Folk music and hip-hop are typically presented at opposite ends of the musical spectrum. Folk conjures thoughts of Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger, or Joan Baez, soft acoustic guitars and songs about the human experience. While hip-hop brings to mind a driving beat, unique lyrical styles and vibrant personalities from Tupac to Outkast to Kendrick Lamar. But what Guthrie and Tupac sang about and who they sang for was more alike than it was different. Both genres began as a way to express the deep longings of the human soul, as a means of fighting back against the injustices of the times and to bring about cultural change through music.
Guthrie’s anti-fascist folk inspired generations of artists to embrace social justice. Creatives from Bob Dylan to Bruce Springsteen have carried out the work of highlighting the struggles of the oppressed. But today’s folk artists aren’t hitchhiking across America with an acoustic guitar, they’re in the urban centers of Houston, Atlanta and Harlem, documenting the modern human experience and shining a light on similar injustices. And they’re also in Tulsa, Oklahoma rapping at the Sound Pony.
Artists in rock and roll, Americana, soul and folk rock have leaned on the inspirations of Guthrie, who spoke for the down and out, the workers and the underdogs the world over. It’s still fairly easy to spot the comparisons and draw a neat line from Woody to Bob Dylan to the Byrds and further down the line to Bruce Springsteen. Newer artists with an emotional and social depth like John Moreland or Parker Milsap are readily apparent heirs to the Guthrie legacy, as well. Less obvious are the current batch of hip-hop artists coming out of Woody’s home state of Oklahoma who are carrying on his legacy with their lyrics of social justice, holistic community building, a determined desire for spiritual growth and a deep search for identity.
Lyrics that speak truth to power are a mainstay in both folk and hip-hop. When Woody wails that “All you fascists are bound to lose,” or “This land is your land, this land is my land,” and Tulsa artist Steph Simon raps about Black Wall Street, “Rumor has it that we had the tactics to make the dollar grow the fastest, I’m just trying to bring it back, I’m Dicky Rowland in my Pa-Pa hat,” they are both speaking for the people, taking on the role of cultural visionaries. The arrest of Rowland, a young black man in Tulsa, sparked the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre and destroyed one of the most culturally and economically vibrant black communities at the time. Just as Woody spoke to people struggling during the depression, Steph Simon in 2018 is telling his community they can bring Black Wall Street back because it is inside each of us.
Hip-hop is the today’s folk protest music. Both genres are socio-political snap shots of their times. Guthrie and his peers in the folk scene were always remixing and sampling established songs to craft them to their own devices, not at all dissimilar to hip-hop’s reliance on samples of infectious or popular songs. Woody once said “When I’m writing a song and I get the words, I look around for some tune that has proved its popularity with the people.”
Dylan utilized Guthrie’s “Massacre of 1913” as the basis for his own “Song for Woody Guthrie.” Countless other songwriters from the folk renaissance of the 1960’s adapted and used both melodies and lyrics from classic folk songs originating in America, Ireland, the Caribbean and beyond. Many hip-hop artists engage in the same type of cultural recycling. Lyrics that impact society and tell stories of the people are highlighted in both Woody’s folk music and the new music emanating from Tulsa’s World Culture Music crew.
Diving even deeper into the connections between folk music and the Tulsa hip-hop scene, you will find that hip-hop is a powerful current in all musical genres whether or not listeners understand or recognize that phenomenon. One only needs look at singer-songwriter John Moreland’s band pictures to see they have an affinity for the most classic of hip-hop street wear: Jordan sneakers. One photo of the band on tour shows Moreland and his talented guitarist John Calvin Abney rocking fresh kicks with otherwise traditional folk inspired flannels and beat up jeans. But it’s not just the styling. Moreland is known to make a hip-hop beat or two, with his work turning up on a few Tulsa hip-hop artist’s albums. Steph Simon continues that tradition by including a classic boom-bap type beat produced by Mooreland on his upcoming album Born On Black Wall Street. The song is a history lesson about the Ku Klux Klan in Tulsa. Folk music’s legacy and hip-hop both tend to show up in unexpected places.
Hip-hop is music of the people for the people, just as folk music was and is. The difference in aesthetic and style matters little when comparing the two. The music of Tulsa’s World Culture Crew and the music that Woody made both speak to a deeper place in the collective consciousness of America. I think that if Woody were a young man today he would be right at home in the hip-hop cypher, slaying fascists 16 bars at a time.