Hip Hop Rhetoric and Relandscaping the Rhetorical Tradition
In “Disciplinary Landscaping, or Contemporary Challenges in the History of Rhetoric,” Jacqueline Jones Royster writes:
What we choose to showcase depends materially on where on the landscape we stand and what we have in mind. The imperative is to recognize that the process of showcasing space is an interpretive one, one that acknowledges a view and often re-scopes that view in light of aesthetic sensibilities—values, preferences, beliefs. We landscape. (148)
Royster sees the field of rhetoric as a “richly textured” epistemological terrain, constantly being shaped and shifted by new voices, new realities, new rhetorics. But in many ways, for many years, the soil has been stagnant with historically dominant voices. Royster’s call for a fresh and rebellious approach to rhetorical historiography is heeded in the study of Hip Hop Rhetoric.
This notion of “landscaping,” or what I like to call “relandscaping,” because it more succinctly points to the inherent revisionary component, is a central theme in rhetoric, as the field has moved from focusing only on historically elite voices (Western, White, privileged, males), to historically ignored and disenfranchised voices, such as those of women and racial minorities. Echoing Royster’s call for a more dynamic and inclusive rhetorical tradition are Michael Leff, who states, “tradition…is a living force that requires constant change and adaptation…” (144) and Patricia Bizzell, who believes, “…we must hear from rhetoricians who have struggled with culturally complex venues in which they were marginalized, if we are to live and work and function as responsible citizens in the American multicultural democracy,” among others (Charland 2003; Glenn qtd. in Portnoy 2003; Berlin 1994; Jarratt 1991). Attitudes such as these, and the implementation of such attitudes, have begun to have a diversifying effect on the field.
“Rhetorical history” is now commonly approached as the “histories of rhetorics,” an approach that has enriched the field and, in some ways, made more legitimate the lives, experiences, and discourses of a growing number of peoples. This approach is a catalyst for uncovering/highlighting “new” discourse communities. Hip Hop Rhetoric, as a relatively new terrain in rhetoric, is a meaningful, useful, and instructive lens from which to approach the ever-expanding realms of the field.
The aim of this essay is to present a theoretical foundation from which to argue the importance of studying Hip Hop Rhetoric from a rhetorical perspective. While some work has been done in analyzing Hip Hop culture and discourse, and more is sure to come, the focus here is not to implicitly do the work of analysis but to establish a foundation for this work. While establishing a foundation may seem past its time (considering the fact that analysis of Hip Hop culture and discourse has already begun to take place) it is anything but. Consider the convergence of these two phenomena: (1) the continued growth of Rhetoric and Writing Studies/Composition programs and degrees granted and (2) the fact that more and more students who enter graduate programs, including those in Rhetoric and Writing Studies/Composition, will have grown up influenced by Hip Hop culture and discourse and thus fuel continued scholarship in this field. Students who grew up in the 1980s, 90s, 2000s, will be more likely to tackle Hip Hop Rhetoric than older generations. This convergence, and the fact that I have yet to come across a specific article aimed and arguing the importance of analyzing Hip Hop culture and discourse through the lens of rhetoric studies, leaves a void to be filled. The aim here is to fill that void through a discussion of Hip Hop Rhetoric’s ability to be part of the continuous relandscaping of rhetoric studies.
Defining Hip Hop Rhetoric
The designation Hip Hop Rhetoric succinctly joins the music, culture, and discourse of Hip Hop and the academic field of rhetoric. Rhetoricians interested in Hip Hop Rhetoric engage in the critical analysis of the rhetorical output and/or culture of Hip Hop through the lens of rhetorical studies, and vice versa. More generally, Hip Hop Rhetoric is also the rhetorical output of Hip Hop culture. The output may be in the form of lyrics (written and performed), musical beats, websites, magazines, interviews, and the visual rhetoric of music videos, dress, and even vehicular alterations. Thus, as with the rhetorical analysis of any group or culture, any rhetoric (oral, textual, visual, etc.) produced by the group can be a launching point for understanding and analysis. In this case, the analysis comes through the academic lens of rhetoric.
