Hip Hop Rhetoric

Hip Hop Rhetoric in light of Ancient Rhetorical Historiography

Robert Tinajero

Hip Hop rhetoric deserves a place among the diverse pantheon of rhetorics studied, analyzed, and theorized in our field.  As studies done in ancient rhetorics continue to grow, and as we continually use these ancient rhetorics to give us perspective on modern rhetorics and modes of discourse, we must not ignore one of the most influential cultures and discourses of the late-20th and early 21st-century—Hip Hop rhetoric.

Hip Hop rhetoric is an extremely organic reality, one that continues to grow and diversify.  The working definition remains rather broad and can include written, spoken, visual, bodily, and spatial rhetoric.  Hip Hop rhetoric encompasses music lyrics, musical composition, music videos, websites, album art and notes, movies, “underground” videos, modes of speaking, and modes of dressing, which derive from, or which are appropriated and popularized in, Hip Hop culture.  For the purposes of this essay I shall focus on some lyrics of Hip Hop music and a scene from a popular Hip Hop film, 8 Mile.  And while solid historical work has been done on Hip Hop culture( Chang and Herc; Forman and Neal; “Vibe”), my aim is not to give a historical account of Hip Hop, but rather to situate Hip Hop in the discussion of ancient rhetorical historiography, the template from which grew/grows our modern study of rhetoric.

Ultimately, Hip Hop rhetoric is not simply a niche discourse which should be viewed as a “fun” or “popular” rhetoric, for “fun” and “popular” are many times code-words for “simplistic” or “non-theoretical.”  My claim is that Hip Hop rhetoric is as complex and important as any of the rhetorics being discussed and studied in our field.  We should make room for Hip Hop rhetoric in our syllabi and in our discussions of the history of rhetoric.

There has been some serious rhetorical work done in Hip Hop (Campbell; Fredrickson) but very little that analyzes Hip Hop rhetoric in light of  ancient rhetorical historiography, especially anything outside of the thinkers of ancient Greece.  This essay serves to introduce ideas which relate Hip Hop rhetoric to ancient rhetorical thought, and thus does so with a broader stroke than would be appropriate for a deeper analysis of any one particular issue.  My aim is not to focus on one of these issues, but to provide an early roadmap for analyzing some ways in which Hip Hop rhetoric can be approached in future work.

If some of earliest rhetoricians were poets, then, in a strong sense, my work harks back to ancient times, when talented writers spoke of communal truths.  Hip Hop is no stranger to talented written and spoken discourse.

Glibness and Truth/truth

In ancient rhetoric, two prominent figures, Plato (Greece) and Confucius (China), shared similar views on glibness in discourse—both criticized the use of flowery and empty rhetoric. It is because of their views on glibness that I have chosen to use them as my examples of ancient rhetorics.  For Plato, focused dialectic was central to coming to understand philosophical Truths in the world, not glib discourse which could be manipulated to prove any case (epideictic speech).  Plato’s hostility towards rhetoric can be seen in his Gorgias and Phaedrus.  As for Confucius, he stressed one’s silent actions in opposition to entertaining speech.  In The Analects he states:

It is a rare thing for glib speech and insinuating appearance to accompany authoritative conduct (1.3).

Exemplary persons would feel shame if their words were better than their deeds (14.27).

Both Platonic and Confucian views on rhetoric are not only against “sophistic” and glib speech, but viewed these qualities, and a totalizing Truth, at opposite ends of a spectrum.  Not only was glib speech seen as unnecessary, but also counterproductive in one’s search for Truths and respectful living.  These rhetorics were not interested in developing “empty” speech that would serve merely for entertainment or for boasting the rhetorical talents of the speaker.  Furthermore, ancient Chinese rhetoric stressed silence and harmony while interested in maintaining the status quo and avoiding confrontation.  Urging and remonstrating were favored above aggressive discourse and argumentation (Lyon 134; 139ff) and being unrelenting in one’s speech was looked down upon because it “results in the breakdown of relationship” (138).  These points are illustrated in the following visual:

Truthß—————————————————————–à Glibness

Correct/respectful action                                                                        Epideictic Speech

Controlled Dialogue                                                                              Unrelenting Speech

