If you’re like most people, you probably think of hip hop and folk as two completely different genres. The first few strains of a typical song do suggest a world of difference: one is beat-driven and assertive, while the other is slow and pensive. It’s hard to imagine Johnny Cash taking on a 50-Cent attitude or vice versa. But the two styles have a lot more in common than their respective sounds suggest.
Folk and hip hop are tied together by their focus on community. Both forms evolved from people wanting to identify themselves as a group, whether ethnic, social, political, or artistic. The earliest folk and hip hop songs were about the artist’s love for his own kind. They both trace their roots to everyday people airing out their thoughts about life, work, and society—and have since branched out extensively to cover every theme under the sun. Whatever’s in your head, there’s a hip hop or folk singer somewhere singing about it. It’s a testament to the universal power of music to bring people together.
To be sure, both are still separate types of music, but they share a surprising array of sentiments. For example, hip hop is generally thought to have started some 50 years ago in the African and Hispanic communities of New York, particularly the Bronx. It was a way to express one’s thoughts on cultural issues, such as racism and discrimination. Folk singers, on the other hand, wrote pieces about labour, poverty, and the struggle to keep families together. Religion and immigrant life are also common themes, especially in hip hop outside North America. These are issues that are closely linked in history; they happened to evolve and thrive in different geographical areas, but their roots are essentially the same.
With the Internet helping the spread of music along, it’s become easier to mix musical styles—and it didn’t take very long for folk and hip hop to find each other. From local acts to big international names, hip hop artists are incorporating folk elements into their music, and folk singers are teaming up with rappers to expand their repertoire. The results range from awkward to mediocre to unique and exceptional—and as is often the case in music, some like it and some do not. One thing’s for sure, though: when you listen to these songs, it’s easier to see how two seemingly separate communities can be brought together by a common desire for expression.