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Comparing The Evolution of American Hip-Hop and Indian Carnatic Music: The Effect of the Mainstream

Comparing The Evolution of American Hip-Hop and Indian Carnatic Music: The Effect of the Mainstream

Author: Sankhya Venkatesan

Liberty High School, United States


Both Hip Hop and Carnatic are music genres that are culturally distinct, yet have some interesting similarities in their evolution. Using historical and contemporary sources such as lyrics, music reviews, works on musical history as well as the reception of this music (as evidenced by media coverage), the evolution of these genres can be compared. Deeply rooted in political and social implications, both genres emerged from a core group and later evolved out into the mainstream. Hip-Hop, originating in the African American community, was born as a fight against the people in power, discrimination and injustice. On the other hand, Carnatic was actually a classical form of music that was exclusively only for upper class Brahmins and therefore created barriers between the rich upper class and the poor lower class in ancient India. Therefore, carnatic music is usually described as escapist music, music that steers one away from life on earth, problems, and towards heaven, salvation and joy, while Hip-Hop is perceived as a ‘realist form’ that sheds light on the cruel reality and problems that needed to be addressed. Due to the modern popularity of Hip-Hop, however, it has increasingly shifted its focus from portraying racial realities to producing catchy and marketable music, featuring meaningless lyrics about ‘flexing’ one’s wealth or ‘dissing’ another individual. Whereas, when Carnatic music entered the mainstream in the 1970s (with ragas being picked up by Bollywood music producers), non-Brahmin musicians were readily accepted into its fold, with the likes of Illaiyaraja garnering national and international acclaim. Therefore, this comparative study proves that the rise of the ‘mainstream’ has influenced the evolution of both these genres in positive and negative ways. Mainstream perceptions of musical genres can greatly differ from their actual reality.

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