King's Death Gave Birth to Hip-Hop

The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. led directly to hip-hop, an era of black American culture, politics, and art that is often contrasted with his legacy.

Horace Cort / AP / Mike Cassese / Steve Marcus / Reuters / The Atlantic

The interlude immediately following Outkast’s “Rosa Parks” on their 1998 album, Aquemini, is perhaps the best starting point for understanding the group and the arts they bent to their whim. “You gotta come provocative, nigga. You know what I mean?” muses Wu-Tang Clan member Raekwon to Outkast’s Big Boi. “Shit gotta be spine-tingling with mad styles and crazy-dangerous, I mean, bust-ya-shit-open beats, you know what I mean?”

Ostensibly, Raekwon’s words foreshadow the coming song, or reflect on the four minutes of bluesy, foot-stomping brilliance that just unfolded in “Rosa Parks.” But they also serve as a guiding ethos for hip-hop, which was enjoying a banner year in 1998. Danger. Style. Funky beats and aural violence. Spines tingled from provocation, not the least of which was mine, then a 10-year-old boy listening to a hip-hop album with intent for the first time.

But not all listeners were as thrilled as I, and it wasn’t just the pearl-clutching Fox News types who reacted negatively to the provocations of Big Boi and André 3000. As classic a song as it is, “Rosa Parks” is also known for sparking a 1999 lawsuit from the eponymous civil-rights legend, whose lawyers claimed that the song demeaned Parks, bore little connection to her actual legacy, and was full of needless vulgarity. The case sprawled across federal courts and spawned multiple controversies until it fizzled out, eventually ending in a quiet settlement. More than that, it outlined the key tension that has played out in black culture over the past five decades. Here were two revolutions: one the titanic timeline of the civil-rights movement, the other the rowdy, raunchy, rap rebellion of hip-hop. The case symbolized how many in both the media and black intellectual traditions pitted the two movements against each other for dominion over black culture. How could they be reconciled?

The answer can be found in the nascence of hip-hop. The question of the birth of hip-hop is a contentious one—as are all questions concerning the geneses of art forms—and full of rich debate on cultural touchstones, waves of influences, geography, visual art and dance, and stories of intrepid pioneers. Most of these debates locate the distinct emergence of the form in the mid-to-late-’70s. But a closer look reveals that the seeds of the art were sown by and during the civil-rights movement. The two aren’t as opposed as they might seem.

Specifically, something of hip-hop’s genesis can be detected amid the chaos following April 4, the day Martin Luther King Jr. was assassinated. Riots swept the nation, both the largest of the wave of annual multi-city uprisings in the ’60s, and the last such outbreak for decades.

Across the country, young black people erupted with the violent anger that King himself had seen boiling over in the slums and consciously sought to diffuse. Although King’s body of work had been centered in the South—often in its smaller cities and rural areas—the rage was the fiercest in major cities in the North and Midwest, as what James Baldwin called the “powder keg” of generations of frustration from the Great Migrants was ignited. Black youths in those centers railed against both the white and black power structure. For a week or more, much of black America was consumed in a hellscape. And there, in the primordial soup of chaos, the heat of rage, and the electric energy of frustration, the molecular components of what we know to be hip-hop were formed.

The tide of riots that struck much of Washington, D.C., illustrates many of these embryonic components. Back from a sojourn abroad as a global public intellectual, the Black Power leader Stokely Carmichael reappeared in the American public eye the night of King’s assassination; his attempt at hastily organizing a march failed, and D.C. became one of the first of over 100 cities to experience riots. The following day, Carmichael held a press conference warning of widespread racial violence and panic in response to “white America’s biggest mistake.”

D.C. was ignited, and the black neighborhoods around U Street, H Street, and parts of the southeast quadrant of the city went up in flames, even as the National Guard descended upon the city and machine guns were mounted on the steps of the U.S. Capitol. But even there, amid what would become a decisive political and social battle for the racial future of the nation’s capital, hip-hop was being born. Graffiti—linked with both punk and nascent hip-hop—made its first major appearance in the city as a political art tied to black activism. Sympathetic black business owners tagged their own doors with “Soul Brother” in order to escape the wrath of protesters, engaging in the Holy Week Uprising with their own improvised Passover ritual. Protesters sprayed the words “Black Power” across the city, engaging in both the defacement of public institutions and the act of domination that tagging would soon come to symbolize.

