In May, hip-hop veteran Talib Kweli released a single about another hot political topic. It’s called ‘Papers Please’ — and it voices his opposition to Arizona’s new immigration law.
Hip-hop and politics have been together for a long time, and there are no signs the two will break apart soon. Although there were the naysayers who once dismissed hip-hop as a fad and predicted its untimely demise, this is an art form, a culture, and a political movement that is not going away.
Starting out as the CNN of the ghetto, and a medium to express the hopes and frustrations of a disenfranchised community, hip-hop went from knocking on the door of the mainstream to becoming the mainstream. And over the years, hip-hop evolved from hating the president–and vice versa–to dining with the president. Who would have imagined just a few years ago that the president would have hip-hop on his iPod, or even own an iPod for that matter?
Black Music Month is a perfect time to examine the politics of hip-hop–and where it’s going next.
“Hip-hop had a long political engagement; hip-hop almost starts as a political movement,” says journalist and cultural critic Touré. “People from the street need a voice–we have no voice. So we have to have something to say.”
Touré believes that hip-hop speaks up for the underdog. “And it evolves into people like Chuck D who are like shadow-senators for a group of people who felt voiceless and could go on Nightline or could go on other shows or could speak back to Arizona when they didn’t want to do the MLK holiday and be a national bullhorn saying ‘this is wrong’,” he said.
“Black people throughout the African Diaspora tend to be an oppressed people. We have always held our artists, musicians, and writers accountable for using their voice to uplift and educate, especially in times of turmoil,” says hip hop artist Giovanni “G.” Turner, who is also president and in-house counsel of RAHM Nation Recordings, LLC, and a University of Miami lecturer of English.
“We saw this most recently during the Haitian earthquake. Jay-Z, whom by no one’s account, not even his own, is a ‘political’ rapper, but when the black community was stricken with tragedy, we all turned to him. In fact, not only was it expected he issue a statement, record a commemorative song, and donate money, I argue he would have been ostracized had he remained silent.”
“Everything is political,” says Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network. The hip-hop community, according to Simmons, “speaks to the next America and reminds them of what’s important, so that’s political.” Simmons also believes hip-hop is a very progressive community that believes in giving to others and uplifting people from poverty. These days, according to the hip-hop trailblazer, every hip-hop artist seems to be involved in philanthropy: “You can’t name the politicians who have charities, they’re on one hand, you can name them. But every rapper has a charity.”
The Origins of Hip-Hop
Long before hip-hop, African culture had its political truth-tellers. In West Africa, the griot was the storyteller, the individual who transmitted oral history to the community, informed the people of current events and provided political commentary. From the late 1960s, the prototypes and founders of hip-hop certainly served this role.
For example, the Last Poets was a group of spoken word artists and musicians with a strong black nationalist orientation and highly political messages. With conscience-raising poems like “Ni***rs are Scared of Revolution” and “When the Revolution Comes,” the Last Poets helped paved the way for the hip-hop movement to come. Similarly, in the 1970s and 1980s, Gil Scott-Heron paved the way for a future generation with his activist lyrics, in songs such as “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” and “Winter In America.”
Music becomes particularly political when it is linked with activist movements, and hip-hop is no exception.
“Soul music is more often going to talk about love and relationships and that sort of thing, hip-hop is more likely to talk about political issues whether it’s ‘I have a problem with the government’,” Touré said.
“Most of the music, no matter what genre we’re talking about from jazz to hip-hop, is actually apolitical. The music becomes political if there’s something political happening in the community,” says Kevin Powell, a political activist, writer, and entrepreneur and candidate for Congress. “I listen to all kinds of music and you gotta understand it’s not like hip-hop was political for a long period of time. This is just a couple of years that we’re talking about. Most American music has always been apolitical, it’s just been pop stuff,” he adds.
“Let’s be honest. In the heyday of jazz in the 1920s, people were talking about the cakewalk. It was a dance, it had nothing to do with the political climate of the times. So when Billie Holiday, 10 years later, made a song like ‘Strange Fruit,’ people were like ‘Oh my God, I can’t believe she made a song like that’,” says Powell.
The Reagan years were hard times for African-Americans, Latinos and poor people in general. The harsh conditions in these communities–with the government’s war on drugs waged simultaneously with a war on the poor–provided an incubator for hip-hop to emerge and flourish. “In the 1980s, we had the Bush-Reagan era, we had crack cocaine, we had all these different things going on so it started making its way into the music,” Powell says.
