How Hip Hop Prepared Me For A Trump Presidency
I was going to publish the second entry in my “How to Listen to Rap” series, but honestly, music analyzation seems so trivial to me at this point in American history.
Donald Trump has become the president-elect.
We’ve seen the tweets, the Facebook statuses ranging from ecstatic praise to sheer panic, the vitriol aimed at fellow citizens. More than ever in my lifetime, there seems to be a great divide in the not-so United States. Many, including my Mexican-American self, are still coming to grips with a volatile future. It’s not going to be easy, and it’s not going to be pleasant. But this is our reality, and we must deal with it.
Thankfully, hip hop has been preparing me for this reality for years.
Fight the Power
Hip hop is — and has always been — rebellion in musical form. Since its inception in the late 1970s, it has challenged and shocked the status quo in America. It has been the “CNN for black people,” as Public Enemy’s Chuck D famously stated. What’s more, it has represented an emotional brushstroke for the oppressed and disenfranchised people of color in America for almost 40 years. Themes of revolting against those that seek to keep you down has been the electric lifeblood fueling the soundtrack for contemporary protestation. Look no further than the widespread application of the neo-Civil Rights anthem “Alright” by rapper-laureate Kendrick Lamar.
Of course, hip hop rebels against the status quo in less politically-minded ways and has been endlessly criticized for its use of sex, drugs, and violence. Nevertheless, these themes propel libertarian individualism despite a system designed to punish detractors and instill a gentrified view of the “model” citizen. The genre has challenged and subverted these notions. Often, it sparks controversy. Sometimes, it leads to political awakening and activism. Before Black Lives Matter, before the national realization of police brutality, before the 2016 election cycle, hip hop has vocalized the voice of discontent. After all, what’s more politically charged than a single person speaking into a mic to an audience of hundreds, thousands, or even millions?
Growing up, no record articulated my own frustration with the status quo quite as well as Rage Against the Machine’s 1991 self-titled debut, an album that only grows more vital as time progresses. Zach de la Rocha’s enraged yet calculated treatises on police brutality, media brainwashing, and Orwellian national values informed much of my political views, as idealistic as they were. What’s significant about this album, and many other albums like it, is the complete lack of pretension in its message. It is the rallying cry of the everyman, designed to embolden everyone that is marginalized and disillusioned without being preachy or claiming to be the sole provider of clear answers. It simply reports the deep emotional turmoil many citizens feel. In Trump’s America, this turmoil is poised to reach a boiling point. In many cases, that already seems to be happening. Therefore, it is important that the art continues to express this never-ending cycle of discontent with one’s government and the societal norms it continues to uphold.
Another key aspect to albums like RATM is the reinforcement of positive self-worth and an iron, aggressive resistance to adversity. This focus on positive mental imagery is much more prevalent in hip hop than many realize:
“Did you realize that you were a champion in their eyes? Yes I did.”
– Kanye West, “Champion”
“Everybody lack confidence. How many times my potential was anonymous? How many times the city making me promises? So I promise this: I love myself.”
– Kendrick Lamar, “i”
“So if you want to duel, your rocket better be filled up with fuel.
‘Cause when you get here, I’ll be on the stool, cracking brews,
And you’ll be tired from the journey.
So how you think that you could ever burn me?”
– Jay Electronica, “Victory is in My Clutches”
These positive messages kill two birds with one stone: they uphold the ever-present ego that rappers are known to possess, and they impart some of that positive reinforcement onto their listeners. By using the word “I” in these songs, listeners can internalize these messages and better apply them to their own life and predicament. In fact, a Cambridge University study found that hip hop musical therapy tended to “achieve a formidable sense of empowerment, street knowledge, resilience, and self-healing” for the patients in the study. The professors leading the study have recently taken it a step further and have launched the Hip Hop Psych program in the UK “in order to cultivate awareness, empower others and remove stigma surrounding mental health and hip-hop.” The program has been utilized in youth programs, prisons, and other niche communities with positive results.
In Trump’s America, complete with emboldened racism and increasingly normalized hostility towards the Black and Brown, now more than ever is threatening to the mental health of those facing denigration and subjugation in their communities. Hip hop has proven it can be a path to positive self worth in a hateful environment.
Looking Back to Assess the Present
Racial tension in 2016 America has reached a new peak — and a new low —since the Civil Rights movement in the 60’s. Through it all, music has accompanied the various struggles facing the nation. John Lennon’s plea for peace eventually morphed into N.W.A.’s indignation for the peace that never came. Bob Dylan’s esoteric social critiques paved the way for Jay Electronica’s heady, drug-soaked metaphor for America. Gil-Scott Heron’s stark poetry has been used ad infinitum across today’s rap landscape (Kanye and Common both overtly reference Heron regularly). The same is true of civil rights leaders. Rap’s nods to historical artists and figures remains an integral piece of the hip hop puzzle.
Kendrick’s “Hiiipower” from his excellent 2011 album “Section.80” draws upon the memory of important historical figures to describe Black America’s ongoing struggles:
“Visions of Martin Luther staring at me. Malcolm X put a hex on my future, someone catch me.”
In this one line, Lamar acknowledges two sides of the same coin; on one hand, MLK evokes the peaceful struggle, the moral high ground in the face of violence turned against you. On the other, MX conjures nationalist (some might say segregationist) freedom from oppression, though not necessarily in nonviolent terms. Kendrick finds himself in the aftermath of these linked yet opposing movements, as do we all. But the messages of those movements persist and are endlessly recontextualized for today’s racial friction.
History is said to be written by the victor, but the emotional truth is always provided by the artist. Killer Mike’s “Reagan” is the definitive anti-gipper anthem, a song that systematically dissects the iconic president’s lasting impact on the African American community. One particularly hard-hitting example:
“But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits. ‘Cause free labor is the cornerstone of US economics. ‘Cause slavery was abolished, unless you are in prison. You think I am bullshitting, then read the 13th Amendment”
The system that bolstered institutional racism against those not deemed worthy since the inception of this country is a hard truth, but it is truth. That truth has lent itself to modern horrors, and hip hop will not let it be forgotten. The past informs the present, and history repeats itself in disgusting ways. Up-and-coming Chicago emcee Mick Jenkins uses a simple and devastating hook in his haunted masterpiece “Drowning” to remind us of how far we have to go: “I can’t breathe.”
Indeed, in Trump’s America, many already feel suffocated under the weight of policies and actions being designed to silence and subjugate them. Up to this point, hip hop has proven to be an unyielding combatant and ardent journalist of our political climate. With the tumultuous flux that defines the current administration, rappers are sure to respond with just as much poignancy and urgency as ever, if not more so.
We will fight and struggle to make sense of our country in the coming years. Hip hop will be there for us every step of the way. It always has been.