Image: Huck Magazine
With a genesis existent in the sentiments of the Black Power movement and the socially aware funk and soul records of the ’60s and ’70s, the radical roots of hip hop are vital. Its polemical spirit – all too often deviated from in favour of men trying to convince everyone of their superior testosterone levels – was set in stone by political rap linchpins Public Enemy in the ’80s and ’90s. Growing to be considered an inaccessible subgenre, conscious hip hop nevertheless endures as a essential tool of social commentary for a host of authentic, talented artists.
Hip hop’s ability to enlighten would be tapped into by the likes of Immortal Technique, who rose from the underground when 2001 classic, Dance With the Devil shocked anyone who’d listen. The track depicts the horror story of Billy, an aspiring young gangster who goes to excessive lengths to earn respect on the streets – the brutal twist in the tale remains hard hitting, countless plays later. No one piece of music has or probably ever will affect me as deeply as the moment Immortal Technique narrates Billy’s tragic fate:
Encouraging listeners to read, read, read, Technique would challenge institutional racism head on, teach of the USA’s criminally hypocritical drug policy and influence a rising crop of conscious rappers. In the UK, the likes of Akala and Lowkey broke new ground, displaying an eye opening abundance of talent and knowledge that spearheaded the genre’s progression.
‘The Black Shakespeare’, Akala is also a poet and guest University lecturer who advocates veganism, criticises hip hop’s gangster connotations and the use of the N word in music:
That blood-soaked word rappers still use, all it really shows is we still self-abuse / that was the word that was used to kill Kelso Cochrane and Emmet Till
Lowkey’s soulful body of work exemplifies quality over quantity and is highly polemic of Zionism, imperialism and issues such as post-9/11 xenephobia:
It seems like the Rag-heads and Paki’s are worrying your dad / but your dad’s favourite food is curry and kebab
Contemporary rap unfortunately appears to be saying nothing in particular, at least in the mainstream, yet Vince Staples recently came to my attention on Gorillaz’ new record, Humanz. In a track that subtly touches on the dystopic madness of Donald Trump’s rise to presidency, the 23 year old discusses the USA’s bleak racial history:
Where you can live your dreams, long as you don’t look like me / be a puppet on a string hanging from a fuckin’ tree
Conjuring memories of when I first read Abel Meeropol’s shocking poem Strange Fruit in school, Staples’ moment of scornful commentary is highly refreshing and a reminder that rap – at its scathing best – can be a deeply important political weapon.
Even with supreme talent, an established following and critical acclaim, politically aware rappers have ultimately received next to no radio airplay in modern times because the message put forward is inconvenient – dangerous. The recent breakthrough of grime MC Stormzy is a fine example of the themes that popular music largely favours, epitomised by badman macho posturing. It’s safe and still appeals to people.
The alienation frustrates fans of alternative rap. Akala encourages us to rise above this, however, his own attitude defiant:
They can keep the charts, all I want is your hearts