“Well, you know I think in many ways Reagan, the conditions in America at that time, Reaganomics, were a part of the reason why hip-hop was founded in the first place because it did come out of these deplorable conditions in the South Bronx where people were disenfranchised, didn’t have jobs, didn’t have the ability to provide for themselves,” says AllHipHop.com founder Chuck ‘Jigsaw’ Creekmur. “It provided kids with something to do when they otherwise would be fighting. It provided them with a voice when there was no voice and it really spawned this movement out of just pure negativity, and I’d like to give Reagan a little credit to that.”
The 1980s gave birth to such overtly political songs as “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five. This was a song that resonated with people who lived in hard times, because it accurately and poignantly articulated the stresses of urban life. “If you look at ‘The Message’–basically the second or third hip-hop single to blow up or come out–that’s a very political song,” says Touré.
Kevin Powell makes the point that the hip-hop community organizing around politics is not a new phenomenon, nor did it begin with the Obama presidential campaign.
“So there was a wave of us who were doing work around racism, around the anti-apartheid movement in South Africa who were already combining hip-hop and politics. We were 18, 19, 20 years old. In fact, here in New York City, right on 125th street we’d have these big outdoor concerts where we’d have the biggest rappers of the day — LL Cool J, Heavy D and the Boys, Big Daddy Kane, you name it.”
Rappers, rockers and other musicians banded together for the famed “Sun City: Artists United Against Apartheid” album in 1986. Artists participating in the album boycotted Sun City, an infamous luxury resort complex in one of the most repressed regions in apartheid-era South Africa. Powell laments that America has not had a real political movement since the apartheid movement of the eighties.
Perhaps the most well-known and influential political rap group of the 1980s was Public Enemy. With their hard-hitting, in-your-face lyrics, powerful beats and the forceful voice of the group’s front man Chuck D, Public Enemy was the soundtrack for a conscious and vigilant hip-hop generation.
“First of all, Public Enemy is forever linked to politics and hip-hop,” said AllHipHop’s Creekmur. “They have so many songs, it’s just ridiculous. Even hardcore fans like myself who remember their first album, there were jewels and gems in that album, too. But then it was their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back where they really put the flag for that movement. So they have songs like ‘Fight the Power’ which I think is the ultimate anthem for empowering the youth, but they also have songs like ‘By the Time I Get To Arizona,’ which is, ironically, on the table now in some ways with the immigration issue, but back then it was the MLK holiday which was being in dispute.”
However, Public Enemy did not stand alone in their genre. As Creekmur emphasizes, there were other artists who made their mark: “Public Enemy is definitely at the forefront, but there’s many others. There’s KRS-One, Poor Righteous Teachers, even artists like Ice Cube and early N.W.A.They were all political in one way or another.”
And there were groups such as X-Clan that provided their listeners with an education in every song. “Listening to X-Clan was like going to political science class,” says Touré. “But hip-hop comes from so many angles. There’s the politicized talk; there’s the discussion of what happens with crack in our communities. So many Nas songs have a political message just woven into a lyric — the song may not be about politics but he’s dropping science in every verse.”
With its critique of those in power and its challenge to authority, hip-hop provides numerous commentaries on police brutality and official government misconduct and corruption. This is no surprise to the residents of black and brown communities, who for years have been subjected to heavy-handed law enforcement tactics, brutal police beatings and shootings, and deaths in police custody. Historically, police who patrolled communities of color were the occupying force, not there to protect and serve, but to control and contain.
Back in the 1960s, the Black Panthers organized to combat police brutality in their neighborhoods. And Malcolm X spoke of the police “exercising Gestapo tactics, stopping any black man who is on the sidewalk, whether he is guilty or whether he is innocent…As long as he is black and a member of the Negro community, the public thinks that the white policeman is justified in going in there and trampling on that man’s civil rights and on that man’s human rights.”
Armed with contemporary examples of police beating, shooting and killing black men–in the form of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima and others–hip-hop took the righteous indignation embodied in Malcolm’s statement. And the result–angry and unfiltered–was a form of truth-telling about racist cops unintended for mixed company.
“You know if you live in the hood, the police are constantly there, constantly attacking you, constantly mistreating you,” says Touré. “And it’s an enemy that everybody can get behind. Nobody’s going to stand up and say ‘Hey, the police actually saved me, when I was getting mugged or when I was wronged, they came and helped me’…Every black person has either been somewhat mistreated by the police or knows someone who’s been mistreated by the police.”
