Don’t Sleep: Critics Wake Up and Discover Political Hip Hop

Posted on December 20, 2013


In one of my favorite speeches from the Civil Rights Era, Martin Luther King, Jr. implored his listeners to remain awake through the series of technological and political revolutions of the 1960s. This piece is not as serious, but, apparently, some music critics have done their best Rip Van Winkle impression. A couple of mainstream critics crawled from beneath their rocks and discovered that politically and socially conscious hip hop exists after Public Enemy released “Fight the Power” back in 1989. In October, Forbes’s Ruth Blatt published, “Beyond Bravado:  Underground Rappers Resurrect Hip-Hop’s Roots as Protest Music,” highlighting Brother Ali’s and Psalm One’s contributions to a “new” surge in political hip hop music.  Recently, Thor Christensen of the Dallas News published a disturbing review of Macklemore and Ryan Lewis’s Dallas concert where he wondered whether or not they could have saved hip hop from embarking on its misogynistic and violent path if they had hit it big with The Heist.

David Dennis, a writer for The Guardian, published a great critique of Christensen’s review. Others have also called into question why Macklemore has received all of this attention despite the fact that black queer and trans rappers have been performing songs confronting homophobia before him.  I am not interested in repeating their critiques when you can read them here and here.

My problems with these sorts of “discovery” articles:

1. Blatt’s piece exhibits a lack of historical perspective that treats political hip hop as a tradition that’s persisted since the late 1970s. “Protest” and “socially conscious” music appeared during the height of gangsta rap during the mid-1990s (i.e. The Lost Boyz’s “Channel Zero”), during the late 1990s (i.e. Lauryn Hill’s Miseducation…, Common’s “6th Sense”), and throughout the 2000s (See below and next post.)

2. They imply that a “pure” or “authentic” narrative of hip hop’s birth exists. “True” hip hip is really protest music. It is not materialistic, violent, arrogant, etc. This sort of analysis implies a narrative of cultural decline–hip hop was pure during a particular time (usually during the 1980s and through the early 1990s), then it sold out (usually sometime in the mid-to-late 1990s), and it’s only grown more excessive since.

2a. The Bush Era (2000-2009) has produced some of the finest socially and politically conscious hip hop. I would not argue that I could compare any of Dead Prez’s songs to “Fight the Power” or “Fuck the Police,” but I can produce a rather lengthy list of politically-minded albums and tracks.

3. These articles, even if implicitly or inadvertently, rely upon binaries like “underground” and “commercial” and “good” and “bad” hip hop where socially conscious and political rap is the preferred style and other forms are retrograde.

The search for purity and these sorts of dichotomies erase the complex multitudes contained in the culture like the sometimes indistinguishable fine line between glorification and expressing one’s experiences of survival, even if that experience includes the pursuit of momentary pleasure, which is often built upon what many would consider problematic social interactions. These dichotomies also erase the insightful thoughts about politics, inner city life, and culture from more “popular” hip hop artists like Young Jeezy.

As much as I love hip hop’s oppositional stance, i recognize that protest hip hop is only a strain. And, most importantly, hip hop culture, like all genres and cultural practices, are highly complex. It is true, many hip hop artists are really concerned with accumulating wealth and possessions, but much of the music does not just reflect the pursuit of profits, sexual partners, and material possessions, much of the music reflects individual struggles and one’s contemporary political context.  More often than not, a Kanye song will cram together ridiculously misogynist song and feature a track calling out the corporatization of hip hop or ruminating about Chicago’s homicide rate in another. Critiquing hip hop’s excesses and shortcomings are imperative, but so is understanding the whole– how the genre’s problematic and progressive strands often appear simultaneously in lyric, song, and album. The search for hip hop authenticity and purity in content also erases the tradition of political and socially conscious hip hop that has persisted since Melle Mel rapped about the perils of inner city life on “The Message.”

Now, of course, hip hop’s contradictions should not stop any critic from holding rappers accountable for misogyny and sexism, homophobia, and materialism. But, as David Dennis brilliantly argued in his takedown of Christensen and the Grammy’s, no critic (or the Grammys) should use the example of an artist like Macklemore as a stick to discipline the rest of the culture.

So, as a corrective to these critics who lack proper historical perspective, I humbly submit a sample of five examples of socially and politically conscious hip hop during the Bush Era. See the next post for a larger list (without annotations).

