Rap Music as a Gateway to Empathy

Reid Belew
Nov 18, 2016 · 8 min read

I’ll start off with the gist of it all (because this is my 5th attempt at a compelling lede, and I decided I’m gonna go for the gullet this time): regarding issues of race, white evangelicals lack empathy.

Amidst the torrid whirlwind of political discourse, something is missing.

RIP Phife

(Facebook, now and likely for the next few days, is a total dumpster fire. It’s ground zero. It’s the epicenter of garbage. All garbage in the known multiverse has stemmed from Facebook this week. Trash, Nerf ball garbage.)

Action. Action is missing. There’s a whole lot of talk. But there isn’t much action.

A popular storyline among disheveled voters is how we can’t depend on higher powers (i.e the President) to disseminate good. The burden of encouraging decency is squarely upon our shoulders. I think they’re right.

America is divided racially. There’s no way around it.

I could do this forever.

Undoubtedly, we have improved since the days of Jim Crow and the Civil Rights movement. But we sure as hell haven’t improved enough. My hope is that this post gives my white evangelical friends a good starting point to do their part in understanding our brothers and sisters.

If the aforementioned is true — that goodness stems from citizens — then it’s time for the people who claim to follow the physical embodiment of love to ante up regarding racial injustices and racial reconciliation.

If we are to assert that everyone is made in the image of God, then it’s time to make sure everyone is treated as a mirroring of the Messiah. Claiming Jesus necessitates action.

Today, that action takes the shape of rap music.

em·pa·thy (ĕm′pə-thē) n.
1. The ability to identify with or understand another’s situation or feelings.

If we’re going to heal deep seated racial wounds, we must curate a sincere practicing of empathy. Empathy is choosing to look at an individual and fixating on the motive behind their words and actions, instead of solely focusing on their words and actions.

Wu-Tang is for the children

And let me interject here: I understand that I am a white male who grew up in the heart of rural America. It’s important to me to do my part to understand what isn’t instinctual for me.

Cole Cuchna, the host of Dissect (a stellar podcast that analyzes albums over 20 episodes — currently in the middle of Kendrick Lamar’s “To Pimp a Butterfly”) has similar sentiments.

“I’m a white kid from the suburbs of America, if you can’t tell by my voice. And while this might be viewed by some as a hindrance in analyzing an album so heavily-rooted in African-American culture, it’s precisely this reason I chose to dissect it. I don’t think we get anywhere as a culture if we’re afraid to confront issues because they’re difficult or feel like they don’t apply to us. In fact, because they’re issues understood primarily by the people they effect is perhaps one reason why they perpetuate.”

Rap music is a gateway to understanding those across the racial aisle. By listening to rap music and focusing on why words are spoken instead of how words are spoken, the empathy that is created can act as a bridge between racial communities.

So, I’ll pull some examples of rap songs that are powerful encouragers of understanding and empathy.

“Harder Than You Think” — Public Enemy

First things first, you need to know that Flava Flav is the greatest hype man of all time. It’s not even close.

Second, Public Enemy is, without question, the most politically influential rap group. Chuck D has the voice of a demigod and the IQ of Albus Dumbledore.

“Harder Than You Think” sounds triumphant and grandiose. It’s easy to listen to this song and feel like you’re living in the proverbial happy ending credit-rolling of a sports movie. Chuck D’s lyrics bring it down to earth rapidly. Chuck D is speaking for the massive amount of the black population that feels as though the government is exploiting black men. Don’t write him off as crazy. I mentioned above that there’s an astronomical disparity between whites and blacks when it comes to prison sentencing. Pair that with the understanding that some prisons are run for profit. Uh huh. Yep.

“Check the facts, expose those cats / Who pose as heroes and take advantage of blacks / Your government’s gangster, so cut the crap / A war going on so where y’all at? / “Fight the Power” comes great responsibility / ‘F the Police’ but who’s stopping you from killing me?”

