Since its creation, in the New York City borough of the Bronx, hip hop has always addressed topical concerns. The music that Public Enemy’s Chuck D called “Black America’s CNN” often addresses systemic problems in the United States, and has the ability to powerfully articulate the traumas perpetrated on the Black community on a daily basis. Some argue that hip hop music has been co-opted by an industry that wants to avoid controversy or bad publicity that could impact sales, particularly in the age of streaming, where margins are thin for all but the top artists. But there is great music to be found, if you look for it, music that bangs and confronts racism, poverty, homophobia and misogyny, or corrupt politicians who fail to meet the needs of their constituents. Artists can help us confront harsh realities that we choose not to see, or that we want to ignore. (White people! I’m looking at you AND me.)
Because of its strong lyrical content and often forceful delivery, hip hop is the lens through which we can view America and the UK, warts and all. If you’re willing to listen, you can gain insight into the struggles of others, particularly those whose lives are different from your own. Listening to music can be deeply empathic. One of the beauties of art, and music is art, is that it can stir feelings inside of us, a range of emotions, that allows us to develop a little more of a perspective into lives not our own. Like sports, music has the ability to make us identify with the artist, and, maybe walk a mile in their shoes. Music won’t solve the problems that confront us. Music doesn’t vaccinate people against racism. It won’t make our skies cleaner, or our air easier to breathe. To do that, we need to mobilize, strategize, organize and, exercise the franchise. But music also has a place in the movement towards a more just and equal world. It can be a solace, a comfort, a rallying cry, a battle hymn or an anthem, and it can accompany us, as we push forward. As Gandhi once said, “[i]f we could change ourselves, the tendencies in the world would also change.” Music can change us, just like books, paintings, poetry, nature, sculptures, dance and any other art you can think of. You just have to listen.
Below are some selected songs that have great relevance to our times. Some you may know, some you may not. My list is not meant to be exhaustive and the songs are in no particular order. In some cases I had to use clean versions of a song. Apologies. If you have songs that you think should be included on the list, email me at firstname.lastname@example.org. I’ll give it a week or so and then publish the list of songs readers suggested. Rap/hip hop songs only please.
1. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five – “The Message.” “The Message” is pretty straightforward. If you don’t get it, listen harder.
2. KRS-One – “Black Cop:” As part of Boogie Down Productions and as a solo artist, KRS-One has addressed many important social issues in his music. Many people know the song “Sound of the Police,” but “Black Cop” may be even more incendiary. In the song, KRS-One argues that white police departments use Black police officers to do their dirty work and perhaps deflect from charges of racism. He also believes that Black cops are being played for fools, and in some ways, are working against their own communities. The song borrows from Jamaican dancehall, and Jamaican music has influenced a lot of KRS’s songs.
3. Eric B & Rakim – “Casualties of War:” Casualties of War is written from the perspective of a Black soldier who must go fight in the first Iraq War. Since the Vietnam War, the United States has relied on a volunteer army, and that means that the armed forces also function as a route to a better life for people who have few other choices in life. The legendary Rakim, with production by Eric B, questions why he should fight a war against people who look more like him than the people leading him to war, and who never did him any harm. Rakim also addresses the profound psychological distress that some soldiers experience, after their service is over, or as the result of multiple deployments. The beat drives home the point and Rakim never flinches.
4. Public Enemy – “911 Is A Joke:” Like KRS-One, Public Enemy has been committed to addressing important subjects since the early days of the group. “911” reflects on the fact that in Black neighborhoods or neighborhoods where many low income people live, residents receive deficient city or public services, or even no services at all. When the song was released, there were some infamous incidents in which people called 911 and waited an inordinate amount of time for a response, with often deadly consequences. This is probably a topic many (white) people don’t think about.
5. Slick Rick – “Behind Bars:” Slick Rick, always a vivd story teller, here describes what it’s like to be, well, “Behind Bars.” The Ruler’s delivery is matter-of-fact, which makes the song more chilling, once you examine the lyrics.
6. Mobb Deep: “Up North Trip:” Prodigy and Havoc of Mobb Deep created some of the most hard-hitting, hard-edged songs in hip hop, and this one is no exception. “Up North” refers to the location of most state prisons in New York, and most people in those prisons come from New York City, and are people of color. It is a challenge for family members of people who are incarcerated to fund or make the arduous trip to visit a loved one. The song captures the indignities and stresses of incarceration and, in an indirect way, makes the case that mass incarceration is a failed policy that harms all of society, not just the human beings sent to prison. Missed opportunities, a loss of hope and stigmatization are consequences of mass incarceration.
7. Jay-Z – “99 Problems:” Hove is a more subtle lyricist than some of the other artists here, and sometimes the message he sends needs closer examination. “99 Problems” tells the story of a traffic stop, a situation that can quickly escalate and lead to deadly consequences. For Black Americans, being stopped by the police is traumatic and you never know if the stop might end with your death. When Jay raps the part of the police officer in the song, the cop gives voice to harmful stereotypes that police officers can harbor. The song is also a pretty good lesson on the Fourth Amendment to the US Constitution, which, among other things, prohibits unlawful searches and seizures. One of the messages of the song is that Black people, no matter how rich and or how famous, don’t get the benefit of laws and the doubt that white Americans get. And the bitch? A drug sniffing dog, which creates it own kind of problem in a car stop. Listen closely, future lawyers.
8. NWA – “Fuck The Police:” “Fuck The Police” by NWA is probably familiar to most hip hop fans, and the song has been played a lot, especially lately. The beauty of this song, aside from its catch-phrase, simple chorus and direct lyrics, is the perspective of Eazy-E, MC Ren and Ice-Cube. The song is a mock trial of a police officer, all cops, really, and E, Ren and Cube act as if they are lawyers presenting their case to Judge Dr Dre. It’s an effective concept to convey the point they are trying to make: dealing with abusive cops is a depressing every day experience in their neighborhood. It’s humiliating, it denies their humanity and negates their rights. We should listen.
9. Kenn Starr – “If:” Kenn Starr is a gifted writer and this song is a little gem that more people should know about. On this cut, Starr shares the mike with Talib Kweli, who has released plenty of topical songs himself, and Asheru, of Unspoken Heard. This song comes from Starr’s 2006 album, Starr Status. The song is beautiful and elegiac, and imagines a world where racism doesn’t exist, a world that seems far away from the realities the artists consider in their verses. If this article does anything, I hope it exposes readers to the work of Kenn Starr, a man I’d call an unsung hero of hip hop. “If it wasn’t for this, if it wasn’t for that…”
10. Brother Ali – “Uncle Sam Goddamn:” Brother Ali is another talented artist who focuses his attention on social issues and he has confronted many of the realities of being Black in America over the course of his music career. In this song, Ali, who is also Muslim, follows a direct approach, over a head-nodding beat and the title of the song speaks for itself. As with most Brother Ali songs, he is explicit in describing the ills facing many Black Americans, and the poor, and in general, he doesn’t shy away from holding the responsible parties to account. Brother Ali’s lyrics deserve to be studied and discussed and analyzed. Colleges and universities should devote courses to Brother Ali and the knowledge that he drops. He has a lot to say and more people should be paying attention.
That’s it, people. I did not include many of the songs that could be included because there are too many, and I would be writing for the next month. I picked some of my favorites, and no newer songs. No Immortal Technique, because he may be the most overtly political artist out there, and many listeners are familiar with his music. Feel free to send along your favorite Immortal Technique song or any other that you believe belongs on the list.
Peace. Stay safe.