Hip Hop & Activism: Tracing the Role of Music in Social Movements

Since its inception, rap music has contributed to the soundtrack of movements for social change.

Wherever there is Black culture, Black resistance will eventually emerge, and this has been the case with hip-hop. A culture that claims its origin story on August 11, 1973, when DJ Kool Herc and his sister Cindy Campbell hosted a back-to-school party in the Bronx, hip-hop’s very existence is an act of activism. As one of America’s greatest creations, hip-hop bequeathed to the world a new way of life against the existential reality of social oppression in New York City.

The Evolution of Rap As An Artform

Of all the elements of hip-hop, MCing is the vocalization of the culture. Essentially, rap music would play a critical role in giving voice to the pain that Black people in inner cities and other locales were experiencing across the nation.

When rap music first began to gain national prominence, it centered on party raps and the lyrical skills of the MC. King Tim III (Personality Jock) by The Fat Back Band in 1979, “Rapper’s Delight” by the Surgarhill Gang,” and “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow along with often overlooked contributions from women MCs, such as The Sequence on “Funk You Up” and The Funky Four + 1 featuring Sha Rock on “That’s the Joint” are some examples of the early development of the music.

“The Message” Becomes Rap Music’s First Social Commentary Record

The hip-hop landscape began to shift dramatically with the vivid social commentary of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious's “The Message” in 1982. The song was written as a response to the New York Transit strike in 1980 and instead of deploying their usual Modus Operandi of party raps, the legendary crew spoke to the plight of Black people and the suffering they endured in an era of Reagaonimcs. Initially, Melle Mel did not see the vision of making a song like “The Message.” "Our group, like Flash and the Furious Five, we didn't actually want to do 'The Message' because we were used to doing party raps and boasting how good we are and all that,” Melle Mel said in an interview with NPR in 2005.

Without question, “The Message” helped to bring an end to all critiques of rap music as being a fad and lifted it into a formidable art form that could be used to bring about social transformation.

Public Enemy and The Rise of Political Rap

As rap music continued to evolve throughout the 80s, many hip-hop acts proudly wore the mantle of being activists in the music. No other act embodied this ethos quite like Public Enemy. Chuck D, the group’s leader who once said that “Rap was Black America’s CNN,” and accompanied by Flavor Flav and the S1Ws, the group sounded and looked like a Black Revolution. Their anthem, “Fight the Power,'' captured the essence of their activist proclivities. Inspired by The Isley Brothers’ song of the same name, the song addressed the systemic racism in America and was the touchstone of Spike Lee’s classic film on race relations, Do the Right Thing. Reflecting on the song’s impact in an interview with Spin Magazine, Chuck D spoke about his attempt to create an anthem to align with Lee’s vision for the film.

“There was a lot of civil and racial unrest in New York because certain areas where people lived were being taken care of and other areas were neglected. And the areas that were neglected, for years, had no representation, enforcement, or education,” Chuck D explained. “They ignored these places where Black and Brown people lived and paid rent in New York City, but everything else was lesser than or de-emphasized. So with that, Spike Lee wrote Do the Right Thing.”

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Rap Music Addresses Violence In Black Communities

In 1988, a fan was stabbed to death while attending a Boogie Down Productions and Public Enemy concert. In response to the tragic incident and the recent murder of fellow BDP founding member Scott La Rock, KRS-One formed the Stop the Violence Movement to spread a message of ending gun violence in Black communities.

One of the key components of the movement was their protest song “Self Destruction.” Featuring Stetsasonic, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, D-Nice, Doug E. Fresh, Just-Ice, and Heavy D, the song helped spark the anti-violence movement and protests against gun violence throughout New York.

On the California hip-hop scene, the West Coast All-Stars also created a record that shed light on how gang violence negatively impacted Black communities across the state titled “We’re All in the Same Gang.”

With Tone-Lōc, Above The Law, Ice-T, Dr. Dre, MC Ren, Young MC, Digital Underground, MC Hammer, and Eazy-E all contributing to the song further proved the viability of rap music to highlight communal concerns.

A few years later, in 1992, when the police officers who savagely beat Rodney King were acquitted, the L.A. Uprisings took place for several weeks. Songs like Ice Cube’s “We Had To Tear This Mothaf*cka Up,” Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” and Dr. Dre’sThe Day The N*ggaz Took Over,” were ground zero for all that was happening on the streets of L.A.

Hip-Hop & Activism In Modern Times

In recent social movements that involved the issues raised by Black people, rap music has been the soundtrack to that activism in the streets. The historic election of Barack Obama as America’s first Black president in 2008 and his reelection in 2012 were significant moments deeply influenced by rap music. With Jeezy and Nas’s “My President” being recorded on the day of Obama’s election, rap music's biggest stars were using their status to encourage legions of young Black Americans to engage in the voting process.

With the rise of Black Lives Matter, the protest against the police killings of George Floyd, Breonaa Taylor, and so many others, rappers Lil Baby, J Cole, Wale, Lil Tjay, Lil Yachty, and Trae Tha Truth were on the front lines of the demonstrations and creating protest music that in the words of Nina Simone, “reflected the times.”

As hip-hop is recognized as the most popular cultural expression in the world, hip-hop and activism go hand and hand. Although racism has been centered as the major sticking point on the hip-hop activist menu in hip-hop, rap music must address the suppressive forces of misogyny, patriarchy, classism, and homophobia that often rear the ugly heads.

As long as there is suffering among Black people, there will always be a remnant of rappers who will offer their insights into their music as musicians and with their lives as activists to bring about social change.

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