It’s not about agreeing with Public Enemy. That’s not the goal. The goal here is to understand why the need to speak those words exists. I don’t mean “I totally get that, but…”

I mean letting the gravitas of those words sink in and saying “I get it.”

“m.A.A.d City” — Kendrick Lamar

In the same vein as “The Message”, “m.A.A.d City” paints out a day in the life of a young black man growing up.

Kendrick is from Compton, CA, a notoriously difficult place to grow up. Compton is the unfortunate microcosm and reflection of poor, black communities all across the country.

By listening to “m.A.A.d City”, we can start to understand what it’s like to grow up in these places.

Where you grow up drastically impacts your worldview. With this song, we’re able to look through the lens of another worldview, a struggling teen in Compton, CA.

“the driver seat the first one to get killed”

Imagine this: you grow up in a place that is so violent, and that violence is so commonplace, that knowing the driver of the car (the one who has to have their head up all the time) is usually the first one to get shot is common knowledge. Everyone knows that.

Later in “m.A.A.d City” Kendrick says:

“AK’s, AR’s, “Aye y’all, duck” / That’s what momma said when we was eating the free lunch”

I’ll spell this one out, too.

Imagine this: Your family doesn’t have enough to give you lunch money. So you have to enroll in government programs or visit Black Panther inner-city programs to get a meal. At one of those meals, your mom has to tell you to put your head down for a little bit because there are bullets flying around.

Just think about it.

“m.A.A.d City” is an amazing song. Just like “Harder Than You Think” the catchiness of the beat and Kendrick’s opening “YAK YAK YAK YAK” sometime overshadow and undermine our ability to think critically about what is actually said. Run it back and try it again.

“Sound of da Police” — KRS-One

KRS-One giving us his best “Woop! Woop!” is great viewing. 9/10; very good.

KRS-One is from the Bronx. He was also known as Big Joe Krash, which is an awesome thing to be known as.

Not once in my life did my parents ever tell me that I need be on my guard when speaking to a police officer. It was a non-issue in our family. Black fathers and black mothers have to iterate to their children to be on your guard when speaking with cops. Time and time again, there are instances of cops treating black citizens differently than white citizens. It’s not the same. And that’s not fair. It is a worthy source of a justified anger. Anger that is articulated by KRS-One speaking to police officers in this song. Again, worry not about his tone as a reason to dismiss his content. Empathy is concerned with why words are said, and less about how they are said. Though, how these words are articulated is more than reasonable.

“You hotshot, wanna get props and be a savior / First show a little respect, change your behavior / Change your attitude, change your plan / There could never really be justice on stolen land / Are you really for peace and equality? / Or when my car is hooked up, you know you wanna follow me / Your laws are minimal / ’Cause you won’t even think about lookin’ at the real criminal / This has got to cease / ’Cause we be getting hyped to the sound of da police”

This song came out 23 years ago, and its relevance hasn’t waned.


If reconciliation is the door, then empathy is the key.

What is too often dismissed and condemned by white evangelicals is a useful, powerful narrative that teaches us to listen to our neighbor.

Goodness, decency, kindness, and understanding exist outside the realm of legislation. Talk is cheap; action is hard. But dipping into what may be uncharted waters with the hope that you will gain understanding of things you may not understand is a worthwhile, noble, good, pure, and holy endeavor. The hope is that a new found understanding is the first stepping stone to getting involved with charities, organizations, and causes that alleviate the pain of struggle.

Baby steps.


The Rap Yearbook — Shea Serrano

Dissect: A Serialized Music Podcast — Hosted by Cole Cuchna


The Badlands

The Badlands (taken from Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Badlands”) is an attempt to engage with the narratives around us — to pull back the undergrowth of the paths we find, no matter how meaningless they appear.

Thanks to Jake Owens

Reid Belew

Written by

Some brimstone baritone anti-cyclone rolling stone preacher from the East.

The Badlands

The Badlands (taken from Bruce Springsteen’s hit “Badlands”) is an attempt to engage with the narratives around us — to pull back the undergrowth of the paths we find, no matter how meaningless they appear.

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