The Evolution of Street Art in America

The assumption that the people who are walking down the street in oversized jeans, ripped clothes, singing or better yet, telling stories rhythmically, can contribute to the art, or even start the whole new era of art, was considered completely absurd. It was absurd even to those who started this artistic movement.

Hip hop as a culture started developing in 70’s, New York, and it was the begging of cultural stir which took place in United States, but the unique style of Hip Hop singing can be traced back to the 19th century.

It was the South African tribe that started singing with the word rhyme. At the same time of Hip Hop, the blooom of the graffiti, which were illustrative reflection of street art movement started to happen. Such acts were contributing to the innovations and have led people to have see things from an entirely new perspective, and this is why this is referred to as street art.

The new proclaimed street-art gained on the impact and it rapidly spread across the United States.

Even though Hip Hop faced the ignorance and discrimination from the high class society, argued to have a negative impact on youth because of as called “underground roots” or uneducated people, it found the way to gain the sympathies and support of majority.

However, the question still remains what it is that attracted people to accept these acts, adopt them and furthermore identify them as an art. Is it the transmission of feelings which society absorbs and connects to real life situations through the rhymes? Or is it simply the beauty of something new and unique, something with the notion of originality? However, beside the fact that Hip Hop culture is world wide spread today, it gave the birth to some of the most famous people nowadays, not only in the domain of Hip Hop music but in general.

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The Legends like Tupac, Nas, Eminem and Rakim not only followed the footsteps of their predecessors but also paved their own way with their unique artistic styles. And by doing so proved that, by measures of Katerina Gregos, Tolstoy and Plato, what they created and still create, was indisputably art because it addresses social issues, stirs emotions and ultimately portrays powerful imitations of reality.

It seems as though in this modern era of hyper fast exchange of information, getting message across requires a face of a celebrity. Not that this was not the same in the past, but it is clear that being open about one’s opinion has less ramifications than it did just a few decades ago, even for people who were successful in the entertainment industry. So called Hollywood Blacklist took away hiring options for numerous actors, screenwriters and musicians because they were under the suspicion of having communist ties and sympathies.

Rebellion against the regime or even an outspoken opposing view were met with severe punishments. In today’s world, hip-hop mogul Kanye West can yell at the national television that now ex-president George W. Bush hates black people and not be afraid of going to prison for it, or worse. So, being acutely aware of what freedom and the lack of fear for one’s life bring, it is impossible not to be an active participant in spreading that awareness. It is no wonder why people with a far reach, such as famous figures or celebrities, take it upon themselves to react. And as Katerina Gregos in her TEDx lecture points out “Art as an act of shared communication is in a small way saying: I make the world, I don’t simply inherit it” (Why Art is Important, 2014).

Being articulated seems to be the pre-requisite for rapper or hip-hopper, at least for those who stay focused on the important issues. It is a balancing act of thinking in your toes and choosing the most powerful words to convey thoughts and feelings. It is about revealing that which is “hidden under the carpet” (Gregos, 2014).

An interesting example is Dante Terrell Smith, also known as Mos Def, an American hip-hop artist from Brooklyn. Just like Kanye West, he was very vocal in his protest against Bush administration, particularly after the disastrous effects of Hurricane Katrina and his frustration came up in his song “Katrina Klap” which is rumored to have been recorded in one take. Mos Def was also arrested for preforming the song even though he had a public performance permit. The lines from his lyrics state “This for the streets, the streets everywhere/The streets affected by the storm called… America” (Mos Def, 2005).

The streets is where the changes happen, and music that originated from the streets, such as hip hop, has always been a close collaborator of change. However, the power of the outrage and fear can be both constructive and damning. Musical styles like r’n’b, and soul are closely related to hip-hop, and the representatives of those genres, like James Brown, had a powerful role in calming the streets in 1968 Boston, MA after the assassination of Martin Luther King. Open Culture article claims “In this starkly divided city, James Brown went onstage to perform the day after King’s death, and it seems, whether that impression is historically accurate or not, that Brown single-handedly quelled Boston’s unrest before it spilled over into rioting.” (Jones, 2013).

These two moments absolutely went down in history and echoed around the world. More importantly they have become an intricate part of African-American history and legacy. To this online music magazine Spinditty adds “Despite heavy debate over the specific extent of Hip Hop’s ability to influence a society, the fact remains that the Hip Hop Nation developed in the nineties retains heavy cultural significance and should therefore be regarded seriously and with due consideration in any conversation about recent progressions in U.S. culture.