The work of relandscaping the rhetorical tradition involves shifting and reshifting its terrain. This occurs when our perspective on what we do in rhetorical studies, and how we do it, changes. In Royster’s words, we must shift where we stand, shift rhetorical subjects, shift the circle of practice, and shift the theoretical frame (150-162). All are integral parts in the important changes that continue to influence the field. In shifting where we stand, we change our point of view and begin to notice the plethora and substantive existence of discourses—oral, written, visual, and technological—outside of the historical norm. This can mean looking at “new” groups, such as African American women, which Royster has done much of, or looking at non-traditional modes of discourse, such as “anonymous songs, poetry, folktales, griot histories, and so on” (151). A rather new and often ignored place to “stand” is with Hip Hop Rhetoric, a strong catalyst in shifting the rhetorical terrain and opening new possibilities for research.
In shifting rhetorical subjects, we continue to uncover, recover, and recognize traditionally silenced voices. Our perspective on whose rhetoric matters evolves and diversifies. While much of the focus in changes to the rhetorical tradition have been on women’s discourse (i.e. Aspasia, Enheduanna, Pan Chao, Sor Juana, Ida B. Wells, Gloria Anzaldua, etc.), there are a plethora of voices left uncovered and ignored in rhetoric, one of which is the dynamic voice of Hip Hop. While some serious work has been done by a handful of scholars (The Hip Hop Reader 2008; Richardson 2006; Campbell 2005), there is much more that can, and should, be done considering the impact of Hip Hop Rhetoric on United States and global culture, and its direct illustration of traditional and modern definitions of rhetoric.
In shifting the circle of practice, scholars must reconsider “what constitutes rhetorical action or participation,” moving beyond the traditional arenas of “the courts, the pulpit, [and] the arenas of politics and public service” (Royster 157). For those outside the field, it is common to associate rhetoric only with political discourse, and inside the field, for centuries it was the norm to focus mostly on the rhetorical spheres mentioned above and nothing else, though this is rapidly changing. With Hip Hop Rhetoric we are forced to turn our gaze towards non-traditional textual/visual/special avenues such as song lyrics, musical beats, music videos, “mixtapes,” “underground” videos, video games, graffiti, popular magazines, and websites, which ask us to pay close attention to minority-produced poetry, racialized, gendered, and sexualized discourse (both private and public)—all of which constitute a paradigmatic shift in what constitutes rhetoric’s circle of practice.
Finally, in shifting the theoretical frame we shy away from constraining non-traditional viewpoints and theory. In order to highlight new features of the rhetorical terrain, we must allow for new perspectives and new lenses from which to view rhetoric and allow new paradigms to affect our analysis of the multi-faceted rhetorics which exist in our world. This includes not only adding “new” voices to the landscape but challenging the very paradigmatic foundations which have placed “traditionally traditional” (Bizzell 110) rhetorics at the apex of a socially constructed rhetorical hierarchy. Hip Hop Rhetoric provides one venue from which to shift the normative theoretical frame as it was birthed from a very different world-view than that of traditional rhetorics, one of marginalization.
Thus, the rhetoric of Hip Hop provides an avenue from which to do this shifting work, work that is productive and important if relandscaping is truly a central component of the field of rhetoric. As Royster critically understands, we must not only work at uncovering and analyzing these catalysts for change, but be involved in “knowledge-using,” that is, in persuading those inside and outside of the discipline that “new” rhetorics, such as Hip Hop Rhetoric, are “valuable…in the re-envisioning of what constitutes knowledge” (161). Thus, my work in this area is a call for the critical use of Hip Hop Rhetoric in our ever-evolving creation of what constitutes important rhetoric, rhetorical historiography, and the rhetorical tradition. By intellectually spotlighting and analyzing different rhetorical and cultural aspects, the landscape of Hip Hop Rhetoric, and rhetorical studies in general, will grow and become more kaleidoscopic in its makeup—a positive change if we are interested in avoiding a narrow and elitist tradition.