Hip Hop rhetoric, on the other hand, is characterized by ultra-glibness and consists of an unrelenting nature in its rhetorical approach.  Looking specifically at Hip Hop/rap artists, there is undoubtedly a focus on the power of words, their ability to entertain with these words, and a battle for linguistic supremacy.  Even when there is no philosophical point or argument at the center of the lyrical discourse, unrelenting rhetoric and glibness is hurled at the audience and other rappers.  Some short examples:

In “My Words are Weapons,” rapper Eminem states:

My words are weapons/I use them to crush opponents/My words are weapons/

I use them to kill whoever’s steppin’ to me/My words are like weaponry

And in “Criminal”:

My words are like a dagger/with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head

Eminem’s sentiments are highly indicative of Hip Hop rhetoric and show a clear link with power and discourse.  They are echoed by one of Eminem’s biggest influences, Tupac Shakur, in “Let Them Thangs [guns/bullets] Go”:

Hitting [you] with new rhymes/I can make you love me

Like Eminem, Shakur understands that lyrical rhetoric has the power to sway opinion and, in this case, get people to “love” the rapper.  But, in Hip Hop rhetoric it’s not only about understanding the power of words, but using them to show superiority over one’s opponents—and in Hip Hop, anyone who thinks their rhetorical skills are better than one’s own, is the opponent.

Hip Hop artists are continually battling for rhetorical supremacy, which includes both lyrics and delivery, and don’t shy away from pointing out their skills and, in many cases, claiming supremacy.  Southern rap artist Lil’ Wayne, on his album Tha Carter II, has a track titled “Best Rapper Alive” in which he claims:

Bring the crowd and I'm loud In Living Color/It is Lil’ Wayne, got these rappers in my stomach/Yumi, I'm takin' it, I ain't asking them for nothing/If you sell a million records we can battle for ya' money

The rap is characteristic of rapper’s boasting about their skill and lyrical dominance over other rappers.  The in-your-face nature of the rhetoric (I’m loud In Living Color) is in sharp contrast to the silence and “respect” encouraged by Confucius.  The rapper also shows his dominance over other rappers by stating he has defeated, even metaphorically eaten!, his competition (…got these rappers in my stomach/Yumi).  He is also aggressively taking, not respectfully asking for, the label of rhetorical superiority.  And only when other rappers have similar success to his (If you sell a million records), can they think of battling him on his level.  He later adds, in the same song:

The young heart attack, I spit dat cardiac/You can't see me baby boy, you got dat cataract
This continues Lil’ Wayne’s argument that not only do his words have power, but that he is on a higher level of rhetorical talent.  He claims to be young and powerful (The young heart attack) and claims to be “spitting” words that have the power to cause serious damage (cardiac).  “Spitting” is a common term in Hip Hop rhetoric used to signify the delivery of words/rhymes.  And in stating “you can’t see me” the rapper uses a well-know phrase in Hip Hop rhetoric that signifies the inferiority of someone’s ability or perspective.  And notice he addresses his presumed audience of competitors as “baby boy,” combining two images that represent immaturity and lack of complexity.  Lil’ Wayne then ends the song by suggesting his talents come easily and naturally to him, and that his song, “Best Rapper Alive,” was an easy task for him to produce and deliver:
It’s just a victory lap baby/ I'm just joggin' /And I ain't even out of breathe/ the motherfuckin' best yet

These lyrics may only belong to a single song, but were used as an illustration of a common theme in Hip Hop rhetoric, the boasting of lyrical skill and power.  This boasting of lyrical talent can be seen in nearly every major Hip Hop artist of the past twenty years including Rakim, Slick Rick, Snoop Dogg, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G., Nas, Mase, Eminem, Jay-Z, 50 Cent, and Ludacris, just to name a very few popular artists—and the list goes on and on.

There are even those that attempt to rank the best Hip Hop rappers/rhetoricians.  From popular Hip Hop magazines (e.g. XXL, The Source), to websites (e.g. epinions.com), to blogs, to full-length book, many are interested in compiling their own list or debating about lists that have been created.  As one Hip Hop fan states about his favorite artist, “Jay-Z is the best rapper in the game.  Period. Point Blank.  His voice, his lyrics, his stage presence, and his ability to move the crowd, cements his position at the top of the Hip Hop food chain” (G-Rice).  This praise is similar to Phaedrus’ praise of Lysias in Plato’s Phaedrus:

Do you think that a mere dilettante like me could recite from memory in a manner worthy of him a speech that Lysias, the best of our writers, took such time and trouble to compose?  Far from it—thought actually I would rather be able to do that than come into a large fortune! (2).