If viewed as a continuous multi-year uprising—a framework that Peter Levy’s new book The Great Uprising compellingly proposes—it’s clear that the decade’s race riots, with the Holy Week Uprising as a final bookend, jolted black music as forcefully as they jolted all of black culture. Detroit’s move toward a post-Motown sound was sparked by the 1967 riots, and transformed the city’s sound scene with a “gritty,” agitated energy. In the Newark scene, the black nationalist–aligned Black Arts Movement, headlined since the mid-’60s by poets like Amiri Baraka, began to push into local politics. In March of 1968, just eight days before his assassination, King visited Baraka and spoke of solidarity between black groups, a meeting that helped propel Baraka’s political career—and helped usher in a new wave of poets who would peer out at the world from the wreckage of the uprisings.

On May 19, 1968—on what would’ve been Malcolm X’s birthday, and just a month after the end of the Holy Week Uprising—at Mount Morris Park in East Harlem, Felipe Luciano, Gylan Kain, and David Nelson founded the Original Last Poets, their moniker inspired by the poem “Towards a Walk in the Sun,” from the South African poet Keorapetse Kgositsile, who said that “when the moment hatches in time’s womb / there will be no art talk. The only poem / you will hear will be the spearpoint pivoted / in the punctured marrow of the villain.” Several related groups performed under the monikor of the Last Poets afterwards. The most well-known trio to take on the mantle, Jalal Mansur Nuriddin, Abiodun Oyewole, and Umar Bin Hassan, consider themselves now to be the very first hip-hop artists, and according to Bin Hassan, “are the microcosm of black America.”

Other radical poets like Gil Scott-Heron, whose debut, Small Talk at 125th and Lenox, was released in 1970, started their careers around the same time. On that album’s opener, “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised,” Scott-Heron directly addressed the foment that inspired him to perform: “There will be no pictures of you and Willie Mae / pushing that shopping cart down the block on the dead run / or trying to slide that color television into a stolen ambulance.”

But, as part of the broadly defined Black Power generation that briefly took hold of the national conversation around black activism and race, the group of poets in the proto-hip-hop vanguard had a relatively short time in the spotlight. The pressures of a massive government-sponsored sabotage effort—culminating in the slaying of Black Panther leader Fred Hampton in 1969—effectively destabilized black radicalism. COINTELPRO, the FBI’s massive surveillance and disruption operation of several radical American groups, started a file on the Last Poets; Scott-Heron garnered himself an FBI file after the program was officially shuttered. In this, these artists shared as much with King as they did with many of the black radicals who’d heavily critiqued him: COINTELPRO’s 1968 mission statement intended to “prevent the rise of a ‘Messiah’” in black communities, and saw King himself as a key contender for the position, should he ever abandon nonviolence. This active sabotage from the highest places, across generations and different corners of a movement, helped define hip-hop as an art deeply tinged by paranoia and opposition to state power.

What’s become clear now with the vantage of time is that COINTELPRO was only part of a white counter-revolution that would reshape America over the following decades—and crystallize the modern relationship between working-class black America and the state. In his 2001 book, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, Duke University professor Mark Anthony Neal identifies the end of the “Soul era” with a series of musical and political shifts at the end of the 1970s and early ’80s, including “the emergence of the Reagan Right after the 1980 presidential election.” According to Neal, “It is of course largely the policies of the Reagan Right, particularly its eroding of civil-rights era legislation aimed at addressing historic inequities experienced by blacks that helped further instigate the advent of hip-hop music and culture, as hip-hop became the most visible site of an oppositional urban youth culture.”