So-called controversial hip-hop has long been the target of censorship. For example, Ice-T and his group Body Count created a firestorm of controversy with their 1992 song “Cop Killer.” The song, which made references to then-LAPD police chief Daryl Gates and Rodney King, a black motorist who was beaten by LAPD officers. Shortly after the song was released, the officers who beat King were acquitted, which led to riots erupting in South Central Los Angeles.
“Cop Killer” received criticism from then-President George H.W. Bush, Vice-president Dan Quayle, and Tipper Gore of the Parents Music Resource Center. Meanwhile, black activist C. Delores Tucker teamed up with conservative William Bennett to fight what they viewed as the unhealthy role of violence, sex and misogyny in rap lyrics. And Rev. Calvin Butts of New York was prompted to bulldoze hundreds of CDs by artists such as N.W.A. and 2 Live Crew due to their violent and sexually explicit lyrics.
Was this a case of some hip-hop lyrics simply going too far? Or was this an example of smug, self-righteous morality police dictating their values to everyone else, as they attempted to get a piece of the action for themselves? Perhaps it is all in the eye of the beholder. There is no question, though, that history is told from the vantage point of the conquerors. And while hip-hop’s obituary was prematurely read countless times, hip-hop still stands.
Women in Hip-Hop
Women have created a legacy in political hip-hop, although the music scene often appears male-dominated.
“They are definitely a part of the political discourse that we are having but unfortunately I think because hip-hop is a such a male dominant genre they have been overlooked in many ways,” says Creekmur. “But if you’re talking about political dialogue in rap, of course Queen Latifah’s “UNITY” is gonna come up and even MC Lyte’s ‘Georgy Porgy.’”
Sister Souljah was a woman in hip-hop who became very political, and whose words were exploited by politicians for political gain. Following the 1992 Los Angeles riots, she was quoted by the Washington Post as saying “If Black people kill Black people every day, why not have a week and kill white people?” At a speech at Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition, then-presidential candidate Bill Clinton repudiated Sister Souljah’s statement, comparing her to the white racist klansman David Duke.
And so, the man who black people once considered America’s first black president–before the real first black president, that is–”beat up” on a black woman for political gain, or at least that was the perception. This is where America got the infamously loaded term “Sister Souljah moment.”
Partying vs. Politics
While some hip-hop artists are overtly and consistently political, others have managed to bridge the partying side with the political side. A prime example is Tupac Shakur.
“First of all, Tupac is the son of a Black Panther, and I don’t think we can ever get away from that,” says Creekmur. “Afeni Shakur is an infamous black panther, and his stepfather is a black panther as well. So those are roots that go deep.”
At the same time, Creekmur argues, Tupac was a 70s baby who was raised in the 1980s and 1990s, when hip-hop was born. “I think that the thing with Tupac is that he was able to speak to what was really going on…He was a great unifier for different sides of the community; the party side, but also the poignant and thoughtful side, and the political side. And we should never forget that Tupac raised issues with the black community, as well as the community at large.”
Touré reflects on the different ways in which artists convey political messages in hip-hop. “Lauryn had a bunch of songs. ‘Miseducation’ talks about problems with the educational system. Kanye’s doing that but more in a comical way. The Roots will give you some political messages but again it’s woven in, Nas will give you some. He just did an album – ‘Hip Hop is Dead’ – and he has ‘Don’t Eat Fried Chicken.’”
Creekmur of AllHipHop.com also believes that some hip-hop artists can capitalize on the lack of a message in much of the music today. “Talib and Common are two great examples of artists who definitely talk about other things…I think that people are definitely are prone to gravitate to people, to rappers who are giving them something they’re looking for.”
Mixed Successes of Hip-Hop and Politics
Some of hip-hop’s attempts at politics made important statements, but fell short of their promise. For example, in 2004 Sean “P. Diddy” Combs spearheaded a national “Vote or Die” campaign — but and in the end, did not influence that year’s election, as Touré argues.
“Was there a significant difference in the number of young black people that turned out? The answer is No,” Touré says. “It did not have a significant impact on getting young black people to the polls.”
Other times, hip-hop has the ability to define a moment in history and, in a simple yet profound way, say what others were thinking all along.
In a moment of clarity, following Hurricane Katrina, Kanye West said on national television that then-president Bush doesn’t like black people. And while his message was not perfect in its delivery, the message was powerful, says Touré: “Seeing black people on the roof of houses, pleading to be helped. Seeing black people taking over the Superdome and that becoming just a lost land where they were sort of forgotten, people dying in the streets, as we saw. That was extraordinarily painful for black America and it definitely felt like the country does not care about us.”