In the scene, Phaedrus is about to attempt to recite a speech previously heard by Lysias, an orator known for his brilliant and erudite speeches.  Having loyal fans is nothing new to great rhetoricians!

But glibness and aggressiveness in Hip Hop rhetoric goes to another level when one considers a central phenomena in Hip Hop rhetoric—the rap battle.  Rap battles are when two rappers go head to head in a battle of lyrical talent and wits.  Each rapper gets a turn (usually lasting anywhere from 30 seconds to two minutes, if timed at all) to show off his lyrical talent and, importantly, to attack his/her opponent.  The winner is sometimes determined by an individual who has been chosen to pick the winner, but is usually determined by audience applause and feedback.  These Hip Hop battles can take place on a  large scale (Rap Olympics; Scribble Jam) or on a much smaller scale (schoolyards; street corners), but always involve the lyrical battling between two competitors who are trying to verbally beat, even destroy, the other participant.

In the ultimate illustration of glibness and rhetorical showmanship in Hip Hop rhetoric, the rap battle, competitors are not interested in any Platonic, philosophic Truth or in refraining from unrelenting attacks.  And they are certainly not interested in silence.  Silence in the rap battle constitutes defeat and humiliation.  Some could compare these rap battles to a more traditional war-of-words such as a presidential/political debate, but that is a weak comparison.  In political debates there tends to be specific issues addressed and each participant is attempting to get his view and agenda across to the audience/voters.  While the audience determines the “winner” in polls and on election day, there is always a focus on topics during the debate itself.

All that matters in the rap battle is rhetorical talent, in some sense similar to epideictic speeches/dialogues of ancient Greece and in a sense, very different.  Looking again at one of Plato’s seminal works, Phaedrus, we have the title character and Socrates examining a speech by Lysias and Socrates first speech in the text.  The speeches are meant to be strong and complex rhetorical works, but not meant to point to any real Truths, in the Platonic sense.  They consist of word-play and the manipulation of thought to show rhetorical talent—much like the rappers in a rap battle.  But, ancient Greek rhetors, like Plato and Socrates, as illustrated in the second half of Phaedrus, were ultimately interested in using language to figure out and convey Truths about the world.  Philosophical thought was meant to prevail, not the language used (glib or otherwise).

Thus, much of Hip Hop rhetoric, particularly in the realm of the Hip Hop battle, is at odds with the view of rhetoric by ancient rhetors like Socrates, Plato, and Confucius.  To illustrate the aggressiveness of the rap battle, and to make further connections with ancient rhetoric, particularly Aristotle, let us look at the final rap battle of the Hip Hop film 8 Mile.  The movie is based on the life of rapper Eminem, who grew up in Detroit, in the area known as 8 mile, a lower-class area where he honed his skills as a rapper and was involved in number of these rap battles.  Eminem’s character in the film, Rabbit, makes his way to the finals of a rap battle competition at a local club and, in the final battle scene, goes up against “Papa Doc,” known as the best freestyle rapper in the area.  The two go head-to-head, with each getting two minutes to lyrically attack the other.  The cheers of the audience determine the winner.

This scene is reminiscent of the ultra-glibness and showmanship previously discussed, and in clear contrast to the philosophic rhetoric proposed by Plato and the respectful, relenting speech favored in ancient Chinese rhetoric.  The rap battler is highly confrontational, many times getting right in the face of the competitor as he rhymes/attacks, and is only concerned with defeating his/her opponent, nearly always making personal attacks.  So, in nearly every important way, the rap battle and rhetoric produced from the battle, is at its core, extremely different from the use/limited use of rhetoric proposed by ancient Greco and ancient Chinese rhetoric (though Plato employed rhetoric to attack it).  But, this is not to say that the rappers in these battles do not employ devices that are central to some ancient ideas of rhetoric, namely, Aristotelian rhetoric.