Neal identifies the eroding of the civil-rights era legislation as a phenomenon that was strongest in the 1980s; it’s possible, however, that the wide-scale demolition project against those reforms reached maturity well before that. King spoke often of fears of a “white backlash,” and fought against it in his late life—until it killed him. In almost every arena that is widely considered a civil-rights victory today, white reactionaries dug in their heels. Across the South, white people came up with a set of sophisticated mechanisms for avoiding school integration and extending the franchise to black people, and often in the North desegregation just plain never happened. In the North and Midwest, power structures gave black people some visibility and access to cultural currency, but still limited real political agency or access to mobility.

As noted by my colleague Abdallah Fayyad, one of the main mechanisms used to maintain the racial status quo in urbanized centers—particularly New York City—was that of housing segregation. The Fair Housing Act that Lyndon B. Johnson pushed to enact in the wake of King’s death in April 1968 has never been fully implemented as written, or as King intended, and plans to implement it were thwarted during Richard Nixon’s presidency. The lack of political will to actually enforce affirmative mechanisms in education and housing desegregation meant that residential patterns built by racist policy could not be changed.

In conjunction with mass disinvestment from black communities, enduring segregation, the final strokes of white flight, a suburbanizing geographic environment (symbolized in New York by the dominance of “master builder” Robert Moses), racist public-housing policy, pollution, and a host of other societal ills made the destruction of black inner-city life an inevitability. And that’s especially so in the birthplace of hip-hop: The burning, hyper-segregated crumbling, impossibly dysfunctional Bronx of the late ’70s is the backdrop to most hip-hop origin myths, but the kindling and match were already well in place 10 years before.

With all these factors in position, black youth born during King’s time essentially saw the world unmade and refashioned in real time. They witnessed the rise of the carceral state, and were its first victims. They watched as the wounded Black Power institutions succumbed to sabotage and disintegrated into gangs. They experienced the first War on Drugs. They saw the deification of a certain sanitized version of King, divorced from their corrupted, blighted reality. They cowered from Nixon and Reagan, and also from thousands of local versions of Nixon and Reagan. In the pockets of urban America that serve as holy sites in the history of hip-hop today, it’s safe to say that the youth straddling the civil-rights generation and whatever came next lived in a dystopia. And they saw, for better or worse, that the paradigms of black thought, art, and politics developed for the civil-rights movement were inadequate for their time.

As illustrated in Parks’s lawsuit, some people in the generations preceding hip-hop thought and think hip-hop to be a vapid and crude exercise. Many object to the free use of the word nigga, many more to its shocking images of violence. If the lawsuit against Outkast can be stretched into a metaphor, even serious critics and lovers of hip-hop often think of it as a spiritually and morally degraded usurper of the civil-rights legacy, sampling from the greatest hits of an era while adding little of substance, or even actively diminishing the work of titans that came before.

But those critiques fail to engage with what hip-hop truly is, and what it was meant to be. Just like the spirituals invented during slavery, the blues that bubbled up after the collapse of Reconstruction, and the soul that took root during the civil-rights era, hip-hop was in a sense preordained by the social conditions of blackness. It became as much an embrace of the platform and victories for which King fought, and a necessary and careful distancing from the most pervasive pieces of his legacy, from the brand of masculinity stressed as his calling card, from the church, and from respectability. What hip-hop understands most viscerally is that it simply isn’t enough to be like King. King was assassinated for being King.

These weren’t just aesthetic choices, or even simply musical concepts. The power of Negro spirituals and of old soul songs in the vein of Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come” came at least in part from the fact that even in moments of singular musical brilliance, they helped orient a people toward coping with struggle, and toward challenging the status quo. Hip-hop has to orient black youth toward coping with the “New Jim Crow” policies of modern America. As it does so, it carries on the legacy of the civil-rights movement much more than it refutes or dishonors its leaders.

King’s assassination provided the necessary conditions for hip-hop to spring forth from the blood of generations that had spilled in street after street. The result in some cases is often bloody itself: messy, vulgar, and misogynistic from bar to bar. But, at its best, it’s also what Raekwon hoped it would be. Hip-hop is provocative and dangerous, innovative, flexible, and accommodating. It’s the binding ethos now in multiple generations of post-King black people, and it’s becoming a base for liberatory political movements and a wellspring of activism energy. The final irony in all this is that in its deeply held fear of a black “Messiah” arising, the government missed that black youth were creating their own.