A Hip-Hop President?
Hip-hop has come full circle in terms of its political clout. Presidents once regarded hip-hop and its standard-bearers with contempt. But now, the president is young, African-American, and arguably a member of the hip-hop generation.
Obama has many supporters in the hip-hop community such as Will.I.Am, Ludacris and Jay-Z. The president invited Jay-Z to the White House, and even imitated the artist’s trademark move of dusting off his shoulder. Who could have imagined this turn of events five years ago?
“The election for President Obama came at an opportune time for a number of reasons,” says Fred Mwangaguhunga of MediaTakeOut.com. “He’s universally respected, adored and so he’s gonna be a topic of conversation amongst black people among hip-hop artists and so that conversation because he happens to be a politician is gonna invariably introduce elements of politics into hip hop so I think it’s a great thing it’s a great introduction or reintroduction of politics into hip hop.”
Others believe there is more distance between Barack Obama and hip-hop. “I can’t say that Barack is the hip-hop president. Chuck D is the hip-hop president,” says AllHipHop.com’s Creekmur. ” I think if we had a president who was truly hip-hop then I think a lot would be different. Barack is the President of the United States of America therefore he has to conduct himself and govern accordingly…if he was the Hip-Hop President, so much would be different right now…but with that said, I think that people are so enamored by Barack…you know when he dust his shoulder off, we got that. We knew he was talkin’ about Jay-Z…I don’t know if the audience he was in front of got that.”
“Barack Obama’s presidential campaign was not a movement. It was a series of events, as Danny Glover said, that people got excited…got excited about so we all came together,” Kevin Powell believes. “If it was a movement then why, one year later, did you have so few people come and vote for the (New York City) mayoral election? That wasn’t a movement. So that’s why the music is the way it is because the music is reflective of what’s going on in society which has been a serious dumbing down in our country over the last 15 years or so.”
Where Do We Go from Here?
The Hip-hop movement has influenced domestic U.S politics, but it has changed the world as well. But where is it headed? Will it remain politically relevant and vibrant? “I’ve been all over this country, been overseas, interacting with folks about hip-hop. You begin to realize that this is a global culture. It may have been created by African-American, West Indian, Puerto Rican young people in New York City but it belongs to everybody now,” says Kevin Powell. “As Dead Prez says ‘this is bigger than hip-hop’. This is about our communities; this is about this country and the future of this world.” Yet Powell laments that hip-hop culture has died at the hands of the industry. “You would think that all that young people of color do is dance in videos and swing from poles and play basketball…that’s unacceptable. So what the hip-hop industry has done has ultimately destroyed hip-hop the culture…which is what I represent, what I come from- there’s two distinct differences. The culture is about all kinds of possibilities. What the industry has become is this is all you can be, that’s unacceptable.”
Touré believes that while hip-hop was very political in the 80s, and less so in the 90s and 2000s, it is now less political than ever, and getting worse. “Hip-hop is not working with the same political spine that it was in past decades because there are a lot of people who are buying the music who aren’t looking for that so they’re trying to serve those consumers. For some reason we’re producing fewer rappers who are concerned with that kind of thing. The more you get away from the grassroots hip-hop which was as a political gesture…the more likely you are going to get away from making a political gesture with your music.”
Chuck Creekmur thinks hip-hop is in a different space today than it was in the 1970s and 1980s. Artists and rappers have a completely different state of mind these days, and people are not as political because they are inundated with the stresses of a 24/7 news cycle, and are looking for an escape. Nevertheless, he still thinks politics is important. “People absolutely are still politicized in hip-hop…the BP oil spill is a perfect example…I mean we have people transmitting messages quoting the BP CEO, holding him accountable…the company accountable…in a way that you don’t need a…”F BP!” you don’t need that anthem anymore because people already feel that way and they transmit it in that way…”
Concerning the future of hip-hop, Giovanni Turner provides some sound advice by urging artists to strike a balance between their music and their message: “Ohene [hip hop/fusion jazz artist and co-founder of RAHM Nation Recordings, LLC] and I have since its inception billed RAHM Nation Recordings as label that would further the movement as well as the music. If the art does not continue to evolve, to grow in relevance and popularity, the message is practically meaningless,” Turner suggests. “So many so-called political emcees invested their whole careers in calling for the metaphorical assassination of the president. Now that Barack Obama is president, these emcees have nothing to rap about and no lyrical skill back upon which to fall. They failed to invest in the craft. The artists that stand the test of time dedicate themselves to addressing the plight of their community and mastering their art.”