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'Waiting for change is not an option'

Amanda Howell Whitehurst for NPR

This story was adapted from Episode 10 of Louder Than A Riot, Season 2. For more on the notion of scarcity in hip-hop — and some of the artists, fans and media who have dared to defy it — stream the full episode or subscribe to the Louder Than A Riot podcast.

Over the course of Louder Than A Riot's second season, we've broken down the unwritten rules of rap that affect the most marginalized among us and hold the entire culture back. These rules keep misogynoir alive and well, even as the industry rapidly changes. But as we reported these stories, we found ourselves asking: What's at the root of it all? When we dug into that question, the trail always led back to one idea — scarcity.

The scarcity mindset is not exclusive to hip-hop, but it is pervasive within it, so much so that it can be hard to define or even recognize up close. It's the belief that access and resources are so scarce that they have to be fought over, tooth and nail. It's the social conditioning that puts bite behind all the other rules' bark, forcing the people at the edges of the culture to put up with harassment, alienation and erasure. It's the impossible choice between being disrespected and being ignored, and the insistence that there is no third option.

These expectations can sometimes make hip-hop feel less like an art form and more like a blood sport — where there's room for just one queen at a time, catty rivalries become canon narratives and only a few kinds of success are seen as legitimate. When scarcity is the default assumption, there's no space to imagine a world with enough to go around, and some of the voices in the conversation get their volume turned down. So with the rules of the game laid out before us in the run-up to this season, the concept of scarcity was already on our minds when it came for our own show.

Louder Than A Riot was discontinued in March due to budget cuts at NPR, and most of our staff was laid off. We were asked to finish the season in progress, which had launched a week earlier, and we chose to do so — for many reasons, but most importantly for the sake of the artists, experts and professionals with whom we'd spoken in over a year's worth of reporting, who we knew were unlikely to find a platform quite like our show anywhere else. And as production has drawn to a close, we, too, have started to wonder if we'll ever be in a position to do this kind of work again. Work that challenges the artists we cover, on mic, face to face. Work that doesn't just celebrate hip-hop, but also asks tough questions of it. Because like Tarana Burke told us in Episode 5, loving something means holding it accountable, and calling it out when it wanders astray.

<em>Louder Than A Riot h</em>ost Rodney Carmichael (right) with rapper ILoveMakonnen.
Mano Sundaresan / NPR
Louder Than A Riot host Rodney Carmichael (right) with rapper ILoveMakonnen.

Through countless fan emails, reviews we've received and constant discourse on social media, we've learned we're not alone in this mission. Like hip-hop itself, Louder's audience has only broadened with time, and our listeners have proven to be as enthusiastic as we are to engage with the art on a deep level — certainly deeper than the hashtags, promotional campaigns, comments sections and hyperbolic hollering that tend to rise to the top. They have been willing to follow as we dig into the social structures that hip-hop has both raged against and reinforced. They have shown there's an appetite for radical reporting, as in grasping at the root.

When it comes to funding this mission, that's a different story. Investing the time and coin necessary to cultivate the level of storytelling hip-hop deserves is often seen as too high a tab. That's how you end up with more self-operated shock jocks and commentators than journalists, and how an audience grows conditioned to not even miss the real thing. To push the future of hip-hop forward and create work that truly opens minds, we need people in this for the long haul. We need to stop supporting institutions or individuals that harm us or hold us back. What change really looks like is us — artists, fans, creators, consumers, critics — coming together to reject scarcity and make the space wider.

That's the work we set out to do. We started dreaming up this season from a place of abundance — one that made room for every reality that hip-hop encompasses right now. To build a foundation for nuanced storytelling, we read deeply and widely. Our team took trainings on trauma-informed reporting. We created ways to ask one another for support, as we covered stories that held personal significance. Each of us was committed to building something different than what we'd experienced before.

<em>Louder</em> host Sidney Madden (far left) with rapper Rico Nasty.
Gabby Bulgarelli / NPR
Louder host Sidney Madden (far left) with rapper Rico Nasty.

That's the special sauce that makes Louder different, and we wish we had more time to bring all of that forward. We recorded more than 60 interviews while reporting Season 2, and there are many you didn't hear. Some were sources who, for reasons demonstrated across this season, didn't feel comfortable being named or heard on the show. Others we simply couldn't fit: behind-the-scenes chats with the dancers in Doechii's "Crazy" video, a trip backstage at Broccoli City with Rico Nasty on her 25th birthday, insights from scholars like Ashon Crawley and rising rap stars like Flo Milli. And there are so many more layers to marginalization with hip-hop, prejudices like colorism and fatphobia, that we didn't have time to engage with at the level they require. The work is ongoing, and it never stops.

But if there's anything this season has taught us — and, hopefully, every last one of y'all — it's that waiting for change is not an option. There's a reason why the artists invigorating this genre right now look different, sound different, hit different than the past: It's because they're not beholden to it. The future is present. Do not equate Louder's absence with silence. The noise we've made will reverberate — beyond industries and institutions, beyond any implicit code or culture. Just like the artists who inspired this series, we're not waiting for permission to make space. We're taking it. Nothing could be more hip-hop than that.

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Sidney Madden is a reporter and editor for NPR Music. As someone who always gravitated towards the artforms of music, prose and dance to communicate, Madden entered the world of music journalism as a means to authentically marry her passions and platform marginalized voices who do the same.
Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.
Sam Leeds
Mano Sundaresan is a producer at NPR.
Gabby Bulgarelli
Soraya Shockley