The Rap Battle and Aristotelian Rhetoric

In the final rap battle of 8 Mile, we have a lyrical confrontation between the lead character, Rabbit, and his enemy throughout the film, Papa Doc.  Some background on the movie is needed to set up this final scene.  Throughout the move, Rabbit’s clique is in constant confrontation with Papa Doc’s clique, who call themselves “Freeworld.”  The two groups get into a couple of physical altercations during the film and Rabbit gets into a personal altercation with a presumed friend who ultimately sleeps with his love interest and joins the Freeworld group.  Throughout the movie we see Rabbit, a white male in his 20s who lives in a trailer park with his mother and younger sister, struggling to make ends meet and struggling to get his rap career going.  We also learn that Papa Doc, an African American male also in his twenties, attended a private high school and that his given name is Clarence.  Also, during one of the altercations between the two groups, Rabbit’s friend, “Cheddar Bob,” shoots himself in the leg while trying to defend his clique.  With all this in play, we come to the final rap battle scene, in a crowded club, made up of mostly young African American males, where Rabbit and Papa Doc, each flanked by their group of friends, engage for the rap battle title.

After the flipping of a coin, Papa Doc chooses to allow Rabbit to go first in the battle.  The background music starts and Rabbit is given two minutes to attack.  In a rhetorical display that is heavily linked to Aristotelian notions of rhetoric, the rapper delivers a rhetorical blow that sends the crowd into a frenzy.

In introductory notes to Aristotle’s The Art of Rhetoric, H.C. Lawson-Tancred summarizes Platonic feelings toward glib and extravagant rhetoric:

The contemporary practice of oratory, with its shameless emotionalism and attempts at psychological manipulation of the audience, [is] not worthy to be classed as so rational thing as an art (139).

From the Platonic view, the rhetoric delivered in rap battles is neither an art nor rational.  As displayed so clearly by Rabbit, rappers use emotion and psychological manipulation of their opponent and audience.   And in a rhetorical move reminiscent of Aristotle, the rapper is aware of ethos, pathos and counter-argumentation—all pieces of ancient Greek rhetoric in general, though Plato was more suspicious of these elements than Aristotle.

From an Aristotelian viewpoint, rhetoric should be centered on “finding the available means of persuasion in any given case,” the definition of rhetoric that “dominates the tradition” (Lyon 132).  Rabbit clearly employs rhetorical devises spoken of by Aristotle.  To begin with, he is keenly aware of his audience and sways them in his favor within the first few seconds of his lyrical delivery.  To connect himself directly with the audience he opens by facing the crowd, not his opponent, and tells the crowd “everyone from the 3-1-3, put your…hands up.”  313 is the area code for Detroit and is used to display one’s loyalty to the city from which they are from.  Claiming one’s city/neighborhood is common in Hip Hop rhetoric.  Everyone in the crowd is excited by the reference to their home town and proceeds to wave their hands in the air along with Rabbit.  Papa Doc, and his crew, while from Detroit as well, do not raise their hands up with everyone else, and Rabbit points this out to the crowd: “notice, while this man stands tough, he doesn’t have his hands up.”  The crowds cheers Rabbit for pointing out this fact and jeers Papa Doc for not being proud and representing his city.  So, in the opening lines of the battle, Rabbit has already established a rapport with the audience and develops his ethos.  Rabbit rhetorically creates solidarity with the audience and is now “one of them,” while Papa Doc is labeled an outsider.

Rabbit then proceeds to “dis,” or disrespect, his opponent by saying, creatively, that he and his crew are “done.”  He continues to verbally attack Papa Doc by claiming that “he’s no MC,” the term used to signify a rapper, coming from the early days of rap when the person at a party with the microphone was the “Master of Ceremony.”  Then the rapper cleverly uses counter-argumentation in his rhetoric.  He preempts Papa Doc’s lyrics by stating “I know everything he’s going to say against me,” then proceeds to give a list of attacks his opponents will likely use when it is his turn at the microphone:

–          I am White (in many rap battles, and in Hip Hop in general, being white can be detrimental and hurt one’s ethos or Hip Hop credibility)

–          I do live in a trailer with my mom (being dependent on one’s parents can also be detrimental to one’s ethos)

