Image: Rolling Stone
As typified by the unapologetic rise of white nationalist activity in Charlottesville, Virginia last month, there is no question that an inherent culture of racism continues to disgrace the United States. From the call-and-response work songs that helped slaves withstand daily suffering to the esteemed African American artists across various genres who have defied racial subordination in their work, music has long been a powerful weapon for resisting the star-spangled banner’s deepest bloodstain.
In hip hop, this tradition has been advanced by contemporary heavyweights such as Kendrick Lamar. The Compton star broke ground with the release of the universally acclaimed To Pimp a Butterfly (2015). Incorporating funk, jazz and soul, the album is on one level a sonic celebration of historical black music and on the other, a conscious depiction of the problems facing the African American community in modern times. Protest single ‘Alright’, which challenges police brutality was championed by Black Lives Matter activists across the country as the movement’s unofficial soundtrack. Before long the song was labelled this generation of students’ answer to Civil Rights anthem ‘We Shall Overcome’ and its impact saw Lamar featured on the Ebony Power 100 list for leaders of the African American community. This prompted fan and then President, Barack Obama to publicly recognise the rapper as an important social commentator before hosting him as a White House guest.
Fast forward twelve months and television personality Donald Trump occupies the executive office, encapsulating the populist aspect of the rise of the right across the Western political spectrum. The racial tension raised by the inauguration of arguably the world’s most divisive figure was summed up in the anger of Joey Bada$$’ LP, All-Amerikkkan Badass (2017). Inspired by the title of Ice Cube’s AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted (1990), the New Yorker takes aim at the whitewashing of black culture (“All our history hidden / ain’t no liberty given”), a reality which has in recent years led to criticism of Black History Month. “Black” history is American history, as much as the nation’s institutions like to keep the two separated.
Yet awkward attempts to create a distinction between black and wider history in America are hardly surprising: white kids were given the day off school to celebrate terror lynchings in the southern states up until as late as World War Two. Featuring on Gorillaz single ‘Ascension’ earlier this year, rising Californian rapper Vince Staples evoked sanguinary imagery of such scenes, akin to Abel Meeropol’s striking 1937 poem, Strange Fruit. Ridiculing the States’ “Land of the Free” moniker, Staples argues: “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”.
Tracing its roots back to the politically charged output of the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye, conscious hip hop has been fearless since the days of pioneer groups Public Enemy and N.W.A. A new current of rappers are incorporating this spirit while setting aside the overly macho themes of their forefathers. Marking an important step in the development of the genre, the days of pandering to gang warfare are essentially obsolete. “Before we find world peace, we gotta’ find peace in the war on the streets”, Tupac once proclaimed; and it seems such idealism has struck a chord within the African American community over the two decades since Pac’s murder. Given the impression that hip hop has traditionally had on the youth, its evolution from manufacturing hostility to promoting togetherness is undoubtedly encouraging.
Nevertheless in the music industry itself, as with other arts, equality remains difficult to realise. Black music is often sidelined with ‘urban’ categorisation within traditional award ceremonies, serving as an uncomfortable and frankly unnecessary reminder of segregation. And as America’s ugly history is dredged up by a wave of the so-called ‘Alt-Right’ who seem to have alarmingly replaced identity-concealing hoods with nothing but neckbeards, white supremacy has re-emerged as a socially acceptable ideology in some quarters. One saving grace is that these environments often provoke mass mobilisation on the side of human equality, which counter-protesters in Charlottesville have already proved. The potential influence of hip hop in terms of lifting morale on such platforms should never be underestimated.
Given the history of the African American, some rap lyrics are naturally bound to be violent, hateful or politically incorrect. Yet a balanced view of the movement’s beginnings is the key to understanding its many positives. In the spirit of the West African Dogon peoples’ mythical god of creation, Amma – who gave Earth the power of spoken word – African American slaves used coded rhyming to communicate freely without their masters’ suspicions. Building on this, rap artists have consistently brought about genuine cultural change. Once nothing more than a rebellious underground movement, hip hop grew to challenge social norms and expose America’s vast problem of institutional racism to the wider public. Due to its sheer popularity, rap now habitually produces some of the world’s biggest public figures, opening it up to the often marring threat of commercialisation. Thankfully, as the aforementioned stars of the day attest to, hip hop’s status as a tool for criticism and social mobility is going nowhere.