Hip Hop and the Engine of Free Expression

guys adjusting sounds on switchboard in recording studio

I love hip hop. I have loved hip hop for as long as I can remember, not only for its sound and lyrical content, but perhaps equally for what it represents. What began on the inner-city streets of the Bronx in the 1970s as an outlet for Black and Latinx expression is now the most popular genre of music in the United States and one of the most listened to genres in the entire world.

I have to pause there. Think about that: a genre which emerged from the hearts and minds of poor, marginalized Black youths is today one of the most popular and culturally influential genres of music across the globe. That, in and of itself, is powerful.

Hip hop gives a voice to the experiences of Black America in a way that few other genres of entertainment have even come close to. It chronicles our joy, love, pain, obstacles and triumphs. And hip hop artists speak quite openly about racism, and the notion that the world loves Black culture – as evinced by the popularity of hip hop – and yet does not seem to love Black people. Hip hop has consistently embraced these topics authentically and unapologetically.

One of my favorite artists is Jay-Z. He was raised by a single mother in a subsidized housing project for low-income families in Brooklyn’s Bed-Stuy neighborhood at the height of the crack epidemic. Today, Jay-Z is widely regarded as one of the best at his craft, with 125 million sold, 22 Grammy wins, and 13 Platinum or better solo albums (in addition to 4 Platinum collaborative albums). And although he is as successful a businessman as he is an entertainer – owning both his masters and publishing rights, and Armand de Brignac (a champagne company), as well as partial ownership in Roc Nation, Tidal, D’Uss̩, and a number of other investments – I often wonder where he would be and what he might be doing today if not for the opportunities afforded to him through hip hop.

When I think of copyright as “the engine of free expression,” this is what I think about. I think about the doors that hip hop has opened for so many. I think about the barriers to entry that hip hop has beaten down by empowering artists with no formal music training to create music (and earn income doing so). Kanye, for example, had no formal training when he produced this beautifully complex composition (tip: listen to the whole thing). I think about the songs and music videos addressing police brutality and racial disparities in the justice system, income, wealth, healthcare and education that would have been deemed “too controversial” for listeners of other genres but exist today because of hip hop. I think about how because copyright protection is automatic and does not require registration, and because copyright does not treat any one genre as more or less “worthy” of protection than another-because let’s face it, some people dislike hip hop simply because it does not fit their definition of “high quality art”-Black creators have increased opportunities to own their intellectual property and exercise autonomy over the content and the message.

Hip hop embodies the concept of free expression. It’s a worldwide stage that centers the experiences of a marginalized community, as told by members of that community. And the role that copyright plays in empowering all of that is one of the reasons I am passionate about the work that I do.

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