Excerpt from a paper I recently wrote on the historical legacy of slavery on hip-hop that is particularly relevant to our discussion here:
“In a space where black arts, and hip-hop in particular, are not given the same level of accreditation or legitimacy as their white counterparts, hip-hop seeks to teach outside of formal institutions and avoid the manipulation of the broader American popular culture. As a crucial facet of hip-hop culture, the genre seeks to de-privilege knowledge that is typically gained from schools and have it accessible to people who may not get it otherwise. Therefore, hip-hop takes on more than just the role of entertainment, but instead fills the voids left in the cracks of a racist curriculum in our educational system.” Here are 10 songs (not in order) that exemplify and communicate such purpose:
1. Kanye West/Jay-Z – “Murder to Excellence”
In this song, Kanye raps: “I feel the pain in my city wherever I go / 314 soldiers died in Iraq, 509 died in Chicago.” He’s talking about how the violence in one of our own American cities (and his hometown) is worse than what had been going on in Iraq at the time, around 2010-2011. More American people in Chicago were being killed than the U.S. soldiers at war. This song shed light on the alarmingly high murder rate in Chicago, something that many people had little to no knowledge of.
2. Kanye West – “New Slaves”
In this song, Kanye depicts racism in a new era; where in his eyes, the discrimination has more to do with your financial status rather than your skin color. He raps: “You see it’s broke n*gga racism, that’s that ‘Don’t touch anything in the store’ / And it’s rich n*gga racism, that’s that ‘Come in, please buy more.'” Before Kanye attained a certain level of financial and popular success, store clerks did not even want him in their stores; yet now that he’s rich, expensive clothing companies are asking him to purchase more of their clothes and help promote their brand. This song expands on the classism struggle between the poor and the rich.
3. Kendrick Lamar – “The Blacker The Berry”
While Kendrick has previously mentioned that he has no issues with white rappers like Iggy Azalea and Mackelmore, who are often accused of appropriation by the rap public, he talks about appropriation in this song: “You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture / You vandalize my perception, but can’t take style from me.” Speaking to the white invisible hand of the music industry, Kendrick acknowledges that there are higher powers at work that are trying to kill black culture through appropriation of the culture and thus skewing the perception of his art.
4. J. Cole – “Be Free”
J. Cole released this song in the wake of the Mike Brown shooting, incorporating audio versions of witness testimony in the track. He raps: “Every time I step outside, I see my niggas die / There ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.” J. Cole is expressing his disdain for the countless number of murders of black men by trigger-happy police, and tells the listener that despite the killing a gun could do, his soul will always live on, a sentiment that echoes with the families of the ones slain.
5. Kanye West – “We Don’t Care”
Kanye uses this song to speak on the injustices within the black experience; for example, education funding from the government, rapping. Ye raps, “You know the kids gonna act a fool / When you stop the programs for after-school.” A lot of children in marginalized communities can find themselves in troubling situations after school. Many of these children are raised in single-parent homes; until that parent arrives home from work and unless the parent can afford a babysitter, these kids are left unattended to. Kanye is saying that if communities want their children to be kept away from crime and the influence of gang violence, they should put more money into after-school care, which is something that could benefit the community at large. **Side Note: In the beginning of the line, he spews one of his most compelling yet simple lines, “And all my people thats drug dealin’ jus to get by stack ya money till it gets sky high/ We wasn’t supposed to make it past 25 but the jokes on you we still alive.”
6. Kanye West – “Diamonds from Sierra Leone”
Here, Kanye highlights a time in Sierra Leone where diamonds were being sold internationally in order to fund weapon purchasing for the country’s own civil war. Kanye dedicates this song to the issue, rapping: “The diamonds, the chains, the bracelets, the charmses / I thought my Jesus-piece was so harmless / Til I seen a picture of a shorty armless.” He was upset with himself for buying into the materialistic nature of being a prominent figure in the rap world and owning excessive jewelry– jewelry that could’ve been used to buy a weapon that made a young girl in West Africa armless. Kanye helped to bring more attention to the issue in Sierra Leone, and warned others of purchasing jewelry from the country at the time.
7. Kanye West – “Crack Music”
When crack was introduced into black American communities in the early ’80’s, it brought with it devastating consequences. Kanye talks about this in “Crack Music”: “When our heroes or heroines got hooked on heroin, crack raised the murder rate in D.C. and Maryland / We invested in that, it’s like we got Merrill lynched, and we been hangin’ from the same tree ever since.” Because many of these communities were comprised of poor minorities, they saw an opportunity to invest in the drug, which made it hard to leave. The effects of the corruption of the communities is still seen today, which is what he means when he talks about people “hanging from the same tree even since.”
8. K’naan ft. Chubb Rock- “Fatima”
Somalian rapper K’naan rapped about trying to live a “normal” life despite the struggles of living in war-torn Somalia in a powerful song he wrote about a childhood friend he had named Fatima. He raps: “I fell in love with my neighbor’s daughter/ I wanted to protect and support her/ Never mind, I’m just 12 and a quarter/ I had dreams beyond our border.” Around this time, many countries in Africa were going through civil wars, and hearing of K’naan’s own experience was refreshing since U.S. news companies neglect to report much on conflicts occurring in Africa. This song was released on K’naan second studio album “Troubadour” in 2009 yet still brings me to tears every time I hear it.
9. Lauryn Hill – “Everything is Everything”
In one of Lauryn Hill’s most popular song, “Everything is Everything”, she talks about the system and the difficulties inner-city youth face making it out of their communities: “I wrote these words for everyone who struggles in their youth / Who won’t accept deception, instead of what is truth / It seems we lose the game, before we even start to play.” Here, Lauryn touches on the systematic oppression and discrimination that contribute to the slim chances of young minority children being successful and winning “the game” of life.
10. Beyoncé – “Run the World (Girls)” (<<one of her best performances)
Beyoncé’s song “Run the World” re-ignited the global discourse on gender quality when it came out in 2011. Behind the high-energy production, she shouts “Endless power / With our love we can devour,” speaking on the power that women have when they come together and build. Since traditional gender roles have changed and more women are working in today’s world, Beyonce is declaring that they deserve the same respect and recognition that men do for the same work: “I work my 9 to 5 and I cut my check!” This song is a defining record for women’s empowerment.