Hip Hop culture stands as a poignant and historically significant factor of society as it represents a reflection of socio-political woes and widespread sentiment of traditionally marginalized and oppressed communities. As such, Hip Hop is a vehicle for social commentary and awareness, as well as an avenue for public discourse.” (Romano, 2014)

The individuality of hip-hop artist, according to Leo Tolstoy’s theory of infectiousness, is what classifies their lyrics as a specific form of art. Individuality, or Specificity, means that rather than experiencing some general feeling of happiness or sadness, the recipient of the transmitted emotion is able to feel it better and by doing so make it more infectious. So, what kind of individuality or specificity can someone look for in a hip-hop artist? Perhaps diving into deep analysis over why Tupac Shakur is still one of more influential rappers/hip hop artist that has ever lived could lead to some answers. By no means is it merely the hype created after his untimely and violent death, nor his long standing rivalry with Notorious B.I.G. who was also murdered.

For so many, Tupac was a sort of literally idol. His lyrics stand the test of time and continue to inspire. In fact, a musical play, created out of his lyrics, was performed in New York’s Palace Theatre. The play’s director, Kenny Leon, said for the Music.Mic magazine “It’s a hint as to why Tupac has endured. He didn’t just make music, he wove philosophy and literature out of words.” (LaCount, 2014). Other artist who radiate a strong sense of individuality include M.I.A, an English born, Indian rapper and performer, due to her ability to shock her listeners into feeling what she is frustrated about.

Another one is, Erykah Badu, a well-known American soul, hip hop singer whose mode of music echoes in ennui, but also a passive resistance to whatever she is struggling with. A newcomer, Kendrick Lamar, took the world by the storm and managed to hold the attention of the millennials who are becoming increasingly hypersensitive to inauthenticity. For NPR, Lemar says “You can have the platinum album, but when you still feel like you haven’t quite found your place in the world — it kind of gives a crazy offset. When you go inside these places, no matter how much money you have, no matter how much success, when you still feel like you’re not comfortable, where’s the feeling in that?” (NPR staff, 2015).

Another qualifier of art Tolstoy explores in his definitions of what makes an art infectious is clarity and in hip hop it’s what one can frequently find. Tolstoy describes feelings as having to be pure and with fewest distractions possible in order to be perceived as clear. Tolstoy himself constantly revised his own writing in order to achieve the maximum of clarity when it comes to expression. This clear vision and studious dedication to what one tries to create can be found in the works of Marshall Mathers, more familiar to audience as Eminem.

As a Caucasian in a predominately African-American style, Eminem has had to search for his place in the world of rap and hip hop, trying to push the boundaries of what is considered to be a hip hop genre. Sometimes it seems as though it was his sheer persistence and willingness to be provocative what got him the attention. Not every aspect of his work is always well-structured and some of his work is nothing more than trivial nonsense, but one could argue that with series of trials and error, Eminem was able to find his artistic expression and was able to redeem himself through songs like “Like Toy Soldier” and “White America”.

This just goes to show that, just as Tolstoy explained, the more a body of (art)work becomes the focus of an artist, the more clear his vision becomes. In the case of Jidenna Mobisson, or simply Jidenna, an American rapper and hip hop artist, who found his clarity and focus in his family roots. His father was a successful Nigerian scientist and Jidenna spent a lot of time in his father’s homeland which influenced him greatly. Upon majoring in sound engineering at Stanford University he adopted the idea of rap and hip hop being more “classy”, and even though he uses profanity in his lyrics as most rappers do, he emphasizes the power of education and being well spoken.

Jidenna’s clarity and uncompromising vision led him to an appearance in Marvel’s Luke Cage (Netflix, 2016 -). His performance of “Long Live The Chief” was convincing and poetic and was met with massive approval of the show’s viewers. The point of clarity in art makes a lot of sense because it is obvious to notice it in the art due to artist’s effort to clearly transmit it into emotion for the spectator or listener.

In his final assessment of what makes art infectious, Tolstoy underlines sincerity and deems it as the most relevant – and this precisely could be deemed hip-hop’s most predominant characteristics. Tolstoy explains that hte most common reason for bad art is the lack of sincerity. “One definition of hip-hop authenticity is staying true to oneself. This definition is quite popular within the music because, not only does it include rappers of all socio-economic backgrounds, but also because it can be compatible with all other definitions of authenticity.” (Williams, 2007). Jay-Z, a hip hop veteran, is an example of what role sincerity plays in art.

His modest background from the streets of Brooklyn, New York, are a re-occurring theme in his artistry. And even though when he collaborates with others, and focuses on how well he has it now, and rhymes about all the things money can buy, there is no omission of that raw drive that made him successful in the first place. reports “Jay-Z has acknowledged that reality can be scarce in Hip Hop.”I’m aware that I’m rare, I rap and I’m real / I’m one of the few here” he states for the article which continues “Looking at success in Hip Hop, it’s tough not to argue that he’s right, assuming everything he’s ever said has been real.” (Tardio, 2013).