1. Dead Prez – Let’s Get Free (2000) and Revolutionary But Gangsta (2004)

For those who do not know, Dead Prez is the closest thing one will get to Public Enemy during the 2000s. I rated Let’s Get Free among the best hip hop albums to come out during the 2000s. On their debut album, M1 and Stic.Man rap about being socialist Africans, eating healthy, structural racism in the U.S. education system, and the life of Fred Hampton, Jr. Their first single, “Hip Hop” is actually the modern blueprint for Lupe Fiasco’s recent releases. They proved that one can combine catchy southernized beats with politically-charged lyrics.  Dead Prez garnered the respect of many “commercial” artists like Jay-Z, who hopped on a remix to their first single from RBG, “Hell Yeah,” again proving that the division between “underground” and “commercial” had eroded during the 2000s.

2. Kanye West – “We Don’t Care,” “Jesus Walks,” “Two Words” (feat. Freeway and Mos Def), “Crack Music” (feat. Game),  “Diamonds from Sierra Leone Remix,” “Everything I Am,” “Who Will Survive in America,” “Murder to Excellence” (with Jay Z), “Made in America” (with Jay Z), “New Slaves,” “Black Skinhead”

Despite his rants and antics, Kanye has always featured explicitly political lyrics and tracks on his albums. Actually, maybe with the exception of 808’s and Heartbreaks, he has included at least one politically-charged song. I am not a huge Yeezus fan, but one could argue that “New Slaves” is one of Kanye’s most challenging tracks. My favorite? “Two words,” with Mos Def and Freeway. This was Kanye at his most raw, politically.

3. Invincible – Shapeshifters (2008), “Detroit Summer,” and “Emergence”

Invincible is the unsung heroine on this list. Invincible’s  music may not appear on the Billboard charts, but her lyrical acumen is recognized among those who are well versed in Detroit’s hip hop scene (and rap overall). She’s involved herself in many of the local struggles in Detroit. In fact, her work, along with that of Grace Lee Boggs and others, illustrates the optimism and potential for the city’s rebirth around the value of self-determination and the strategy of community-based production. Songs like “Detroit Summer,” an ode to the summer program created and directed by long-time activist, Grace Lee Boggs.   Invincible advances incisive critiques of uneven urban development and gentrification on “Locusts” where she portrays planners, real estate agents, and banks as locusts, buzzards, and sharks—creatures that swarm, overwhelm, and feed on deteriorating property.   “Deuce/Ypsi” is one of my favorite tracks as Invincible, Buff 1, SUN, and PL rap about the racial and economic inequality between Ann Arbor and Ypsilanti. Artists like Invincible not only provide an antidote to dominate themes of wealth accumulation and misogyny, but she offers the much-needed alternative narrative of Detroit.

4. Nas – “What Goes Around,” “Rule,” “My Country,” “Revolutionary Warfare,” “American Way,” “Where’s the Love”; Distant Relatives with Damien Marley and Untitled Album.

Nas not only reemerged as the winner in his battle with Jay-Z in 2001, he also began his transformation into a “political” rap artist. He called out George W. Bush and connected US imperialism to 9/11 in “What Goes Around” (which was my anthem).  He rapped about structural racism, mass incarceration, and the coping with the deterioration of inner cities in “My Country.” Nas’s political work culminated in 2008 with his excellent and controversial Untitled album (originally titled “nigger”) where he touched on the explored race relations and the complex meanings of the “n-word.” Nas and Damien Marley also released Distant Relatives in 2010.

5. Public Enemy with Paris  – Rebirth of a Nation (2006)

Many people would be surprised to learn that Public Enemy released a great album with Paris in 2006 called Rebirth of a Nation. More than a flip of DW Griffith’s racist Birth of a Nation movie, Rebirth of a Nation was a call to arms for some of hip hop’s veteran activist artists. It boasted features from Paris, MC Ren, The Conscious Daughters, Immortal Technique, Dead Prez, and Professor Griff. The highlight of the album is the posse track with Dead Prez and Paris that features an apt-Jesse Jackson sample, “Can’t Hold Us Back.”

6. The Perceptionists – “Memorial Day,” from Black Dialogue

The Perceptionists’ (Mr. Lif and Akrobatik) “Memorial Day” epitomized the Bush Era’s skepticism of the rationale for invading Iraq. Just listen to the hook.

Head over to my hip hop-themed blog: for my political hip hop playlist. It will be good for your health.

Posted in: Hip Hop, Politics