Amiri Baraka has a poem where he elaborates on the two constants in African-American life since the slave-trading 1600s: singing and fighting. By the end, the late poet convinces you that SingFight is really one word. Black American musical history is chock of full of amazing fight songs, overt and covert, and more than a few steady-aiming, freedom-fighting chanteuses. The racial justice movements of the 1960s and 1970s provoked a treasure trove of politically conscious songbirds and protest anthems — Nina Simone, Curtis Mayfield, James Brown, Stevie Wonder, Gil Scott-Heron, Marvin Gaye, Philly soul’s Gamble & Huff, Labelle, Parliament-Funkadelic. When that sound revolution got Saturday Night Fever–ed off American radio, many a pan-Afrikanist turned to reggae and Fela for radical-oppositional soulfulness via Jimmy Cliff, Bob Marley, Burning Spear, Steel Pulse and Linton Kwesi Johnson. Then came hip-hop.
The Eighties and Nineties saw a resurgence of artists ready to take up the lyrical barricades in their own inimitable and rambunctious styles: KRS-One, Public Enemy, De La Soul, A Tribe Called Quest, N.W.A, 2Pac, X-Clan, Nas, Wu-Tang Clan, the Roots, Black Star’s Talib Kweli and Mos Def, Erykah Badu, Bad Brains, Fishbone, Living Colour, 24-7 Spyz, Rage Against the Machine, OutKast and Goodie Mob, among others – and then what? While the first 15 years of millennial rap (and rock) will be remembered for many things, good, bad and ugly, a surfeit of ditties decrying the status quo of systemic racism won’t be one of them. Hell, commercial rap’s boldest move after 9/11 was Kanye West on TV with SNL‘s Mike Myers meekly declaring that ”George Bush doesn’t care about Black people” during the Hurricane Katrina horrorshow.
Which brings us more or less to the present day. If you’re one of those folk like Afrika Bamabaataa, the entire Zulu nation and this mild reporter, who believe the commercial rap music industry and hip-hop proper are two radically different tings, then you already know that Black Twitter has been the most popular and vociferous hip-hop MC in this year of #BlackLivesMatter. Put another way, the most properly hip-hop-savvy displays of rhythm, noise and popular marketing to emerge in our time occurred on the front lines of Ferguson, Missouri, and Baltimore, Maryland, in response to the victimization and police cover-ups of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and Freddie Gray’s deaths-by-cops. Once upon a time, we defined hip-hop proper as “the voice of the voiceless.” Thanks to the communication revolution of #BlackLivesMatter, those once-voiceless masses no longer require rappers for their social-injustice priorities to be heard from the dogg house to the White House — or to alarm the Fox News anchor desk.
In the annals of musical protest, there have been jazz cats like Billie Holiday, Charlie Parker and Max Roach, who were way ahead of the population curve in abstractly advocating a musical revolution. In other periods — per Nina Simone, Motown, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown — popular musicians were right in sync with public and widespread grassroots opposition to Jim Crow and other white supremacist bullshit. In today’s world, a sense of political marketing ingenuity true to the OG values of hip-hop proper (and the ACT UP–era Queer Nation) led three activists named Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors and Opal Tometi to blow up the #BlackLivesMatter hashtag after the 2013 killing of Trayvon Martin by George Zimmerman in Florida. Let’s not forget that this action occured nearabouts to the time when young folk identifying themselves as Dream Defenders occupied the state capitol in protest of the “stand your ground” laws that exonerated Zimmerman. And where were the musicians?
As much as 21st-century rap music has a cadence familiar and familial to the grassroots, the streets didn’t wait for the rap industry to speak out when those injustices incited their outrage. Commercial rap was off doing what commercial rap does best — i.e., staying commercial — too blindsided by the profit motive to be out in front of those rallies the way that hip-hop proper was doing, via its newfangled #BlackLivesMatter incarnation. Commercial rap was glacial by comparison with even the NBA in joining the outcry against the police strangulation of Eric Garner on the island the Wu-Tang Clan call Shaolin. Derrick Rose got LeBron James and others to don “I Can’t Breathe” workout jerseys in 2014 — a #BlackLivesMatter moment with hip-hop proper blasted all over it.
No doubt, prominent MCs eventually turned up in Ferguson. J. Cole and Talib Kweli were among the first we saw with Timboots on the ground — and while the Game and Diddy got no love for crewing up the first song out in support of Ferguson’s avant-garde, that’s the historical fact. J. Cole broke us all down on Letterman with “Be Free,” a cry of anguish that harkened to our worst race-memory imaginings of slaveships, auction blocks and plantation quarters. Killer Mike brought it in verse and conversational dissent on Letterman and CNN, becoming the most eloquent and thoughtful spokesperson that commercially visible rap could have desired to represent it from within established-MC ranks. We all need to devote more ink, though, to Ferguson’s own Tef Poe, who immediately shut down a lucrative tour to join his fellow citizens on his hometown’s frontline boulevard in a time of crisis. The intersection of Black Lives and hip-hop proper was manifest in that moment of bottom-line integrity. So, too, were the un-ballyhooed donations that Jay Z and Beyonce quietly gave to bail out protesters in Baltimore (and elsewhere), according to veteran hip-hop journalist dream hampton. Never forget KRS-One’s admonition that real bad boys and grrls move in guerrilla silence on occasion, too.
The growing map of places where Black Lives and hip-hop proper once again overlap points to the recent student rebellions against racially clueless administrations at University of Missouri, Yale and Dartmouth. Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has been touted by many a comrade in today’s student activist cadre as their “We Shall Overcome”; Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, released this March, and D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, from last December, are recognized as the first tuneful meditations of this era to come within spitting distance of canonical conscious-groove masterworks like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.
The hip-hop-savvy radicalism of #BlackLivesMatter has liberated commercial rap from its default modern setting — the one that birthed the breezy millennial perception that “hip-hop” was a synonym for a consumer market where rowdy, rhyming negro gentleman callers and ballers sold vernacular song and dance to an adoringly vicarious and increasingly whiter public – a fair portion of whom are undeniably apathetic to race politics and the new Jim Crow, per Michelle Alexander’s groundbreaking study of present-day judicial abuses.
#BlackLivesMatter’s reclamation of hip-hop proper has brought complexity and revolutionary street cred back to the race conversation in commercial rap. So has the best-selling success of lifetime rap devotee Ta-Nehisi Coates’ wake-up call to race-thoughtful younguns everywhere, Between the World and Me. You don’t have to be poetically or polemically down-with-the-cause, my Young Thug lover, or care whether a trial of Baltimore cops yields convictions for the egregious death of Freddie Gray. The real deal, however, is that the public can no longer be sold the noxious and recherché notion that 21st-century rap culture is only about trap-happy nigras getting paid for getting dumb, or coldstoopidwackretarded, even. Thanks to #BlackLivesMatter, the beautiful struggle against racialized injustice once again matters where rap and hip-hop proper live.