Politics as usual
Since the election of the 45th president, it appears that America has been turned upside down and essentially, that is what good ole #45 has done. Needless to say, we all have been feeling the brunt of it from increased racial violence, loss of healthcare and increased taxes. Many people outside of CNN anchors and political pundits have been logging in and expressing their disdain or praise (as delusional as it may be) for what has transpired so far in this first year. The scrutiny under which Trump is placed even comes from a few of our favorite artists such as YG, Nipsey Hussle and Kendrick Lamar. Now to the average person, it may seem out of place for rappers to speak on Trump and his policies. Scrolling down our Twitter, Instagram and Snapchat feeds, hoards of people express that these artists should just “stick to hip hop” or “stick to rapping”. However, one could argue that hip-hop is inherently political.
Emerging from the South Bronx in the early 80s, hip-hop was introduced to the world when Black communities and communities of color were ravaged by the infiltration of crack/cocaine, increasing drug and gang violence and mass incarceration. Media coverage painted Black and Latino men as violent and animalistic. News outlets consistently flashed images of black faces and black bodies being beaten and battered in the streets. It was through Regan’s policies and the literal destruction of these neighborhoods and families, that fostered an urgency to show the true realities that Black people and people of color were facing.
Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five is a group that may resound for some of you or it may go completely over your head. Nonetheless, their iconic track, The Message, was one of the first singles released in 1982 that began to paint the picture of life in the South Bronx for Black and Latinx people. We all know the chorus though:
“Don’t push me ’cause I’m close to the edge / I’m trying not to lose my head
It’s like a jungle sometimes / It makes me wonder how I keep from going under”…
These lyrics were accompanied by images of dilapidated buildings, traffic congested streets and the homeless laying on the sidewalks. The Message shed a bright and uncomfortable light on how our communities were struggling to survive financially, struggling with physical and mental health, and lack of resources.
Before he became a reality TV sensation looking for love, Flavor Flav along with Chuck D, Professor Griff, Khari Wynn, and DJ Lord formed the legendary rap group: Public Enemy. One song in particular attested to the disregard of health and safety in black communities highlighting the disparity in concern for our well being, 911’s a Joke. This track debuted in 1990 from their album Fear of a Black Planet which is telling to the underlying terror that the majority experiences when black people unify.
“They don’t care cause they stay paid anyway / They treat you like an ace that can’t beat a trey
A no-use number with no-use people / If your life is on the line then you’re dead today”
As crime and violence continued to rise, the safety and prosperity of black communities declined at frightening levels and the emergency medical response or lack thereof, contributed to this fall. This was a song only featuring Flavor Flav but nevertheless, provided social commentary on the irresponsibility and discrimination of the health system. Still being a pretty new genre, hip-hop and its incendiary views seemed to cause quite a stir in the majority because their discriminatory practices were now put in the foreground.
White politicians, athletes, and everyone in between sought to undermine the validity of hip hop as a genre and also as a political presence. As we delve into the “The Golden Era”, over on the West Coast, N.W.A. formed and created a new sub-genre aptly named gangsta rap. This virile group consisted of Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, DJ Yella, and Arabian Prince and these young men had every reason to be a nigga with attitude. Drugs, gang violence and mass incarceration was rampant in Black communities and communities of color, nationwide. LA was no exception. Racial profiling and police brutality go hand in hand with living in an under-served neighborhood and is an unfortunate truth but N.W.A. had folks in every neighborhood yelling “Fuck Tha Police” in 1988.
“Searchin’ my car, lookin’ for the product / Thinkin’ every nigga is sellin’ narcotics”
“Fuck Tha Police” was incredibly effective in showcasing the inequality of treatment by the police force in Black and Latinx communities, that the FBI contacted the group expressing their disapproval of the portrayal of law enforcement. It is no secret that the government will go to extraneous lengths to do damage control and save face. However, N.W.A. could not have cared any less.
I could not forget to mention Tupac who was deliberately expressive in his criticism of the governmental machine. Holler If Ya Hear Me is a track that vocalized everything people in the hood thought and felt.
“Much love to my brothers in the pen / See ya when they free ya if not when they shove me in”
It is important to acknowledge that Tupac treated incarceration as fate for him and realized that it would continue to be fate for anybody that looked like him simply because of their skin. There hasn’t been much change in the treatment of our people living in communities where schools lack the funds to maintain extracurriculars, families are torn apart by violence or imprisonment and the brutalization of black people is widespread. Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… told the nation the bleak truth of being Black in America.
Fast forward to the millennium and we are still using hip-hop as a conduit of our joy, strength and pain. Jay-Z released The Black Album in 2003 and was widely successful. “99 Problems“ was an anecdotal track chronicling a few moments during his career that potentially could have jeopardized his success, one of which was him beating a case in 1999.
“D.A. try to give a nigga shaft again / Half a mil’ for bail ‘cause I’m African”
He was hyperbolic here because his bail was actually $50,000 but it is no secret that the judicial system adds plenty tax to bail for Black people compared to our white counterparts and this disparity was and still is revealed in a multitude of different research studies conducted by universities and organizations.
Lastly, I’d like to direct you to the south, Tennessee to be exact, where Isaiah Rashad presents his take on race relations in the eerily soothing track, Ronnie Drake from his debut album Cilvia Demo which was released in 2014. His experiences were cleverly woven into his lyrics and coupled with SZA’s mellow vocals. At the beginning of the second verse he sends a message of safety:
“Hope they don’t kill you cause you black today / They only feel you when you pass away“
“They” aren’t just the haters that DJ Khaled warns us of whom to steer clear but they (police) still beat our bodies and break our spirits without consequence. No matter who you are or where you are from or currently reside, we instinctively wish and pray safety for brothers and sisters as well as our own because it seems that we play a game of Russian Roulette whenever we step out of our homes. More often than not, many of us end up losing.
Hip-hop was thought to just be a fad with no chance of having a lasting presence. Hip-hop was, at one point, the scapegoat for erratic and violent behavior, when in reality, it is the voice of our people. Hip-hop contains the songs of celebration, of joy, and of turmoil and we continue to fearlessly express our experiences formed from the byproducts of politics.