The Alley behind the Parlor: Burke, hooks, and Hip Hop Rhetoricians
Relandscaping, adding diversity to the “terrain” of the rhetorical tradition, is not a new idea, but it is still confronted by centuries of hegemonic rule. The adding of new voices, new experiences, new rhetorical acts, and new rhetoricians to the rhetorical tradition, is both important and arduous. Kenneth Burke and bell hooks shed some understanding on the importance and reality of this relandscaping.
One of Burke’s central metaphors in describing rhetorical acts is “the parlor” (The Philosophy of Literary Form). He sees discourse as taking place in specific situations/communities with each of us entering those situations/parlors with no explanation from those already there, hearing the conversation, and ultimately entering and affecting the conversation (“put[ting] in your oar”). The conversation was going on long before we arrived and even when we leave, as individual agents, the conversation/parlor continues (110-111). Different rhetorical situations exist around us—the academic journal, the political debate, a meeting among new coworkers, a conversation about the best football team, a discussion over what new car to buy, etc. All are “parlors” we enter as speakers, hoping to know or learn the dynamics of the situation in order to intelligently take part in the conversation.
The rhetorical tradition is a parlor. To enter its doors, to understand the conversation, and to take part in the ongoing discussion, one, for hundreds of years, would have needed to know about the rhetoric which was labeled elite—namely that of White, Western, usually privileged, males. However, this rhetorical parlor, including its texts, discourse, and participants, has transformed over time, with its most major shifts beginning in the mid 1900s with the addition of nontraditional voices such as those of females, racial minorities, and non-Westerners. In many ways the parlor of the early 21st century would be unrecognizable to classical and Enlightenment rhetoricians. New paradigms are now in play.
Many in rhetoric no longer want to fit in to the traditional rhetorical parlor or impress those that see traditional rhetoric as pristine and didactically unproblematic. And many, like Ernest Stromberg, emphasize the fact that the rhetorical parlor has not, and does not, automatically imply “equal accesss…and equal opportunity” (4). New paradigms are being created and a new landscape is being produced where traditional voices are giving way to historically ignored and marginalized voices. Subcultures and countercultures are slowly and steadily gaining a stronghold in rhetorical historiography and, as bell hooks writes, these counter-voices are “central locations[s] for the production of counter-hegemonic discourse” (149).
Like Royster, hooks is interested in shifting the landscape of rhetoric and claims that those “who would participate in the formation of counter-hegemonic cultural practice [must] identify spaces where we begin the process of re-vision” (145). Hip Hop Rhetoric is one of those spaces. The culture and discourse of Hip Hop is very popular but, paradoxically, it is also still the “exotic Other” in many ways because it points to something different than what has been displayed and theorized in traditional rhetorical historiography. Despite its historical roots it remains counter-traditional and in the alley/margins of the rhetorical tradition.
But, importantly, hooks reminds us that the margin is not simply a site of deprivation but a place of productive resistance and a site of “radical possibility” (149). In simpler terms, it is a fresh and counter-traditional lens from which to view rhetoric and society. The voices of Hip Hop Rhetoric are not only voices of pain, hurt, and hate. Though they include these, they are much more as well. Among a plethora of others, they also include struggle, hope, healing, family, race, religion, and employ rhetorical tactics that would make both Aristotle and bell hooks appreciative.
Hip Hop does not fit comfortably in contemporary rhetorical studies, though it is a relevant and influential rhetoric. It resides in a place near but outside the parlor of the rhetorical tradition. It is a place with an edge, with a dark side, a place that channels to new and unknown regions, a place of marginality but with proud roots—Hip Hop Rhetoric is the intricate alley behind the rhetorical parlor. This alley is host to the important work of relandscaping and hook’s notion of re-visioning the margin. Despite the growing diversification of the rhetorical parlor, Hip Hop has remained in its shadows. Though socially and rhetorically relevant enough to deserve a place in discussions of the rhetorical tradition, Hip Hop Rhetoric remains (and even grows) in the margins of such discussions. But, exclusion has not weakened or diminished what is a vibrant discourse.
