Five Books To Celebrate the 50th Anniversary of Hip Hop

This summer marks the 50th anniversary of hip hop! The genre’s origins are traced back to the Bronx in 1973, when DJ Kool Herc made a musical breakthrough at one of his fabled block parties. Mixing percussive sections from different songs, DJ Kool Herc’s “breakbeats” became the foundation for an expansive musical culture. By the end of the 20th century, hip hop was well-established in popularity, being the top-selling music genre in 1999. Since then, it has flourished throughout the United States and around the world.

Hip hop’s influence and impact transcends music; it has amplified the voices of the Black community and been an instrument in navigating social injustices such as class insecurity and police violence. Hip hop has expanded into visual art, such as graffiti and street fashion, and it has become a culture representative of unification, intersectionality, and assertion. This year, organizations across the nation are celebrating hip hop’s 50th anniversary. Here are some books that offer insight into how hip hop’s legacy is being upheld across an array of communities and causes.

Image of a gold and rainbow foiled sculpture of a black man's head, above which reads "Shanté Paradigm Smalls, Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City"

Winner of the 2022-2023 New York City Book Awards, Hip Hop Heresies: Queer Aesthetics in New York City examines hip hop through the lens of queer and Black studies, setting New York City as the scene for unique cultural synthesis. Shanté Paradigm Smalls highlights moments in musical and visual art to illustrate a fusion of aesthetics that give rise to a culture of queerness and blackness. You can read an excerpt of Hip Hop Heresies here and listen to Shanté Paradigm Smalls discuss their work on WNYC’s All of It with Alison Stewart.

Close-up image of a hand holding a microphone. There is text over the image that reads "William Jelani Cobb, To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic".

Jelani Cobb’s To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic traces the intricate and diverse evolution of hip hop. Ta-Nehisi Coates says of the book, “To the Break of Dawn tells the serious story of hip hop’s artistic roots, and in the process revels in the great MCs who stand at the crossroads of music and literature.” The four pillars of hip hop—break dancing, graffiti art, deejaying, and rapping—find their origins in traditions as diverse as the Afro-Brazilian martial art Capoeira and Caribbean immigrants’ turnstile artistry. Tracing hip-hop’s relationship to these ancestral forms of expression, Cobb explores the cultural and literary elements that are at hip hop’s core.

Photograph of a black Muslim woman wearing a blue and yellow hijab and large gold hoop earrings, styled to mimic the painting "Girl with a Pearl Earring" by Johannes Vermeer. The text next to her reads "Su'ad Abdul Khabeer, Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States".

Muslim Cool: Race, Religion, and Hip Hop in the United States illuminates the intersection of hip hop and American Islam as a way of asserting social identity. In an original essay connected to the themes of her book, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer explores how a key phrase from Islam, ‘knowledge of self,’ became the so-called fifth pillar of hip hop. Ebony says, “A skilled ethnographer, Su’ad Abdul Khabeer combines her poet’s ear and thorough research in prose that flips the script on the anti-Black, anti-Muslim sentiment.”

A black and white illustration of a man DJ-ing at a turntable, set against an orange backdrop of a city skyline. The text at the top reads "Sonic Sovereignty: Hip Hop, Indigeneity, and Shifting Popular Music Mainstreams" with "Liz Przybylski" at the bottom.

Sonic Sovereignty: Hip Hop, Indigeneity, and Shifting Popular Music Mainstreams explores music as a creative mode of expressing self-determination, and as a way to access indigenous sentiments of sovereignty, nonlinear storytelling, and postcolonial futures. As author Liz Przybylski explains, “The book is rooted in hip hop practices that create moments when time extends, stops, and repeats. Hip hop welcomes nonlinear listening, and many North American Indigenous listening practices, drawn from storytelling, visit and revisit moments. These practices create new, decolonial possibilities.” Check out the author’s playlist to this book on From the Square!

Three images of colorful graffiti murals; blue, pink, and purple are prominent colors. The text over these images reads "Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón, Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora".

In Graffiti Grrlz: Performing Feminism in the Hip Hop Diaspora, Jessica Nydia Pabón-Colón interrupts the stereotype of graffiti subculture as a “boys club,” and introduces us to an empowering global network of women graffiti artists. As Bitch Magazine writes, “In her groundbreaking book, Pabón-Colón explores how the graffiti subculture has been coded as male. Her dedication to detail and thoroughly researching is evident throughout the book. She explores over 100 women artists in 23 countries and makes a compelling case that graffiti subculture is a place where feminists come into their own.” According to Ms. Magazine, Graffiti Grrlz is an important resource for any hip hop feminist syllabus!

Kianna Ortiz
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