Hip hop’s 50th birthday is an occasion for us to listen to some old records and mixed tapes and to look back at the most important hip hop films of the last few decades – even if no one really knows what the genre is actually meant to comprise.

“Yellow Submarine” was the movie I rewound again and again, the one I just couldn’t get enough of. Being able to watch a movie that could tell my ten-year-old, hungry-Beatles-fan heart a visual story on top of the music it craved was like a high – a catalyst to the feeling the music was already giving me. “Yellow Submarine” was the perfect gateway drug for my subsequent addiction to music videos. Needless to say, films across almost all genres make use of the magic that happens when music and image come together. But the genre of the music film centers the music instead of treating it as an accompanying phenomenon. Regardless of whether the music and musicians determine the plot or whether they were chosen to tell the story and emotions as in the great film classics of the 1950s – after the credits roll, it’s the melodies, above all, that resonate within us. Anyone who watches “Hustle & Flow”, a film that can probably be found in any listicle of the best hip hop films of all time, almost certainly has the catchy tune by Three 6 Mafia on the brain for several weeks afterwards – it was not for nothing that “It’s Hard out Here for a Pimp” won the Oscar for Best Original Song in 2006.

When we talk about hip hop today, we’re mainly talking about music. When we attempt to understand hip hop films as a subgenre of music films, however, we quickly run into difficulty. Although music, along with fashion, is the aspect of this culture that succeeded in bringing hip hop out into the world, it is only one part of it. If hip hop films are not just music films, then what exactly are the defining characteristics of this genre?

 Are hip hop films really about hip hop?

Back then, perhaps even more so than today, belonging to this movement went hand in hand with philosophical concepts, a political and social attitude, and a lifestyle. And back in the beginning, origins also played a role. Hip hop developed as a youth culture among working-class Black Americans. In this respect, it is understandable that when we talk about hip hop films, we are not only thinking of works in which the music of this culture is at the center, but perhaps also a little more broadly – culture as a whole is the central point of the film. At this point, however, we very quickly find ourselves walking a very fine line. Because yes, hip-hop is undoubtedly a Black culture originally. But Black culture is far more than hip-hop.

Many of the films we categorize as hip hop today don’t tell a story about hip hop at all. They are works by Black writers, directed by Black directors, and in which we are told stories from a non-White perspective. They shine a light on the dynamics of non-White lived realities and involve a “worldbuilding” in which White people do not represent the majority. Against this backdrop, characters emerge whose identities may condition their actions, but who are not necessarily there for the purpose of making a story out of their identities. This confusion repeatedly ensures that above all the German, White view of African-American film art fails to recognize the plurality of Black art and culture.

In Germany in particular, attempts to create a more diverse film world and to promote stories that depict non-White life repeatedly end up making the character’s non-White identity the plot instead of focusing on their non-White perspective. This often results in material where we watch non-White people being non-White instead of seeing them lie, fall in love, or do or want something specific. American film is much more advanced in this regard. Not to recognize this would be almost unjust.

A blind spot: the plurality of Black lived realities

When we equate Black perspectives in American film with hip hop, we run the risk that as soon as Black American filmmakers attempt to express themselves, the actual story of the film is confined to the background, and instead the aesthetics are given center stage. That aesthetics is associated with hip hop when the characters featured have emerged from the same circumstances that gave birth to hip hop. Summarizing Black art as hip hop art overlooks the plurality of Black lived realities.

If “Do The Right Thing” – a political tragicomedy that deals with the structures of Apartheid – is a hip hop film because Public Enemy provided the epic soundtrack to this important film and one of the characters always appears with a boombox, then why is “Love Jones”, a romantic film in which the protagonists meet in a spoken word club where jazz is played, not a jazz film? And if Dr. Dre’s and Queen Latifah’s involvement in the heist-crime classic “Set It Off” is enough for the film to be declared a hip hop movie, why isn’t “American Gangster” then a hip hop film, too? After all, rappers T.I. and Common also appear alongside Denzel Washington in this autobiographical crime thriller.


The influence hip hop culture had and continues to have on Black American filmmakers and their work is hard to overlook in many important films. Still, I wonder if this influence is enough to claim that this all constitutes a genre in its own right. John Singleton saw himself as the first filmmaker of the hip hop generation, but his works are so diverse as to include love stories, coming-of-age tales, and historical dramas.

As the VHS recorder was gradually replaced by the DVD player, I was no longer interested in either John Lennon or Leslie Caron. I was barely interested in any movies without Black protagonists anymore. In 2002, I scribbled the titles “Poetic Justice”, “The Color Purple”, “Friday,” and “Juice” on my wish list for my father to loan from the video library for me, and in 2005 I was able to borrow “Menace 2 Society”, “Boyz in da Hood,” and “How High” myself. A friend of my older sister left the DVD of the film “Belly” at our house and in doing so changed my life.

Black filmmakers work across genres

In contrast to my taste in music, which became ever more specific during those years and was limited primarily to rap from the southern states of the Union, my interest in movies was arbitrary and open to any genre, as long as the characters were portrayed by Black actors. I didn’t care if the filmmaker was Tyler Perry or Spike Lee – comedy, romance, coming-of-age films, political dramas, true crimes, and thrillers – I wanted to see everything that made me feel like I could relate. I watched these films precisely because they were Black films. And to a certain extent, that was the only thing these movies had in common. I didn’t watch them because of my love for hip hop. Nor did they trigger in me the same kind of high as “Yellow Submarine”. I watched these films because I wanted to see films with people who looked like me or like my mother.

That’s no longer the case today. These days, I want to watch movies that I like. I rarely watch comedies, romantic movies, or music films, but I still love watching some of the films I liked so much back then. Not because I love hip hop or because I have a need to be told stories that remind me of the American part of my own family and cultural heritage. But simply because they are insanely good movies that for 90 to 130 minutes draw me into a good story I can believe in. That’s all a film needs to do. Including a Black film. And Black films merit a closer look, one that is detached from the worldwide fascination and love for hip hop and instead focuses on the story of a film told from a Black perspective.


FEBRUARY 29 – MAY 26, 2024

More Information on the Exhibition