The Rock and Roll Hall of Fame + Museum

Contributed by: David “Talib” McCullough and Mekkah Sunshine, Cleveland, OH


Despite its position as “voice of a generation,” hip-hop continues to seek recognition as a valid musical and artistic artform. From being viewed as a fad, hip-hop’s commercial success has allowed it to permeate virtually all aspects of popular culture. However, hip-hop is still viewed by some as a meritless reflection of a society gone wrong. By critically analyzing hip-hop music and comparing it with established music forms, the cultural relevance, technical skill and artistic vision inherent to hip-hop can be better appreciated. In addition, the ability to place the lyrical content of hip-hop music into proper context imparts a greater appreciation of the artform to the listener and develops analytical skills applicable to all forms of artistic expression.


The student will: 

  1. Analyze the lyrical content of music to find examples of social commentary.
  2. Recognize the importance of artistic expression as a means of cultural and societal documentation.
  3. Reinforce the artistic merit of hip-hop culture, specifically hip-hop music.


High school and middle school English, history, and/or music history students

Time Frame

Two 40 minute periods


Two CD/cassette players and the lyrics and music for “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five featuring Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootee and “Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen.


“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five featuring Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootee was one of the very first hip-hop songs to move away from the party message of hip-hop lyrics and present a social commentary from life on the street. The song, recorded in 1982, opened rock critics’ eyes to the powerful message of hip-hop. The song was very influential not only to black audiences and future MCs, but to white audiences as well.

Bruce Springsteen continues to carry the torch of social commentators who came before him such as Woody Guthrie and Bob Dylan. “Born in the USA,” although viewed on the surface as a patriotic anthem, the song actually presented a social commentary on the way Vietnam vets were treated upon returning to the United States. The song was recorded in 1984.



  1. Divide students into two groups. Have one group listen to “The Message” and have the other group listen to “Born in the USA.” Each group should make a list of social issues brought up by their song and try to determine what the overall statement the song is trying to make.
  2. Ask a representative from each group to play their song for the entire class and present the analysis of the song, listing their findings on the board.
  3. Initiate a conversation covering similarities and differences between the two songs. The discussion should encompass the relevance of hip-hop as a means of social commentary and also stress the artistic skill necessary to produce each song.


    Sample questions: 
    a. How does the background of each songwriter affect the song’s content?
b. How does violent or dismal imagery become social commentary? Site specific lyrics and the source of the lyrics.
c. Based on the lyrical content of their music, are these artists important? Why?
d. Could the messages in these songs be taken the wrong way and influence children negatively? If not, what kinds of songs do negatively influence society and what differentiates the two?
e. What other music, television programs and/or films contain similar social commentary?
f. After comparing these two songs, what is the importance and relevance of hip-hop in our society?
g. Who is the audience addressed in each song? Describe the social class of the audience and how it is relevant to the message of the song.
h. Who do you identify with in these songs? How are these songs relevant to students?
i. Should all art be analyzed in this fashion? 


Have students listen to two different songs and pick out three social issues addressed in each song. The students should then write a half page essay evaluating the social commentary.

Enrichment/Additional Activities


  1. Do similar activities with television shows and/or movies.
  2. Have students write poems that address social issues and read them to the class.
    • Contact local radio stations for edited versions of other hip-hop songs and continue a cross-genre analysis of hip-hop music.
    • Discuss the other aspects of hip-hop culture including turtabilism, graffiti art and break dancing and look at how they have become part of popular culture as well.

Selected Recordings

“The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five featuring Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootee (MTV Presents: Hip Hop Back in the Day/Priority Records, 1998)

“Born in the USA” by Bruce Springsteen (Bruce Springsteen: Greatest Hits/Sony, 1995)

Suggested Resources

To find lyrics, check these internet sites: For “Born in the USA”:

For “The Message”: Search under Grandmaster Melle Mel and Duke Bootee *1

Suggested Background Reading

George, Nelson. Hip Hop America. New York: Viking Press, 1998.