–          I do have a friend named Cheddar Bob, who shoots himself in the foot with his own gun

–          I did get jumped, by all six of you punks (he’s sure to point out that it took all six members of the Freeworld clique to beat him up)

–          [He] did [sleep] with my girl (referring to his one-time friend)

–          Don’t judge me…you don’t know what I’ve been through

The rapper is highly aware of the rhetorical situation he is in and takes the air out of his opponent’s coming attack.  But Rabbit does not stop there.  He goes on to directly attack Papa Doc’s reputation and Hip Hop ethos.  Within inches of his face, Rabbit delivers a verbal onslaught:

I know something about you/you went to Cranbrook/that’s a private school/

What’s the matter? You embarrassed?/ (addressing crowd) This guy’s a gangster?/

His real name’s Clarence/…and Clarence’s parents have a real good marriage/

This guy doesn’t want to battle, He’s shook/

In a Hip Hop setting, where struggle is a central theme, the perception that someone has had an “easy life” is a negative notch on their ethos.  By pointing out that Papa Doc attended a private school and that he was brought up in a household with good parents, Rabbit turns the crowd against him and devalues his credibility as a Hip Hop lyricist and rap battler.  Rabbit even addressed the fact that Papa Doc’s real name is Clarence, a sly attack considering Rabbit is a nickname as well.  But the tactic works because having a very conservative name like Clarence is perceived as weak and humorous, especially when accompanied by the facts given about Clarence’s privileged upbringing.

Rabbit then ends the battle by referring back to his counter-argumentation strategy, in telling Papa Doc, “tell these people something they don’t know about me,” before tossing him the microphone.  In a show of impressive and complex lyrical dominance, Papa Doc is so defeated, and his arguments already undercut, that he isn’t able to say anything on his turn at the microphone and forfeits the rap battle to Rabbit.  The audience is astonished by Papa Doc’s silence then go on to cheer Rabbit loudly as he is named the winner of the battle.

Though Rabbit, and the true-life rapper his story is based on, Eminem, are not “students of rhetoric,” and have not read Aristotle’s Art of Rhetoric, they employ rhetoric that is clearly aware of audience, pathos, ethos, psychology, counter-argumentation and achieve a “metalinguistic awareness of language, awareness of language as a system or complex to be manipulated in the service of identity, communication, persuasion, or artifice” (Lyon 132).  Hip Hop rhetoric in general is highly saturated with uses of Aristotelian teachings on rhetoric (i.e. deliberation, emotion, character, style, composition, etc.), and making more in-depth connections between these two rhetorics is wide-open for study.

Glibness vs(?) Truth

While Rabbit’s rhetorical delivery/attack in 8 Mile not only displays complex rhetorical devices, it is also a highly aggressive, entertaining, and artistic attack—qualities looked down upon by ancient rhetors such as Plato and Confucius.  The lyrics rhyme, follow a specific beat, and are filled with poetic imagery.  In rap battles the object is not only to attack the competitor, but to do so while showing linguistic creativity and talent.  It is the sharp mind and the sharp tongue that join to make the Hip Hop rhetorician successful.  But, if aggressive lyrics and showmanship are staples of Hip Hop rhetoric, is there then any Truth being conveyed in Hip Hop rhetoric?  In a Platonic sense, probably not much, if any at all.  But, if we are to look at Sophistry, not as glibness or superficial rhetoric, then we find a better angle from which to look at truth in Hip Hop rhetoric.

In Platonic vs. Sophistic thought, there is a clear distinction between an ultimate philosophical Truth (capital T) and kairotic truths (lower case and plural), with the Sophists representing the latter.  Much of Plato’s work was directed in direct opposition to the Sophists, who believed absolute Truth was/is not available to man.  They stressed probable knowledge, or truths, and worked at contextualizing both knowledge and rhetoric (kairos).  In this Sophistic sense, much of Hip Hop rhetoric is concerned with expressing truths about life and struggle, and does so from very contextualized positions.

While rap battles lean heavily on the side of pure rhetorical showmanship (an old view of Sophistry), there is much Hip Hop rhetoric that attempts to address important issues in the world and express particular views on reality to an audience.  Though there are numerous examples to choose from, I will focus on three rap artists: Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Dead Prez.  I will also make a statement about non-U.S. Hip Hop rhetoric.

