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Mic Check: Here's Why Hip Hop Hasn't Grown up Yet

02/25/2015 05:27 pm ET | Updated Apr 27, 2015
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What millions witnessed at this year's Academy Awards, as John Legend and Common delivered an emotionally arresting performance of Glory, followed by winning the Oscar for Best Original Song, was far more than a memorable moment of victory. Just one day removed from reflecting on the life of Malcolm X, exactly 50 years after the fearless revolutionary's tragic assassination, the moment marked a critical reminder of a greater mission. One that, as Common concisely stated, "transcends race, gender and sexual orientation", but is also rooted in defending the deserved liberties forcefully stripped from minorities in America and abroad.

Selma, the period piece that inspired their collaboration, took viewers on a trip through the treacherous terrain of racism and systematic oppression that fueled the 1960s, while providing a backdrop to the civil unrest that has inspired nationwide protests following the events in Ferguson, Mo. and New York City. With all of these points fiercely intersecting as one of rap's most respected icons uttered his commanding acceptance speech, we were all reminded of the power of Hip Hop.

As a disruptive genre and progressive culture, Hip Hop is credited for shaping many of America's most influential creators, thinkers, teachers and business leaders. Rap has groomed inner-city kids into savvy street scholars, equipping generations of disadvantaged youth with the tools required to become triumphant heroes. More than mastering how to survive the struggle, lyricists have laid the blueprint for prosperity. The seamless merger of aspiration and assertiveness, expressed through diverse styles and clever rhyme schemes, speaks to the spirit of people from all walks of life. More specifically, it speaks to underprivileged and marginalized people, those who must defeat feelings of meaninglessness. It is this direct connection that makes Hip Hop a revered voice of hope, using piercing literature to defeat the nihilistic threat.

In its adolescence, visionaries who understood and embraced their responsibility as architects of culture spearheaded Hip Hop. Passionate pioneers like Chuck D, the outspoken voice of Public Enemy, courageously addressed the most pressing issues of the times. His bold anthems demanded accountability for discrimination, hatred and injustice. Mirroring the movement were other artists with an awareness of their influence, seeing each verse as an opportunity to provoke thought, action and change. Whether evoking a contagious enthusiasm for living, charging forcefully against injustice, or delivering progressive prose through vivid storytelling -- MC's made a notable difference. More importantly, they passed down an encyclopedia of insight and experiences that raised young boys into grown men.

Not all of rap's most forward-thinking artists wore the armor of activism. Many of the most impactful MC's in Hip Hop history made their mark through giving away wisdom. These were the hustlers, CEOs of the corner who practiced a commendable code of ethics. Buried beneath the grit, violence and bravado existed a set of unwavering principles: handle your business, take care of your people, and always tell your story to show those watching that there's room for more people at the table of success.

This model is also personified in cult-classic characters like Money Mitch in Paid In Full, Anthony in Dead Presidents and Nino Brown in New Jack City. Each of these fictional figures was a leader who may have chosen illegal alternatives to build wealth and escape poverty, but did so with the genuine purpose of providing for their families, creating opportunities and setting an example of success that would inspire those coming up after them. Though their paths didn't comply with convention, or social acceptance, their sense of self-respect, dignity, manhood and maturity embodied was evident.

An element of unspoken brilliance carried by greats like Jay Z, Nas, Tupac and The Notorious B.I.G. is their ability to intentionally use their music to mold young boys into enlightened men. Whether referencing street life, social struggles or stories of success -- each angled narratives to sharpen minds. From his classic Blueprint series and prophetic business moves, to offering style tips and history lessons, Jay Z has mastered the function of his artistry as platform for promoting personal growth. Within songs like Change Clothes, 30 Something, U Don't Know, and On To The Next One, Hov emphasizes the importance of evolving, pushing limits, having faith and fulfilling potential -- all of which play a pivotal part in becoming a man, just as much as developing strong morals and values. It's a language, style and attitude of success that sets an invaluable example for future eras to follow.

Today, with Hip Hop earning its place atop the hierarchy of pop culture, the genre has become a corporate culture. Rap now magnifies what sells, at the expense of abandoning the core principles that preserve the Hip Hop as a pillar of inspiration, guidance and social justice. The private components that once made it a coveted art form now have a public price tag. Modern rap personifies the infamous greek tragedy of a child star rapidly ascending the heights of celebrity, to be overcome with fame and riches, consequently becoming distracted from purpose and personal growth.

While the rise of rap proved the profitability of black culture, it exposed the weaknesses as well. Because Hip Hop is in such high demand, talent is being bought up by the bulk, inevitably cheapening the value. The painful result is an all-powerful art form now oversaturated with seasonal trends, empty messages and no clear vision for where it desires to take the millions following.

In many ways, the effects of rap's mainstream momentum have shifted its public perception from a man's game to a boy's playground. Reality TV depicts Hip Hop culture as a dramatic cycle of lust, lies and illusion. Artists are lured into the industry for pursuit of money and status, driven by ego. Images presented in music videos promote boastful lifestyles of excess, showcasing habits that further feed the cycle of poverty, instead of the incurrence of wealth. The women within Hip Hop culture accepted as the standard are commonly products of plastic surgery, addicted to the allure of artificial features. The concept of love and family gets lost between manifestos of misogyny and disregard for deep-rooted relationships.

These examples are not meant to take unwarranted shots at Hip Hop, as the art form and its culture is a reflection of the times. However, what both reveal about the times we're in further enforce the need to evaluate how manhood and purpose is defined within Hip Hop, because both determine what the next phase of rap will inevitably look like.

As the few remaining gatekeepers are nearing their exit, there is both a void and a calling for the next wave of brave leaders. With his latest releases, I and The Blacker The Berry, Kendrick Lamar is seemingly answering the call as one of Hip Hop's emerging trendsetters committed to expanding the minds of young America, while putting the lessons of his own evolution on display. Similarly, the release of 2014 Forest Hills Drive, in addition to his convincing statements in recent interviews, J. Cole is among rap's rising visionaries set to shape the next generation of men whose movements will reflect a greater cause. With Drake on pace to swiftly outrun the competition in his race to claim the crown, only time will reveal the overall value of perspective his artistry will add to the growth of Hip Hop as both a genre and global culture.

In the midst of these projected possibilities, one thing is certain: the power of Hip Hop is immense and unwavering. But, how the art form is used from this point forward will determine the type of power we truly want to have.