Hip-Hop: A Culture of Vision and Voice

Knowledge: A Philosophy of Hip-Hop

Fresh ideas unite and explore


Knowledge Terms to Know

The basic vocabulary of knowledge—Hip-Hop's philosophy include:

culture the behaviors and beliefs of a particular group of people
didactic intended to teach a lesson, especially a moral lesson
empowerment increasing of economic, political, social, educational, gender, or spiritual strength of individuals or communities
praxis process when a theory, custom, or lesson is practiced
society social, economic, and cultural system
strategy plan to reach a desired result
worldview ideas about how the world works

The 1970s were lean, mean years in sections of New York City. This was especially true in the Bronx and the city’s other low-income areas. Much of the optimism of the 1960s Civil Rights Movement had faded. New York was broke. City officials sliced and diced basic services, school funding, arts education programs, and job training. Life-destroying drugs and crime haunted the streets. Absentee landlords neglected properties until building after building fell into disrepair or went up in flames.

In the face of all that, however, the energy of urban youth refused to shut down. Young people, many of them teens, created new ways of spinning records and dancing. They experimented with new styles of poetry and visual art that revealed their thinking and feelings. Eventually, the elements grooved together into a culture. A name started to stick to it: Hip-Hop.

The Fifth Element

Hip-Hop’s fifth element of “knowledge” teaches the Hip-Hop community about its identity and ways to express that identity. It places great importance on claiming a stake in one’s own education. “Knowing where YOU come from helps to show YOU where YOU are going,” writes legendary MC KRS-One. “Once you know where you come from you then know what to learn.” (By the way, “KRS” stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme.”)

Hip-Hop believes that people can take control of their lives through self-knowledge and self-expression. Knowledge influences style and technique and connects its artists under a collective Hip-Hop umbrella. It engages the world through Hip-Hop’s history, values, and ideas, and adds intellectual muscle to support and inform its music and moves and its poetry and art. Most importantly, it allows for a shared experience against an uncertain world.

Bambaataa Brings It

Afrika Bambaataa deserves much credit for putting this concept of knowledge into word and action. Bambaataa is a pioneering DJ and MC from the Bronx. A one-time teen leader of a gang, Bambaataa had universal respect and a powerful ability to make peace with and between enemies. His legendary music and dance parties brought together rivals to party in peace. “Free jam!” his flyers announced. “Come one come all, leave your colors at home! Come in peace and unity.”

The young Bambaataa was also a devoted student of history. He absorbed the tactics and strategies of historical leaders—from the French emperor Napoleon to the South African chieftain and military commander Shaka Zulu. He grasped the power of music as a strategy for clearing barriers that divided people, whatever their backgrounds.

By the 1980s, Bambaataa and his large and growing crew had founded the Universal Zulu Nation. Dedicated to Hip-Hop values, the organization’s motto is “Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun.” They developed “Infinity Lessons”—principles and codes of conduct for living an honorable Hip-Hop life. They emphasize community, peace, wisdom, freedom, justice, love, unity, responsibility, respect for others, and respect for self. He put his knowledge into words, and the words radiated around the Bronx, throughout New York, and across America.



Sean McCollum
Original Writer

Editors & Producers

Lisa Resnick
Content Editor

Kenny Neal
Manager, Digital Education Resources

Afrika Bambaataa at Bronx River Projects, photo by Sylvia Plachy

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