the Journal for Cultural Research.
Tupac, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli are among the few who followed a conscious
hip hop dynamic throughout the course of their hip hop career.
In Tupac’s song, “Changes,” he sings, “‘It’s time to fight back.’ That’s what Huey said. 2 shots in the dark, now Huey’s dead.”
Huey P. Newton, the founder of the Black Panther Party, was shot dead by a drug dealer in Oakland in 1989. Reports say three shots were fired.
Talib Kweli’s critically-acclaimed song “Get By” also paints a portrait of a controversial system.
His lyrics, “Yo, I activism attackin’ the system, the blacks and Latins in prison,” incites political activism and revolt against the “system,” or U.S. government.
This line refers to the FBI’s controversial smear campaign and assassinations of revolutionary public figureheads.
“Being true to the game involves demonstrating your ability as a student of underworld history and as a street griot or teacher,” said Ice-T, in his documentary, “Something from Nothing: The Art of Rap (2012).” “Being true to a hip hop aesthetic involves taking care over not only what is
best to remember but choices about how to articulate this memory.”
But experts say over time the genre became rawer, discussing topics distasteful in nature. Artists began to focus on monetary gain, drugs, and explicit sexual desire.
According to The African American Review, “Critical scripts about, in particular, popular hip hop as sexist and misogynist, unnecessarily or outrageously materialistic and hedonistic, corrupted by capital, apolitical and indifferent, provide precisely this sort of automatic, empty [enlightenment] of the genre.”
However, there are programs in the United States, whose sole mission is to bring back the fundamental values of conscious hip hop.
The National Museum of Hip Hop is one of the few organizations to combat the adverse views towards the genre.
According to the NMoH website, “The negativity surrounding a select few rappers, coupled with the constant propagation by the mainstream media, has helped to perpetuate this negative connotation of Hip-Hop.”
NMoH hopes to eventually reverse the cycle by presenting the world with an institutional interpretation of hip- hop’s true essence: education, cultural preservation, and self-expression through
art. The Hip Hop Archive and Research Institute is another organization, seeking to educate and inspire the hip hop community in a positive light.
Programs include academic courses, arts and community organizations, underground performances and venues, spoken word, political organizations, religious programs and much more.
“We are uncompromising in our commitment to build and support intellectually challenging and innovative scholarship that both reflects the rigor and achievement of performance in Hip Hop as well as transforms our thinking and our lives,” the HHA mission statement states.
As for Parker, he is trying to come to terms with today’s hip hop and continues his writing to better pursue a future within the genre.
He says he laments the idea of today’s fabricated hip hop motive, and constantly struggles with staying true to his method of songwriting, while appealing to the genre’s audience.
“I think [today’s hip hop] ruins the game by becoming the poster child of the
genre,” Parker said. “It bothers me that artists like Big Krit and Mick Jenkins rarely get their just due, because they don’t fit certain criteria.”
Still, Parker says his passion for hip hop is what drives him and makes him want to improve upon the genre even more.
Although still working at the Home Depot, he spends his free time pushing towards making conscious hip hop more of a reality in the genre’s community.
To accomplish this, Parker puts on sporadic performances with a collaboration of similar artists, when the opportunity presents itself.
For now, Parker can only allow himself time and funds for putting on shows in the Philadelphia region. But he hopes to expand upon his performance venues and travel more in the future.
His most recent performance took place in Brooklyn, NY, where Parker said the experience only made him more determined in following his dream.
“I’m happy to have had the opportunity to perform in a setting other than Philly for once,” he said. “It’s satisfying to know; I can potentially make a career out of this.”
This marks the rapper’s farthest show away from home [Philly] and he considers it a milestone in his career.
“It’s definitely a learning experience, going outside of the lyrically driven artist I am and finding different flows,” Parker said. “But I’m up for the challenge.”