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‘Stay Woke and Vote: Hip-Hop artists in political life

Obama famously remarked in 2008: “the thing about hip-hop today is it’s smart, it’s insightful. The way they can communicate a complex message in a very short space is remarkable”. Just a few years later, the president went on to declare Kendrick Lamar’s “How Much A Dollar Cost” his favourite track of 2015. Lamar’s powerful lyricism, and the credit Obama lends to it, show that Hip-Hop is fast-becoming more prominent in the political sphere than ever before. It has the power to shape the collective American psyche and the way we relate to political issues in the USA.

The track is a narrative of a spiritual encounter with a homeless crack addict and the ultimate realisation that the figurative value of a dollar has meaning beyond a literal sense. It critiques the notion that something as cheap as money is being prioritised above many other issues such as drug addiction and homelessness that are affecting modern- day America. Lamar is not the only rapper seeking to exact socio-political change through the medium of Hip-Hop with many members of the community also contributing to the cause.

Hip-Hop is more than just a musical genre; it comes with a unique set of ideals

Hip-Hop is more than just a musical genre; it comes with a unique set of ideals which are perpetuated through raps and other forms of lyricism.

The idea of being “woke” is synonymous with the Hip-Hop and Rap scene and is generally termed as being aware of the issues going on in a specific community. These issues can and do impact the discourse and events surrounding the African-American community. One example is the #blacklivesmatter movement that erupted after the death of an unarmed black teenager, Trayvon Martin, in 2013.

In the spirit of staying “woke”, Chance The Rapper hosted a rooftop concert and invited a number of other artists to perform in collaboration with his not-for-profit, SocialWorks, which focuses on youth empowerment. Chance introduced himself as a Chicago native and announced the purpose of the concert as making sure the audience “stay woke and vote”. Following the concert, Chance marched alongside thousands of concert-goers to the polls and ensured as many members of the Chicago youth population as possible voted. Chance’s endeavours proved to be extremely fruitful in terms of boosting turnout rates for early voters, with ABC7 reporting that one volunteer remarked on how it was the highest early voter turnout he had ever seen.

In the track “Paranoia”, Chance discusses the issue of gun crime in Chicago and suggests “somebody get Katie Couric in here (Chicago)” to help deal with the high mortality rates caused by guns. Chance recently took to social media to let his fans know that he will be in Chicago over the next couple of months hoping to exact change in the area and, in his recent interview with Couric, discussed ways to potentially reduce gun violence, including a temporary budget, in Chicago through the introduction of after-school programs. Chance also has concrete plans to meet with the Governor of Illinois to discuss education funding in Chicago, with the aim that children will find something they care about earlier in life and avoid getting involved with street crime.

Chance has also openly criticised President Trump for his comments regarding “calling in the feds” to address gun crime in Chicago, venting that he is tired of Chicago being treated “like a third world country”. Due to Chance’s passion and drive to be vocal on current affairs both in his music and in the political sphere, we can expect Chance to be one of the most prominent rappers at the forefront of exacting social change for African-Americans in US politics and encouraging fans to follow suit.

Indeed, more politically active Hip-Hop artists such as J.Cole and Kendrick Lamar as well as Chance The Rapper, have already allowed much of their influence to rub off on their fans. J.Cole, who famously attended the Million Man March in 2015 for racial equality, captured the hearts of his fans as well as garnering mainstream media attention. Lamar had his track “Alright” used as a chant throughout the march, showing that the political lyrics used in Hip-Hop are actively transferred into ways to illustrate certain political issues and movements, mobilising its listeners at the same time.

Kanye West also has a significant relationship with Chicago and has a lot to say about the racial politics not just within the city, but across the United States as a whole. In his 2011 collaboration Watch The Throne with Jay-Z, the pair rap about Chicago being the “murder capital” and suggest that the high mortality rates in Chicago are caused by “black on black murder” through gun crime.

West and Jay-Z even quote statistics that compare the mortality rates of Chicago’s gun crime problem with the Iraq war, with the death toll being significantly higher in Chicago than overseas, suggesting that US politics is deeply flawed when intervention is more needed at home than overseas.

Kanye’s 2013 album Yeezus also appears to have reached new heights regarding political commentary, particularly when addressing the deeply ingrained race problem that continues to exist to varying extents throughout the USA. Kanye famously samples Billie Holliday’s “Strange Fruit”, a famously political song that addresses the horrors of lynching in the post-reconstruction era, for his track entitled “Blood On The Leaves”.

On this same album, Kanye also discusses that little has changed regarding the way African-Americans are viewed and treated, and rather that it has simply evolved through the idea that all African-Americans suffer racial discrimination at the hands of stereotyping regardless of status, in his track “New Slaves”. Kanye has also been known to be politically vocal outside of his music too, when he famously derailed a live recording created for the purpose of raising funds for victims of Hurricane Katrina.

Many have noticed that the worst affected areas of New Orleans, where the hurricane hit the hardest, were predominantly African-American in demographic, and that President Bush’s allegedly slow response caused Kanye to draw attention to the issue through making the famous statement: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people”.

Kanye, alongside other celebrities such as Justin Bieber and Drake have recently made a point of abstaining from the Grammys this year in support of Frank Ocean, who declined to attend the ceremony on grounds of it typically favouring white nominees, whilst arguably overlooking contributions from black artists. In addition to Frank Ocean’s absence, Kanye West offered his own reasons for abstaining from the Grammys in solidarity with Ocean. Kanye claims that despite winning 21 Grammys over the span of his career, he has never won a single Grammy when he was nominated alongside a white artist, suggesting that white artists are favoured and praised more than their black counterparts.

Naturally, these statements offer a wider comment on the endemic and covert racism that allegedly still exists in the USA today and Frank Ocean’s abstention from the awards ceremony this year and the reasoning he offers for it has been drawing mainstream media attention to an issue so indicative of the general situation in American politics at the moment.

While Hip-Hop was borne out of protestation and rebellion, young Hip-Hop artists today are using their platform to constructively change politics

Hip-Hop is affecting the way we think about American politics on every level, from carefully crafted lyrics within music, to the 44th president stressing the importance of the genre. Rappers are utilising their ever-growing fanbase to mobilise their followers and encourage them to engage in political activism. They are using their fame to get their political message across not only in their music, but also through creating non-profits and setting up meetings with key politicians and journalists.

Many rappers today have a clear vision for the future of America and it appears to be one of less violence and more equality. Whilst Hip-Hop was borne out of a degree of protestation and rebellion to begin with, young Hip-Hop artists today are using their platform and the genre in conjunction with politics as a means to change the world through education and entertainment, and they are more active and determined than ever before.

Mobilising typically apathetic youth voters is a huge task. But it’s one that rappers appear to be tackling with natural ease, and therefore the future of American politics has a very good chance of being influenced by some of the most successful and politically aware Hip-Hop artists of our generation.

Photo – Flickr: The Come Up Show

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