Hip Hop Rhetoric may be looking into the parlor of the rhetorical tradition from the alley out back, but it also functions and prospers without its inclusion. It is both self-sustaining and important enough to be included in academic discussion of the rhetorical tradition. After all, this alley is full of colorful and intriguing voices—sad, joyful, hopeful, proud, angry, resisting, hurting, and hurtful voices—all complex voices, some of which need to be part of the Rhetorical Parlor.
Why Hip Hop Rhetoric Matters
The rhetorical study of Hip Hop should not be labeled as gimmicky or unimportant. Royster’s call to relandscaping is a call to appreciate and respect a diverse number of rhetorics and discourses communities. Furthermore, it is not a call to “tolerate” more rhetorics, but to learn from them and understand their importance in academic rhetorical studies and in society in general.
Here are some specific reasons why Hip Hop Rhetoric matters to academic rhetorical studies and to our world:
– Hip Hop Rhetors are directly involved in the critical use of language to persuade and entertain
– Hip Hop Rhetors show a “metacritical awareness of how language can be used to do things in the world [including] persuading [people] to make important political change” (Bizzell 115)
– Scholarship in Hip Hop Rhetoric can balance simplistic attacks on hip hop culture by popular news outlets, politicians, celebrities, and educators by intelligently complicating the discussion
– Hip Hop Rhetoric is a rhetoric born of the margins and is an illustration of a counter-hegemonic textual and visual discourse (i.e. language, social commentary, dress, etc.)
– Hip Hop Rhetoric illustrates hegemony at work (dominance, appropriation, and consent)
– Hip Hop Rhetoric forces us to look beyond traditional rhetorical texts
– Hip Hop Rhetoric can be used to teach traditionally Western concepts in rhetoric (i.e. invention, memory, delivery, pathos, ethos, etc.)
– Hip Hop Rhetoric forces us to discuss central themes in contemporary rhetoric (i.e. race, gender, power, sexuality, politics, etc.)
– Hip Hop Rhetoric forces us to look at the continued dominance of the male voice in many discourse communities
– Hip Hop Rhetoric allows us to jump international and cultural borders as it continues to spread throughout the world to places like Europe, Asia, Latin America, Africa, the Middle East, etc.
– Hip Hop Rhetoric asks us to look at issues of technology and rhetoric, including the use of technology to produce and disseminate rhetoric, and issues of technological access
Considering the current political climate, Hip Hop Rhetoric can be used to serve as a vehicle for complex discussions and rhetorical analysis of race issues (race relations, racial hegemony, etc.), gender issues (sexism, gender roles, etc.), politics (political leanings of Hip Hop, political influence, etc.), language issues (bilingualism, bi-dialectism, non-Standard English, etc.), religious issues (religious metaphor, religious ethos, etc.), African American, Latino and other “minority” perspectives (assimilation, biculturalism, immigration, etc.), social issues (drug use, violence, economic hardship, etc.), technology issues (access, dissemination, digital divide, etc.), and pedagogy (teaching in a multicultural setting, teaching language and literature, teaching rhetoric and composition).
While the space here does not allow me to provide details for each of the aforementioned topics it is clear that the study of Hip Hop provides a vast pool from which to conduct important rhetorical studies, with each inquiry connecting in complex ways to any number of topics central to contemporary rhetoric and to our world. The study of Hip Hop rhetoric connects important present social issues to historical events, to contemporary events and politics, and helps in our understanding of the future and our ability to influence it. Hip Hop discourse is a very “of-the-moment” phenomenon, something that may lead some to question the long-term importance of studies in it, but it is this kairotic nature of Hip Hop rhetoric that reveals much of its importance. It forces us to intelligently study a discourse of today so that we can understand, appreciate, complicate, learn and teach from the world around us.
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