It is that term “keeping it real” that is of utmost relevance for rap and hip hop culture. Falsehood does not get one very far in this arena of often hardened damaged men and women who trial over their hardships through music they create. In addition to that, a pseudonym is almost a necessity in hip hop; the adopted name often holds a higher meaning and is also under the lenses of sincerity. Some choose to align with the famous outlaws such as Al Capone, which is the assumed name of rapper Alphonzo Bailey or Escobar which is an alter ego of Nasir bin Olu Dara Jones, commonly referred to as Nas.

However, Curtis Jackson, known by his hip hop name as 50 Cent, has a somewhat different take on the matter of name selection, and explains “The real 50 Cent was a stickup kid from Brooklyn who used to rob rappers. He had passed, but he was respected on the streets, so I wanted to keep his name alive. Other rappers were running around calling themselves Al Capone, John Gotti and Pablo Escobar. If I was going to take a gangster’s name, then I wanted it at least to be that of someone who would say, ‘What’s up’ to me on the street if we ever crossed paths.” (Tardio, 2013). So, keeping it “real”, honest and authentic is a powerful tool of art. More precisely, it is essential, and even though it is sometimes drowned in the sea of fakery, it can still be seen and heard in the world of hip hop.

Art is a part of what makes human beings different from other species, but this does not eliminate the perpetual pondering about what the purpose of art is. Katerina Gregos says that “Without art, the banality of reality would be intolerable” and that “The influence of art cannot be predicted, how it will affect human minds” (Why Art is Important, 2014). This was something Plato was concerned with.

Some could argue that he had an ambivalent relationship with art. On one hand, Plato did not trust art, he found it lacking when it came to relaying the truth. And on the other hand, he clearly felt some affection for it. One of his theories is that art is nothing but an imitation. “Plato says that art imitates the objects and events of ordinary life. In other words, a work of art is a copy of a copy of a Form. It is even more of an illusion than is ordinary experience.

On this theory, works of art are at best entertainment, and at worst a dangerous delusion.” (Clowney, 2011). And if a Form in the world of hip hop is an actual life of a child in one of, to this day, most dangerous areas of Los Angeles, city of Compton, then that child’s fear poured into rhymes, accompanied with heavy beats, would constitute as imitation.

N.W.A was a hip hop group from afore mentioned, Compton, and was the most responsible for the development of gangster rap, which would take on to be one of the most prevailing subgenres of hip hop. One of the group’s member, O’Shea Jackson Sr, also known as Ice Cube, is the author of one of the most time enduring hip hop songs of all time. “Today was a good Day” is an autobiographical piece of a single day that Ice Cube decided was going to be good in spite of the rioting in the L.A. streets that was taking place at the time.

This makes us wonder “What if the artist is somehow able to make a truer copy of the Forms than our ordinary experience offers?” (Clowney, 2011). And this is exactly what music and lyrics of “Today was a Good Day” do – they imitate emotions that in, this case, are fear entwined with hope, that somehow things are not all just bad.

It is not easy to fully understand this from today’s point of view, but Plato had genuine concern when it came to art and its influence, particularly on the youth and hip hop has always been scrutinized about its influence on the young minds. To some degree it does makes sense, because a young mind should not be subjected to anything and everything that is out there. Even modern conservatives are a bit obsessed with censoring song lyrics, most often those of hip hop and rap artists.

But, if Plato were alive today, it is doubtful that this would be his primary issue. Because, however aggressive, hip hop music, is supposed to make a listener think and feel and question their reality. It is due to Plato’s belief that art has power, that made him fear everything that is yet to be created and that might be considered art. Rightly so, because the abundance of content has made defining art harder than ever. But, true art, should serve as “a barometer for society” (Gregos, 2014) and can have powers of prediction as well.

For instance, William Griffin, aka Rakim released in 1992 a song called “Casualties of War” and “in it, Rakim predicts a suicide bomb terror attack on Manhattan, and sure enough, a year after the song was released, the first attempt to destroy the World Trade Centre took place.” (Batey, 2012). So, indeed, a true artist has his finger on the pulse of society and conveys the powerful messages which can either be a comfort or a warning.

So, yes, art is difficult to define, practically impossible. There is no some empirical evidence that would guarantee that something is a work of art. Granted, for whatever reason, on some occasions it is almost a unified opinion that declares whether something is or it is not an art, but most of the time there is some disagreement about it. Does it matter if millennials reject the postulates of art that baby boomers set for them and that those same baby boomers most definitely do not consider hip hop to be art? Probably not, but that does not take away the value on either side.

Surely, some artwork is eternal and indisputable in its magnificence and could even be treated as divine. But the measuring tool for the quality of art has not been created yet and until it has, art should simply be celebrated, shared and protected. “Art is the last frontier of the unregulated free expression, which is particularly important in the time when the commons, public space and information are increasingly being privatized and regulated by the neoliberal order and in that sense, art is born of, and advocates freedom” (Gregos, 2014). To be free is to treat one’s life as a piece of art.

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The Evolution of Street Art in America. (2023, Mar 15). Retrieved from

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