While it is still commonplace for mainstream hip-hop to deal with less than serious subject matter, the tides are turning for social and political influence amongst the rap industry, and the timing could not be better.
With the recent unrest in Ferguson, New York and Baltimore, it is extremely important that one of the most culturally significant art forms to the African-American population is used as a tool to voice the shifting mindset of the people.
Atlanta MC Killer Mike of rap duo Run the Jewels pushes the envelope when it comes to delivering politically relevant messages and challenging the foundation upon which the current racial injustice is built upon. RTJ are also known for their politically-charged lyrics and video clips, with the clips for Early and Close Your Eyes (And Count To Fuck) dealing with police brutality in confronting ways. On the much-acclaimed 2014 release of Run the Jewels 2, there are several tracks that attempt to open our eyes to the problems that plague the current social landscape.
Teaming up with another politically active heavyweight, Rage Against the Machine front man Zach De La Rocha for the jarring Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck), Run the Jewels delivered a visual message as well as the lyrics that flow from the lips of these established MCs. The video for the track makes for uncomfortable viewing; a black youth and a police officer wrestling between one another, each fighting for dominance and control, a microcosm of the current social hierarchy gripping the nation.
“When you n*ggas gon’ unite and kill the police motherfuckers?” Mike asks on Close Your Eyes. This incredibly blunt statement speaks to the drastic nature of this situation, and the dire circumstances that young African-American men face. With incarceration rates at an all time high for black youth, it is vital that someone with the global reach of Killer Mike can speak to this injustice.
Killer Mike is incredibly self aware, and knows that any political message he spouts to the masses can be undermined by his name alone, particularly if they have no prior knowledge of his career and the industry itself. Addressing TV audiences, Mike (real name Michael Render) is quick to point out that his name is for killing microphones, nothing more, and nothing less. This may seem like an irrelevant point to draw attention to, but it is necessary to highlight his perceptiveness in these circumstances, and his desire to propel his message forward.
One of the most emotional and heart-warming musical images of recent times is a stirring speech delivered by Killer Mike after a grand jury chose not to indict a police officer accused of murdering an innocent African American boy in Ferguson. Although all the other musical acts cancelled their performance in protest, Run the Jewels took to the stage and through tears the group rallied the crowd in support of racial unity, and urged them to not stand for such injustice.
The track, Lie, Cheat, Steal further emphasises the fact that these youth can only be treated unfairly for so long, and that there is a dangerous situation at hand. The lyrics of the track reference civil rights icon Martin Luther King, stating, “I love Dr. King but violence might be necessary”. It has to be argued that in such a heated social and political atmosphere, it is unwise to incite violence. Although the circumstances are dire, surely it’s counterproductive and detrimental to the cause to rally support in such a violent way – despite what the history of the streets might tell us. Others would argue that a group of people can only be backed into a corner without retaliating for so long; unfair targeting and racial profiling is not a new concept, and that a backlash is surely inevitable.
Hip-hop has never shied away from tackling the racial and social issues that plague the current climate in the past, so why have we seen this influence diminish in recent years? Tupac Shakur, cultural and musical icon, was a beacon of social and political commentary in his music, for instance the tracks Changes and Ghetto Gospel, “I don’t trip and let it fade me, from outta the frying pan we jump into another form of slavery,” “Cops give a damn about a negro, pull the trigger, kill a n*gger he’s a hero.” These are jarring statements that took rap and hip-hop into the public sphere, and raised the concerns of an entire society.
Politically and socially influenced rap music has become more of a niche market in recent years, with rappers such as Immortal Technique establishing himself as an “urban activist”, and tackling everything from poverty to race and religion in his music. I for one welcome the re-emergence of political commentary in rap, and it would seem that modern artists are no longer afraid to weave their opinions into their craft. We have even seen rap mainstays such as Jay-Z being utilised within President Obama’s campaign to reach audiences and demographics that had previously been disengaged with political circles. Sure, Jay himself may be staying away from anything controversial these days, but it serves to show how much hip-hop has grown on general culture – meaning that now, more than ever, rappers can use the craft to share these opinions.
Kanye West is seen as an egotistical artist, but he has long rapped about social injustice, and more recently the impact of industry and brand names over our heads, proving that there is much more to his music than a self obsessed ego fest. From his earlier work, Never Let Me Down, “I get down for my grandmother who took my mama, made her sit in that seat where white folks ain’t want us to eat”, to his more recent tracks in New Slaves, “broke n*gga racing that’s that: don’t touch anything in the store, and it’s r*ch nigger racing that’s that: come in please buy more”, Kanye tackles everything from the civil rights movement to the wealth gap and socio-economic inequality in the United States, issues that remain relatively untouched in terms of social commentary within a modern context.
Kendrick Lamar has tackled these issues through several of his releases, from his debut album Section.80, to his most recent project To Pimp a Butterfly. The track A.D.H.D is Kendrick highlighting the drug problem that his community faces, and the issues that stem from it, “my generation sippin’ cough syrup like it’s water”. To Pimp a Butterfly is a project teeming with historical and racially charged issues, dealing with the perils of success, a clash of cultures and the dealings of one young Compton rapper amongst it all. (Read our complete album review here for more on that.) Lamar has long spoken of his gratitude for his current place in the industry; he is well aware that his profile is something not to be taken lightly, and must be used to its full effect to spread the messages that he preaches so strongly in his music, from racism and drug use, to the perils of success in the music industry as a young African-American man.
There is clearly always going to be radio-friendly rap, and hip-hop that appeals to the mainstream. Nobody is trying to stop or change that. However, currently, there’s a great need for some artists to use their position to recognise the plight of their people, ignite debate and spark political and social change. Essentially, making their voice heard. And we’re lucky that in and among the many commercial rappers emerging every year, there’s as many switched-on, politically-aware artists who are telling us exactly how it is. Groups like Public Enemy and NWA changed the game in the ’80s by telling the mainstream about life in the streets, and sharing a world that many of us would not otherwise be privy to. In the years since, hip hop has spiralled into countless other territories, and it’s people like RTJ and Kendrick who are keeping that flame alive. In the current digital sphere, these messages have a far greater impact, and their influence can be felt from so far away. I’m excited to see how hip-hop starts to shape the social and political nature of our time; this is the sound of the future.