Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Representation of Race in 'The Message'

"It's like a jungle sometimes it makes me wonder how I keep from going under..."

You may recognise these lyrics from the current Kia Sportage car commercial which features Grandmaster Flash & the Furious Five's groundbreaking single 'The Message'. Though the ad is fun, it completely detracts from the culturally significant meaning of the song when it was released in 1982. In a strange way, the song creates a feel-good, carefree vibe to the commercial which is ironic when considering that the lyrics are concerned with actively taking on struggles of the African American ghetto.

The 80s marked a diverse change in the hip-hop genre as it developed into more complex styles of music. Lyrical content evolved into metaphoric language and though not first in the genre of rap to talk about the frustrations of living in the ghetto, 'The Message' was unique in that it was set to a slower beat, focusing on lyrics rather than music and the song instantly became a pioneering force for conscious rap. In retrospective, it is widely regarded to be one of the greatest records in music history, ranked #51 in Rolling Stone's '500 Greatest Songs of All Time' emphasising the song's importance as it was the highest placing for any song released in the 80s and the highest ranking hip-hop song on the list.

Inspired by the lyrics of the song, the video was shot in an American city ghetto and depicts broken glass, a peep show and ambulances passing the homeless throughout the city, ending with the group being arrested by the police. The song and its video have become nostalgic for me as I remember regularly watching the video on VH1 Classic and MTV Base exactly a decade ago, and hearing ingame radio music while playing such video games as Grand Theft Auto: Vice City and Scarface: The World Is Yours, both drawing their inspiration from 80s American culture featuring an immigrant anti-hero's rise from poverty to criminally charged wealth. 'The Message' can therefore be regarded as an important cultural artifact of the 80s representing any ethnic minority's struggle with living through American poverty, its legacy continuing through television, video games and even advertising.

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