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Federalism and Hip-Hop


This year, hip-hop celebrates a milestone birthday. Looking at the time and place where hip hop was born allows students to understand how this new medium acted as a social commentary on the challenges facing the South Bronx of New York City in the 1970s and 1980s. It also acts as a great introduction to the concept of federalism. The urban decline in the South Bronx illustrates the tension between the levels of government and the local community when facing problems. Who is best positioned to solve these problems—federal, state, local government, or the community members themselves? How does the community respond to these problems that seriously affect their everyday lives?  

Big question: Who is best positioned to solve problems facing a community–federal, state, or local government, or community members? 

Skill practice: Source analysis, data analysis, concept development (federalism)  

Guiding questions:  

  • What were the challenges facing the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s? 
  • What level of government can best address the issue of urban decline? 
  • How did hip-hop music act as social commentary for the issues facing the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s?  


  • Students will explore how national, state, and local politics affected the community of the South Bronx in the 1970s and 1980s.  
  • Students will analyze images of urban decline in the United States in the 1970s. 
  • Students will explain how hip-hop music was used as storytelling for African-American communities facing the challenges of urban decline in the South Bronx. 

Engage: Part I: Urban Decline and the South Bronx 

Building Context 

In the 1960s, protests and devastating race riots occurred throughout the United States, including New York City, as communities vented frustration over police brutality, racism, and unequal living conditions. The rioting deeply affected African American communities, and many struggled to recover. The construction of the Cross Bronx Expressway from 1948-1982 required the demolition of low-income neighborhoods and exacerbated the distress felt by communities of color in the South Bronx borough or neighborhood of New York City. By 1970, the South Bronx had entered into a dramatic state of decline.  

Review the following images of the South Bronx in the 1970s and fill in the graphic organizer. The first has been done as an example. 

Download a Printable Verison.

Image I see: What observations do you have just from looking at this image? I think : What does this image make you think about? I wonder: What questions does this image raise for you?

Public Housing Ruins, South Bronx, 1970s


Trash on street; Wood/debris on top of buildings ; Paint on building; Very grey ; People on stoop, people on sidewalk; Cars on street ; Some trees behind the buildings

City life; Safety; Who lives here?

Why was this in ruins? Was there a fire? Was it unsafe? Where did the people go? Is anyone still living in there? 

Melrose Section, South Bronx, 1970

Girl, South Bronx, 1970

South Bronx, 1970

South Bronx, 1973


Secretary of H.U.D. Patricia Harris, President Jimmy Carter, and New York Mayor Abraham Beame tour the South Bronx, October, 1977


  1. What conclusions can you draw about life in the South Bronx during the 1970s based on these images? 
  2. What evidence is there in these images that the condition of the South Bronx drew both local and national attention?  
  3. What additional information would help you form a more complete picture of the South Bronx in the 1970s? 
  4. Is urban decline an issue that should be addressed by the community directly? Local government? State government? The federal government? Explain.  

Part II: A new art form is born 

Building Context: 

In the 1970s, musicians in the South Bronx experimented with using a turn table (a record player) to focus the music on the most danceable beat of the song. A distinct style of dancing accompanied the “breaks” in the song (breakdancing). Later, MCs or rappers added their own spoken word poetry on top of the DJ’s beat. “The Message” was an early hip-hop song that showed the power of storytelling possible in rap music. The song vividly illustrates the frustration of living in concentrated urban poverty in the South Bronx.  


Source: “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, Released 1982  

  1. Visit the website in the source link and watch at least the first two minutes of this performance.
  2. Fill in the chart with details that illustrate supporting evidence for the thesis stated in the song’s refrain, “It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under” and “Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge, I’m trying hard not to lose my head.” 
Visual details from the video Details from the lyrics 



  • What is “the message” in this song? 
  • Social commentary is a way of providing one’s perspective on society and its problems.  How did this example of hip-hop music act as social commentary for the issues facing the South Bronx?  

Explore or Extend: 

  1. Review the Homework Help video on the concept of federalism. Pretend you are a resident of the South Bronx in 1977. You have the opportunity to meet with President Jimmy Carter and New York City Mayor Abraham Beame when they visit the borough. Prepare a list of talking points you will present to them, including the challenges you face in your day-to-day life and how they could be addressed. Do your talking points differ in what you would say to the mayor and to the president? Why? Who do you think is better suited to help solve this issue? Why?
  2. Write a letter to the editor of the New York Times from the perspective of a proponent of the Cross Bronx Freeway and an opponent of the construction project. Consider what you have to gain and/or lose from the completion of this infrastructure project.
  3. Research the role of music throughout African American History. To what extent is “The Message” a continuity or a change as an example of social commentary? 
    1. Lift Every Voice and Sing
    2. The Blues
    3. Music of the Civil Rights Era



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