The first rapper, Ice Cube, has referred to himself, and Hip Hop rhetoric in general, as the Black CNN, referring to the all-news cable network.  Ice Cube, and many others in Hip Hop culture, believes that he is a purveyor of truth, a truth that is not available in traditional media.  He artistically and rhetorically displays the truths of living as a poor minority in the United States and in dealing with society and the police.  In vivid social commentary, Ice Cube, in his album The Predator, discusses the Los Angeles riots of 1991, which were sparked when White members of the Los Angeles Police Department were found not-guilty on charges stemming from their beating of African American, Rodney King, which was captured on video.  In “We Had to Tear This Motherfucker Up,” the rapper address some of the defendants in the case (Powell, Coon, Wynd, Vaugsinio) while stating, “we had to tear this motherfucker up,” referring to the rioting in done in Los Angeles.  The violence, aggression, and stating of facts in the whole Rodney King milieu, that come across in the song, are part of a very contexualized rhetorical situation that pointed to truths about the United States for many, mostly minority, citizens.  On the same album, in “When Will They Shoot?”, Ice Cube continues with, “calling me an African American, like everything is fair again” and “they killed JFK in ’63, so what…do you think they’ll do to me?”  These are contextualized, community-constructed, truths about the nature of life in America for many African Americans and minorities.  And while the validity of these statements can be much-debated, the fact that they constitute truths for a very large population, is a reality.

The second example comes from Public Enemy, a very prominent rap group of the late 1980s and early 1990s, who continue to produce albums into the new millennium.  Addressing a vote against the creation of a Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday by Arizonians, in the early 1990s, the groups front man Chuck D posits, “the whole state’s racist” and directly addressing Whites: “he trying to keep it yesteryear/the good ol’ days/the same ol’ ways/that kept us dyin’.”  In “What Kind of Power We Got” the group addresses the government by rapping, “stop trying to take our money…because we’re…sick and tired of being mistreated.”  These “street truths” are a reflection of Hip Hop culture and reminiscent of popular sentiments expressed in Hip Hop rhetoric over the past twenty years.

Next is the political rap group Dead Prez, who became influential Hip Hop artists with their 2000 release of Let’s Get Free.  In “They Schools,” the group unleashes a lyrical attack on the American social system.

The same people who control the school system/control the prison system/

and the whole social system/ever since slavery…(in history class) they seem to

only glorify Europeans/…to advance in life they try to make you pull your pants up

(referring to the baggy clothing popular in Hip Hop culture)/…so school don’t even

relate to us…

While these “truths” may be a hard pill for many to swallow, they are truths for many in American society.  They are Sophistic, contextualized truths born out of specific moments and social realities.  Much of Hip Hop rhetoric is focused on grasping the kairotic moment of the struggling, disillusioned minority and rhetorically analyzing and attacking social norms.

One final note on Hip Hop rhetoric and truth is that Hip Hop has spread throughout the world, and in many instances works as counter-discourse to dominant rhetorics and realities.  In Britain, France, Japan, Palestine, Israel, Mexico, Africa, and many other places, Hip Hop rhetoric continues its legacy of opposition and counter-hegemonic discourse, and continues to provide truths from new and fresh perspectives.  While continually being concerned with artistry and linguistic showmanship, Hip Hop rhetoric, the world over, is also concerned with providing social truths, and helping us understand, like the Sophists, that not one person, or group, has, or should have, a monopoly on truth.

The following is a quick illustration of the central framework of the points made above.  Notice that, in the graph, the rap battle and political Hip Hop rhetoric (such as Ice Cube, Public Enemy, and Dead Prez) are distanced.  “Party music” is more interested in mere entertainment, without a focus on competition, though it may contain that aspect, and also at times convey deeper commentary on reality (truths):

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An Unfortunate Rhetorical Legacy: Women and Hip Hop Rhetoric

A final link between Hip Hop rhetoric and ancient rhetoric is an unfortunate one.  The oppression of women’s voices and experiences, evident throughout history, continues in contemporary Hip Hop rhetoric.  Though work continues to be done to highlight women’s voices, such as that of Sappho and Aspasia in ancient Greece, Enheduanna in ancient Mesopotamia, Deborah and Miriam in Biblical rhetoric (to name a few), the clear reality is that women had very little rhetorical prominence in ancient cultures, had no agency in producing and disseminating rhetoric, or were simply written out of rhetorical historiography by later rhetors.

