I have this theory that the city of Charleston has no clue what hip-hop is. According to my theory, the powers that be have a general idea of what hip-hop is but their views are antiquated at best and misguided at worst, and they are ruining the hip-hop experience in the Holy City.

For the record: I don’t think this is being done purposely. That is to say, I don’t believe that these individuals have formed some kind of unholy alliance bent on the destruction of hip-hop. But I do think that their lack of insight makes them more dangerous than if they were actually trying to kill the scene.

Here’s the thing you have to understand: hip-hop is a culture; rap is a genre of music. While one cannot exist without the other, the two are not interchangeable.

You see, rap is something you listen to on the way to work, in the gym, and, yes, in a sushi-spot-turned-danceclub for the weekend. Hip-hop is a religion. The previously mentioned powers that be haven’t taken the time to distinguish the difference. And therein, lies the problem.

Playing some Top 40 tunes in your bar every so often, while making your patrons happy and thus leading to more alcohol sales, doesn’t automatically mean you’re running a hip-hop club. That’s as silly as saying that someone is Jewish because they’ve been to a couple bar mitzvahs. What it makes you, in the words of infamous hip-hop mogul Dame Dash, is a “culture vulture,” one who has no problem associating themselves with the “cool factor” that hip-hop brings but not investing in the development of the culture from whence that coolness comes.

I find it a bit disturbing to see people using my culture as nothing more than a way to keep the cash register popping long after their dinner rush has gone. To them, hip-hop is a means to an end, not a cultivation of art that deserves proper curation. It’s not about the lifestyle, it’s about the bottom line: Hip-hop brings out the girls who just wanna have fun, which, in turn, brings out the guys that want to see the girls who can sing along to Biggie Smalls’ “Hypnotize” without missing a single word. It’s that infectious euphoria that keeps bar tabs lit. This cycle repeats itself every Friday and Saturday with nary a care in the world. Meanwhile I’m sitting here confused, thinking “How on earth can you follow ‘Back Dat Azz Up’ with a song like ‘I Kissed a Girl’?”

To people like myself that have fully adopted hip-hop as their Lord and Savior, it is truly disheartening. I mean, we’re just looking for a nice place to worship when Upper King is ablaze with excitement like everyone else. Instead we get met with dress codes meant to keep the “riff-raff” out — because obviously no one in a Southern Tide polo has ever started a bar fight — and a bastardized playlist that features no local music, few tunes outside what’s on radio rotation, and a smattering of old school Snoop Dee-Oh-Double-Gee. This isn’t hip-hop. This is rap music battered and fried for easy consumption.

In Charleston, like in other medium-sized cities, hip-hop is considered “urban” and “urban” is code for “black people” and no manager wants to be known as the guy that let his restaurant go to hell-in-a-handbasket because he didn’t keep a tighter rein on the DJ’s setlist. Yes, rap music appeals to miscreants, but it also appeals to sensible men and women with careers(!), college degrees(!), and 401Ks(!) — people who, because of their jobs, their clothes, or the neighborhood they live in, wouldn’t be readily identified as practitioners of hip-hop culture to the uninitiated. That’s because hip-hop is more than what meets the eyes and ears. It’s something that’s embedded in the very souls of its devotees.

So when establishments try to siphon off our cool for their own financial benefit without trying to develop the culture they are taking from, it does nothing but prop up the current stereotypes that plague hip-hop to this day and allows for a pre-approved, watered-down interpretation of hip-hop to reign supreme.

Make no mistake, there are a few places in the city where hip-hop is a part of the very fabric of their establishment. Places where Tupac, Trap Music, and funk commingle in beautiful harmony. But unless there is some big “come to Jesus” moment concerning the connotation of hip-hop, there is no incentive for things to change.

I understand that their are “bigger fish to fry,” but my purpose for writing this is to hopefully start a productive conversation about what the scene could look like if hip-hop was thought of as something to be cultivated and not a “thing” to be sold indiscriminately. To paraphrase the New Orleans rapper Mystikal, hip-hop might not mean nothing to you, but it means the world to me.