The Political Messages of Conscious Hip-Hop
Since its dawn, hip-hop has been a powerful medium for cultural and political messages. Because of that fact, this is by no means an exhaustive list of political rap, or conscious hip-hop, but simply a brief look into central themes.
Though not all artists are explicitly connected to a political movement, the use of rap and hip-hop to convey political messages is undeniable. From the more obvious expressions, such as Killer Mike’s efforts promoting the Bernie campaign in the 2016 elections, to more subtle, musical statements, like Mos Def’s ‘UMI Says’.
A wide range of political and cultural critique can be found too. Having said this, general themes of racism, police brutality and social injustice are most often handled in hip-hop. The messages found in the music can, however, vary in radicalism. Rappers can promote more extreme measures as Dead Prez’s calls for socialist revolution in ‘Police State’ or N.W.A.’s ‘Fuck the Police’. But messages do not have to be radical, as in J. Cole’s ‘Be Free’ in which the main message reads “all we wanna do is be free”, responding to the shooting of Michael Brown.
The Message - Grandmaster Flash (1982)
Arguably the song that skyrocketed the use of a political message in hip-hop and with an opening beat that is instantly recognisable, any list of conscious rap would be incomplete without The Message.
This song describes the stress of impoverished life in the New York of the 80’s. The central theme relates to the lack of support and a sense of solitude in the face of dangerous issues. Grandmaster Flash criticises education, the financial system and crime in the city. All these combine to make New York life a burden on anyone, placing a “Neon King Kong” of stress on his back.
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
This immortalised hook of the song will be recognisable to most hip-hop fans. It summarises the message of the song well and portrays the constant state of stress and vulnerability living poor in the New York ghetto.
You say, “I’m cool, huh, I’m no fool.”
But then you wind up dropping outta high school
The constant stress of life pushes ordinary people to a life of crime. Growing up, boys see the “thugs, pimps and pushers” and notice these are the “big money-makers”. The message here is that constant financial and physical pressure of life in the New York ghettos of the 80’s, combined with the apparently easy opportunities offered by crime bring out the worst in ordinarily good people.
Police State - Dead Prez (2000)
Rap duo Dead Prez deliver a powerful critique of the capitalist state in America and call for socialist revolution. Police State is both a criticism of the world in which they live and a call for unity and action from the black community.
I’m sick of working for crumbs and filling up the prisons
Dying over money and relying on religion
Herein lies the core critique of Police State. Dead Prez focus in this song on the exploitation of the black community by an unnamed elite, a combination of the business and government worlds. The song claims that black men, on average, “live a third of his life in a jail cell” and that wages are distributed unfairly to black workers.
Another message in the song is the call for unity in the black community.
Organise the hood under I Ching banners
Red, Black and Green instead of gang bandanas
Dead Prez seek to unite under “Red, Black and Green”, often used as the colours of the pan-African movement which seeks to unify all Africans under one flag. They preach to replace the “gang bandanas”, or in other words, remove any internal rivalry in the black community.
Black Girl Pain - Talib Kweli ft. Jean Grae (2004)
Though not exclusively a political message, Black Girl Pain is an emotive, personal tribute to black women and girls. Split up into two large verses, the first by Talib Kweli, the next by Jean Grae, this song highlights the obstacles laid out for black women.
Talib Kweli focuses on his respect for the strength of black women through a deeply personal account of his own daughter, Diani.
I keep her hair braided, bought her a black Barbie
I keep her mind free, she ain’t no black zombie
The message herein seeks to assure black girls they do not need to succumb to societal norms. Talib Kweli does this by laying the focus on his daughter’s hair, which he keeps braided instead of straightened and dyed to fit into unfair beauty standards. The expectation of black girls to change their appearance is perpetuated to black children through, for example Barbie dolls, which Talib Kweli rejects by buying his daughter a “black Barbie”. All this is done to fight against his daughter becoming a “black zombie”, or altered by society to lose her beauty.
Jean Grae’s verse changes the focus slightly and brings in references to Apartheid, the regime imposing racial segregation in South Africa until 1991. The fight against Apartheid is framed in Grae’s verse as a fight for the liberation by and of non-white women, particularly those of mixed-race.
For rubber pellet scars on Auntie Elna’s back, I march
Fist raised, caramel shining, in all our glory
For Mauritius, St. Helena, my blood is a million stories
The Space Program - A Tribe Called Quest (2016)
Unfortunately, there’s no stable YouTube link to this song
Tribe lay out an extended metaphor in this entire song. They imagine a space program bringing humanity away from Earth and claim that the black population would be left behind.
Leave us here where we are so they can play among the stars
They taking off to Mars, got the space vessel overflowing
What, you think they want us there? All us niggas not going
The central message here is that black people are being left behind as the rest of America seems to keep advancing. This can be read as a critique of ongoing gentrification of traditionally African-American areas, or in other words, raising the value of a certain neighbourhood introducing a more privileged population and expelling the traditional, poorer inhabitants. The message could also extend further than simply gentrification and refer to American progress in general. The message then refers to American economic and political progression in general, which also leaves the black community behind.
Q-Tip ends his verse on The Space Program with an important question for the listener. He recognises the space vessel is a metaphor, but what if it wasn’t? Would the black community be taken along equally?
Imagine if this shit was really talkin’ about space, dude
From this small, brief look through hip-hop history a few central themes appear. Clearly, the political approaches of artists vary, from preaching socialist revolution to proclaiming a tribute to black women. The issues, or themes, remain similar throughout.
The feeling of vulnerability or helplessness is common throughout conscious hip-hop. This comes from a continual underrepresentation in politics of the poor and black communities, groups commonly associated with hip-hop. On The Space Program, this is summarised halfway through the first verse.
They planning for our future
None of our people involved
Decisions are made for communities who themselves have no say in those decisions. This an important consequence of the systematic underrepresentation of vulnerable communities, which perpetuates this vulnerability.
It’s a message that can be read in almost all conscious rap and remains relevant from the start of conscious hip-hop to today. Grandmaster Flash paints a picture of New York life following from systematic abandonment by politics, a life of struggle pushing ordinary people to crime back in the 80’s.
Into the 2000’s Dead Prez take this theme further. Government and politics are not simply abandoning black communities, but structurally oppressing them. Clearly, throughout conscious hip-hop, the portrayal of government is rarely positive.
Reputation of the Black Community
Strongly connected to political abandonment, the reputation of the black community is another central theme of conscious hip-hop. A Tribe Called Quest handle this theme as well on The Space Program.
Reputation ain’t glowing, reparations ain’t flowing
Societal views upon the black community are summarised by Tribe as generally negative. In the same line, it is shown what effects this has for political abandonment. Negative views held on underrepresented communities mean that they are not helped politically and remain underrepresented.
Perhaps no song handles this theme better than Black Girl Pain, particularly when considering black and non-white women. The systematic oppression through beauty standards, expectations and the obstructions these lay out for women growing up non-white are all put on display.
She got a black girl name, she living black girl pain
A lot of mention can be found above of the “black community”, the “poorer communities”, or any other form of community. It is important to note that this piece makes no effort to push any individuals into communities of generalisation. When talking on issues of racism or reputation it is unfortunately necessary sometimes to talk in terms of groups or communities, however unrepresentative these might be themselves.