Women have been silenced in many ways, in many cultures and nations, and this fact rings true in the early history of our field and continues today with Hip Hop rhetoric.  Hip Hop is dominated by males, in terms of the creators, producers and performers of the discourse.  Though we could just as easily look at the producers of albums, the CEOs of rap labels, writers in Hip Hop magazines and internet sites, or directors of Hip Hop videos and movies, let me look specifically at those that are at the pinnacle of Hip Hop rhetoric—the rap artists.

In a telling list of the “50 Greatest Rappers Ever” (Epinions), only one female is listed (Lauryn Hill).  And while this list is certainly not the end-all list, other lists, which have either been included in published books on Hip Hop, or discussed on television channels such as MTV and VH1, rarely include more than a few female rappers.  This is because the male voice has dominated Hip Hop rhetoric since its inception and because those that sign, produce, and fund Hip Hop acts are mostly male, and are apparently not interested in female MCs.

In much of Hip Hop rhetoric, women’s lives and experiences are ignored, trivialized, oppressed, essentialized, and even attacked.  Hip Hop has its own list of Enheduannas and Sapphos (Lauryn Hill, Missy Elliot, Lil’ Kim, Eve, Queen Latifah, Rah Digga, MC Lyte), but as in ancient rhetoric, the list is short and accounts for only a tiny percentage of the overall rhetoric produced.

This unfortunate reality is not surprising considering how women’s voices and experiences have been marginalized throughout history.  As in other realms where women have begun to gain a foothold (politics, literature, economics, etc.), the music industry is no different.  But this foothold seems to have a long way to go to become a space of critical change in the male-dominated, and many times misogynistic, world of Hip Hop.


Studies in Hip Hop rhetoric have merely brushed the surface of this dynamic field of discourse.  While many focus on the social influences of Hip Hop rhetoric, an important endeavor, little has been done to situate this rhetoric within the larger context of rhetorical historiography, especially in light of ancient historical rhetoric.  As illustrated, there are deep and complex links between the rhetorics of 400 B.C. in places like China and Greece (and beyond), and the rhetoric of Hip Hop, spanning from the late 1970s to the present.  Future rhetoricians may be interested in pursuing some of the following question which look at Hip Hop rhetoric in light of ancient rhetoric, which this essay did not address: How is Memory, as a rhetorical tool, re-emphasized in Hip Hop performance?  How is the Delivery of Hip Hop rhetoric linked to ancient rhetoric?  How do Hip Hop rhetorics outside of the United States function in relation to ancient rhetorics?  How does the very bodily/material world of Hip Hop rhetoric fit into discussion of rhetorical historiography?  How is rhetorical historiography different/similar to Hip Hop historiography?

My hope is that this essay serves as a catalyst for future work on Hip Hop rhetoric, as it has begun to illustrate the fact that this rhetoric is a serious and complex reality, and that studying it provides a dynamic and fruitful opportunity.  It has also illustrated that Hip Hop rhetoric is at the same time unique and historical, as all rhetorics are, for it continues to grow from particularized social situations but also has characteristics which are reminiscent of past rhetorics.  After all, like most rhetorics, it is directly linked to humanity’s seemingly deep desire to persuade, and sound good doing it.

Works Cited

Confucius, The Analects of Confucius: A Philosophical Translation. Trans. Roger T.

Ames and Henry Rosemont, Jr. (course packet).

G-Rice. TheOG.net Online. 2 December 2006. <http://p076.ezboard.com/fpoliticalpalace


Lawson-Tancred, H.C. Trans. Plato’s The Art of Rhetoric. New York: Penguin, 1991.

Lyon, Arabella. “Confucian Silence and Remonstration: A Basis for Deliberation?”

Rhetoric Before and Beyond the Greeks. New York: NY Press, 2004.

Plato. Phaedrus. Trans. Alexander Nehamas and Pual Woodruff. Indianapolis: Hackett

Publishing, 1995.

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