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Hip-Hop & the Black Freedom Struggle: What role does socially conscious music have to play in political activism?

Wanjiru Kariuki

October is Black History month in the UK, a time to reflect and appreciate the struggles that ethnic communities have endured. Throughout the years within the context of political activism, cultural activism has often been forgotten, if not pushed aside.However there are clear examples. Historically, ‘black’ music has shared a tight knit relationship with activism; from the blues, soul music and yes: hip-hop.

In the late 1980s, the legendary Chuck D of hip-hop group Public Enemy famously stated that hip-hop is the “Black CNN”, about “informing people, connecting people, being a direct source of information”. Indeed hip-hop has a very long history of social commentary and it is often portrayed as the voice of a silenced people. The song ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash for example, one of the earliest hip-hop tracks recorded, paints a vivid description of what life was like for those squandering in New York City in the early 80s: poverty, drugs and violence; pointing the finger at President Reagan and his conservative economic policies. That was what hip-hop was about in the 1980s, from Public Enemy to Run DMC: a cultural revolution brewing that sought to politicize music much like Marvin Gaye and James Brown had done in the 1970s.

Then came the 90s. Brooklyn lyricist Mos Def famously said in 2009, “I’m already living in an anxious environment. New drugs everywhere, violence is looked on as not that big of a deal, our leaders are sociopaths and thieves, the police hate you, and then you turn on the radio, and it’s like, pour some champagne on yourself!”

In contrast to the growing popularity of gangsta rap and materialism in hip-hop, Mos Def and the equally talented Talib Kweli joined forces and released their debut album Mos Def & Talib Kweli are Black Star in 1998. The album is a sincere attempt to celebrate black culture, referencing literature, redefining the west’s perception of beauty and most importantly highlighting the issues that for the most part, were not being discussed in music. In other words, it’s genius.

Today, the legacy of socially conscious hip-hop continues with the likes of Lupe Fiasco and Common. Despite Lupe’s temporary career blimp (Lasers), his most recent album Food and Liquor 2 delves into the realms of African American issues, redeeming his stature as a socially conscious rapper.

Despite what you think about the larger-than-life duo that created Watch the Throne, both Kanye West and Jay-Z are astute to social commentary. Listen keenly to the verses of 99 Problems by Hova and you get a raw depiction of what it means to be an African American male in a society where issues such as racial profiling is the norm; ‘Son do you know what I’m stopping you for? /Cuz I’m young and I’m black and my hats real low? /Do I look like a mind reader sir, I don’t know’. Say what you will, but in three verses Jay-Z succinctly sheds light on pressing concerns that ethnic communities continue to face today.

Here in the UK, socially aware hip-hop can be enjoyed with the likes of Dizzie Rascal (in his early days). Boy in da Corner, the rapper’s debut album, is filled with references about the hardships East London presented him with in his youth. The track Sittin’ Here, for example, expresses his frustrations about the hopelessness of his environment, an environment that remains at a bleak standstill; ‘it’s the same old story’.

The role of socially aware music in the wider context of activism shouldn’t be underappreciated. It may be naive to expect it to produce tangible results, but like Chuck D stated, it’s about spreading information, and information is power.

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