'I Can’t Breathe:' An Introduction To Activism In The Hip-Hop Community

'I Can’t Breathe:' An Introduction To Activism In The Hip-Hop Community


At the tail end of 2014, a heated debate over the importance of race in hip-hop reached it’s peak. It had begun in its present form nearly a year earlier when Macklemore and Ryan Lewis won Best Rap Album at the 56th Annual Grammy Awards. Many felt that they had been unfairly given the award over Kendrick Lamar, whos mammoth and eclectic sophomore album had been a favorite to win. In the subsequent debates over the importance of race in hip-hop, Iggy Azalea and Eminem, among others, were also the subjects of some criticism over cultural appropriation, institutional racism in the music industry, and racism implicit in the way these artists presented themselves.

At the end of 2014 rapper and producer Q-Tip took to Twitter in what is known as a Twitter seminar to educate Iggy Azalea (ever stubborn on the subject) on the cultural and historical roots of hip-hop. While this blog post will not attempt to enter this debate, it is important to draw on Q-Tips most important tweet within that seminar: “@IGGYAZALEA HipHop is a artistic and socio-political movement/culture that sprang from the disparate ghettos of NY in the early 70’s.”

Q-Tip’s words ring true to many in the hip-hop community. Born out of the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, hip-hop has long been a conduit for social commentary and activism. As a representative tool for marginalized communities, hip-hop has been used to voice discontent, anger, sadness and celebration. Yet to outsiders, the genre has instead come to express nothing more than lean-sipping, loud-smoking, bottle-popping and misogyny. What was once a powerful movement has seen a vast expansion with the focus on celebrating black culture (for example) falling to the wayside. Yet the often-vilified genre is still producing an incredible amount of talented artists who aim to be activists through their music, actions and other artistic approaches. “P****, money, weed”, the often quoted hip-hop mantra, is certainly relevant, but it is not the only message in hip-hop as some might suggest.

The state of hip-hop activism in the past 15 years can be broken down into three categories. These three categories are protest songs, social commentary songs, and non-music related public appearances and discourse (shout out to Kanye with this one).

Protest songs, not limited to hip-hop but inherently tied to the genre, are songs that explicitly identify social and political issues on the global, national and state levels (KiD CuDi, Lil’ Wanye, and the Game, as martians, might also suggest an intergalactic level), and then name who they feel is to blame for these issues. They seek to identify not only the problem, but also the perpetrator.

An excellent example of this is Killer Mike’s song "Reagan," in which he indicts Ronald Reagan, Oliver North, the Bushes, Clinton, Obama (the once-revered “hip-hop president”), the economy, and even the hip-hop community itself for crimes against marginalized communities as a whole. Dead Prez’ blames a police state for a slew of issues, including mass incarceration, racism, and murder, in his song "Police State. "Dead Prez’ even goes on to suggest that we work toward a socialist economic structure, where man is equal. In "I Can’t Breathe," Kxng Crooked laments over institutionalized racism in the United States, using the death of Eric Garner at the hands of the NYPD as an example. He evokes an image of the Klu Klux Klan with the lyric:

The grand jury never indicts
The grand dragon’s wearin’ his white, true indeed

He is referring to the fact that the actions of the grand jury reflect the racially motivated actions of the grand dragon, the term for a state leader in the KKK.

Social commentary songs are those that refer to a social justice issue, but don’t necessarily seek to name a perpetrator outright. Instead, the artists lament over issues in order to bring them to light. Consider Chance the Rapper’s "Paranoia," a hidden track on his popular mixtape Acid Rap. "Paranoia" is a personal and moving illustration of the fear and uncertainty of growing up in Chicago. Chance sings in whispered tones:

I know you scared
You should ask us if we scared too
I know you scared
Me too


He invites the average listener into his world, using inclusion to spread the word about violence that doesn’t need to be occurring. J. Cole offers another example of song that uses social commentary as a means of activism with his track "Be Free." Without ever explicitly referencing the shooting of Michael Brown at the hands of a Ferguson, Missouri policeman, J. Cole incorporates eyewitness accounts from Brown’s friend Dorian Johnson to bring us to the tragic events in Ferguson. He is bringing to light the issue of excessive policing. Yet beyond that he is asking for everyone, black or white, to stop killing each other.

Hip-hop artists are known to be extremely vocal beyond the realm of music, delving into areas such as sports and fashion at much higher rates than artists in other genres. The same holds true when it comes to activism beyond music. Non-music related public appearances and discourse is common among rappers, and can often fall into the realm of activism. Rapper Killer Mike, who kills only the mic and the occasional FOX News anchor, is well practiced at making public appearances as an activist and advocate. Following the tragic events in Ferguson, Missouri, Killer Mike appeared on FOX News and CNN (multiple times), with CNN listing his credentials as “rapper and social activist.” He spoke about more than simply Ferguson as a single event, addressing racism and violence on a grander scale.

