But its impact was far more than commercial. Rhythm Nation was a transformative work that arrived at a transformative moment. Released in 1989—the year of Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, protests at Tiananmen Square, and the fall of the Berlin Wall—its sounds, its visuals, its messaging spoke to a generation in transition, at once empowered and restless. The Reagan Era was over. The cultural anxiety about what was next, however, was palpable.
The 1980s were a paradoxical decade, particularly for African-Americans. It was an era of both increased possibility and poverty, visibility and invisibility. The revolution of the pop-cultural landscape was undeniable. “Crossover” icons like Janet, Michael, Prince, and Whitney shattered racialized narrowcasting on radio, television and film, while hip hop emerged as the most important musical movement since rock and roll. The Cosby Show changed the color of television, as Spike Lee and the New Black Cinema infiltrated Hollywood. Oprah Winfrey began her reign on daytime television, while Arsenio Hall’s hip late-night talk show drew some of the biggest names in America. By 1989, from Michael Jordan to Eddie Murphy to Tracy Chapman, black popular culture had never been more prominent in the American mainstream. Over the course of the decade, the black middle and upper class more than doubled and integrated into all facets of American life, from college campuses to the media to politics.
But there was a flip side to this narrative—the decay and abandonment of inner cities, the crack epidemic, the AIDS crisis, the huge spike in arrests and incarceration (particularly of young black men), and the widening gap between the haves and have-nots, including within the black community. By the end of the 1980s, nearly 50 percent of black children were living below the poverty line This was the reality early hip hop often spoke to and for. Chuck D. famously described rap as “CNN for black people.”
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