Hip Hop and Politics

Being a longtime boxing fan and a Black Muslim man, the death of Muhammad Ali has had a grueling effect on me. Once the news of his death reached me, I immediately began to re-watch his interviews and highlights, reminding myself of his profound skill in the ring as well as out. Muhammad Ali was much more than a great boxer; he was a man with an impeccable set of values. He fought to stop the injustice that Muslims and Blacks were experiencing and refused to let any force prevent him from achieving his goal.  

In the midst of my reminiscing, I remembered the importance of politics.

Everyday, a close friend of mine routinely DM’s me her favorite tweets of the day as well tweets of articles she knows I would love. Coincidently, one of the articles she sent me recently was a Vice article that, in short, depicted Muhammad Ali as the physical embodiment of what Hip Hop is. While other great men who share the same description were mentioned, such as Malcolm X, Ali was the focal point. With politics on my mind, the important role Hip Hop has played in the political realm became apparent. At every angle of Hip Hop, politics is intertwined with the genre.

In the 1970s, the South Bronx of New York birthed Hip Hop as a result of political issues predating its creation as well as issues that were occurring during the time. What was occurring in America before the birth of Hip Hop was the Civil Rights movement in the 60s. This was a time when the African-American men that became an enormous influence on Hip Hop, displayed by the many references they receive by the artists, became known. The most famous men in this group include Muhammad Ali, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr., Bobby Seale, and Huey Newton along with the Black Panther Party as a whole. What these men stood for became the backbone of Hip Hop.

The civil rights movement was a hard time that called for the unceasing work of strong black men.

Afrika Bambaata took the initiative and formed the Black Spades as the governing body of the borough to help improve conditions in South Bronx. He later changed the group name to the Universal Zulu Nation, embarking the group on a path of peace and love hoping to inspire African-Americans to distance themselves from negativity, thus began Hip Hop. DJs, the most praised being DJ Kool Herc, began spinning records and bringing people together, and the people began deeming these events as Hip Hop and used it to define a cultural movement.

What African-Americans faced after the Civil Rights Movement was an occurrence that called for similar strength: Ronald Reagan’s presidency. South Bronx was facing hard times during this period because of Reaganomics, with many out of jobs and the already poor conditions becoming worse. A few years later, Grandmaster Flash dropped the track “The Message”, a heavily politically packed song. The song spoke of men who have been pushed “to the edge” and were fighting to “keep from going under”. The song detailed the mindset of many South Bronx citizens that were facing incredible struggles on a day-to-day basis.

These are events that many in my generation may or may not have been aware of. So let us fast forward a few years ahead and meet a group that we all know, Public Enemy.  Public Enemy became the most political Hip Hop group of their time and though Chuck D, the groups’ leader, repeatedly stated he was no politician, the Black Panther symbolism in his videos and lyrics like “impeach the president-pulling out the ray-gun” told a different story. Their most acclaimed song “Fight the Power” was politically drenched from start to finish. The lyrics, video, and the entire sound was promoting black power and asking for black unification to fight the power. Rappers involving themselves with politics did not stop here. Boogie Down Productions came to the stage in 1987 as well. Each of their albums tackled topics of racism, violence, and other political issues the black community was forced to combat with. In 1988 Eric B & Rakim released their album “Follow the Leader” with Rakim wearing a varsity jacket with the Five Percent symbol on the back.

At the same time, the Niggaz With Attitude debuted. While many try to debunk them by labeling them as gangster music, their work was highly political. “Fuck the Police” was more and is still more than a phrase teenager’s yell while feeling rebellious. The song told the truth about how cops treated Blacks in the ghetto because of racism and stereotypes, and this mistreatment is what caused the opposition they held against the police.  Their lyrics raised awareness within urban America and forced the country to acknowledge racism. NWA shook America to the point where the then-President George Bush criticized them directly. Consequently, the government began to censor the group and called for the group to avoid making statements that called for the death of cops as well as lyrics that disapproved of them. 

As the 90s got closer, the artists in the 80s passed the political baton to artists of the 90s, a few being Tupac, Nas, Wu Tang Clan, and Black Star. The 90s political agenda sparked quickly with the women empowering single “U.N.I.T.Y” by Queen Latifiah. Hip Hop has long been criticized for sexism; this single directly attacked that sexism and called for women to become unified against the disrespect. As the decade rolled on Tupac quickly became a huge political figure in Hip Hop. With a direct connection to the Black Panther party through his parents, Tupac’s music was filled with lyrics in opposition to the same injustice in the black community that the Party fought during its time. Carrying on the "fuck the police" message that NWA introduced, it became clear during this period that Hip Hop and the police were at odds which, in itself, is political. Nearly every rapper spoke of police corruption at least once in the 90s. As the 2000s rolled around the political agenda began to diminish but there is still sprinkles of it here and there.   

A devastating moment in African American history occurred in 2005, Hurricane Katrina. The destruction this disaster left was monumental and Hip Hop was angry. Kanye West said on national television that then-President George W. Bush (the Bush’s don’t get much love from Hip-Hop) does not like black people. Many attempted to criticize West but the facts were there. You could go to any news station and see Blacks on roof-tops pleading for help that never came. Other rappers, especially the New Orleans native Lil Wayne, had much to say about the ill-treatment of the black people in the State at the time.

Presently, politics in Hip Hop is at a lower level than in the 80s and 90s. While it is obvious in the music of artists like Kendrick Lamar, Immortal Technique, J.Cole, and Joey Badass, I do believe artist like Kevin Gates, Young Thug, and even Gucci Mane at time take political action as well. The latter artist political agenda rests in an “express yourself” area. Young Thug is often posting pictures of himself in women’s clothing and using terms like “sexy” and “babe”. He is attacking gender roles, even if he is not doing it intentionally. He is sending a message that men should be able to act however they want while still being wholly heterosexual. Kevin Gates keeps it political by intertwining his Islamic beliefs into his music. He also has several songs where he demands the right to sag his pants because it is apart of his freedom of choice.

Politics birthed Hip Hop. This is not to say that the 80s and 90s did not have a fair share of party Hip Hop tracks, it most definitely did, but majority of the music created contained political messages. In 2008, America elected President Obama. A black president that loves Hip Hop and went as far as to invite rappers to the White house was put into power, yet Hip Hop has become filled with artists focusing less on the lyrical content of their music. Instead of capitalizing on the opportunities that could now be available, the rappers took a different direction. While this occurrence is not a negative one and many great Hip Hop tracks are still being produced, I cannot help but be concerned that what makes Hip Hop unique is slowly decaying.

Hip Hop is special because of the importance it places on the lyrics in its genre.

The genre revealed how putting lyrics together artistically over great production could shake a whole nation. The music being created today is very much Hip Hop, just different from what it was at inception. Producers are now on the front lines and have begun to display their talent and create some very innovative music. Though I whole-heartedly believe Hip Hop and politics will never be completely separated, what is occurring does raise an important question. Hip Hop became the primary source of raising awareness of the injustices in the black community after men like Malcolm X and MLK Jr were lost, if the political messages continue to dwindle, what or whom will become the voice in the black community that demands change?