Childish Gambino has approached non-music activism in another way -- through his Twitter page. In a long series of tweets earlier this year, Childish Gambino remarked on what it means to be white versus what it means to be black in America with lines like, “i hope I’m so big and white my cousin wasn’t shot and stabbed twice in the neck twice last night.” His approach is both poetic and visceral; he uses the repeating line “i hope I’m so big and white” and follows it with a remark about black and white experiences. While unrelated to his music, it is a powerful tool for bringing awareness to an issue, and places a celebrities face to a movement.

Activism in music in general has always been a conduit for social discourse, hip-hop music is especially important. Hip-hop, since its inception, is inherently tied to marginalized groups. It has moved beyond advocating for civil rights in the United States, popping up in places such as the Middle East as a form of protest for those living under authoritarian rule. Due to its ties to marginalized groups, hip-hop has a better chance at mobilizing communities and making them understand how issues affect them and how they might voice their grievances.

It is not to say that hip-hop is without its flaws. I recently wrote a short piece detailing homophobia in hip-hop, and volumes could be written about misogyny in lyrics. These are issues with which the hip-hop community must reconcile. Yet we must not forget that there is a power in hip-hop that is unparalleled. More artists need to tap into that potential, and perhaps stop making songs about f****** groupies.

Cover Image Credit: YouTube

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No Matter What, We Are All Human

Regardless of who we are or what we've done.

"If we could read the secret history of our enemies, we should find in each man's life sorrow and suffering enough to disarm all hostility." -Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

If I am killed in a terrorist attack before or after this article posts, my words still stand.

You've read that right. I love terrorists.

I love them because I love people. I love the idea that no matter what they have done, there are still those little shreds of humanity left.

Love equals understanding, so if love is too strong, let us use the term "understand".

I understand them, those people who instill fear in others because they believe it is for the greater good. There are no "terrorists", but people who perform terroristic attacks.

We need to remember this because once we place that label of "terrorist", we remove that reality of "human". The only true terrorist is hatred. It attacks our brain, destroying our common sense, and deteriorates at our ability to love.

Maybe if we saw the heartbreak in their chest, the parents they lost, the child that was taken or the distress they felt as the result of another human being, we might lower our weapons long enough to see that they were fighting for the same reasons we were.

I don't watch the news, but I watch the way humans interact with one another. We scream and cuss over the opinions of others. I hate you's and go die's fall harder than the bombs we want to launch at those who wrong us.

We watch "civilized" men holler at each other about how the other is wrong, screaming so loud that they are unable to remember how to use the ears they were gifted with, with the hearing they were born with.

The human instinct to love and understand has evolved into the need to worry about only yourself.

Since we invaded Iraq in 2003, war has increased sevenfold worldwide. We fought this war, claiming we are "fighting for peace", but doesn't fighting for peace make just as much sense as constructing to destruct?

Hatred cannot fight hatred. So instead we need to lower our guns, diffuse our bombs and fight with the words that Ralph C. Smedley gave us.

"Understanding comes through communication, and through understanding, we find peace."

My mother always taught me that I am only human. I am Caucasian and a female. But these are not the things that define me. These are not the things that are meant to shape my life or my beliefs.

I believe there is not a single life that is worth more or less than another, even with the things they may or may not have done.

There are not bad people, just those who do bad things.

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Will We Forget This Time

Some people are more concerned about maintaining gun culture than the lives of human beings.

Will we forget this massacre this time? Will this one be forgotten and then will another one take its place soon after to then be forgotten again. After the Sandy Hook Massacre, I thought there could be nothing worse. Then there was the shooting at a nightclub in Orlando, and then the shooting at Vegas, and now the shooting in at Marjory Stoneman Douglass High School in Parkland, Florida. All of these massacres as well, as others not mentioned, were equal in hatred, equal in evilness and they occurred with an assault weapon that was designed for military use.

Some people are more concerned about maintaining gun culture than the lives of human beings. There is a notion of freedom within this country that is profound and important. But with the wrong mindset, this notion can be misconstrued to be interpreted as a law that does not allow the regulation of guns. There are some who argue that the assault weapons are used for hunting or for gun collection purposes. These people seem to be more willing to uphold the statues of gun culture in order to maintain the supposed freedom and rights within the constitution while others die because of it.

However, one of the major purposes of the Constitution, more specifically, the Bill of Rights was to uphold freedom and the right to uphold statues of “hunting/gun culture” above the freedom of individuals to go to school and gather in a public vicinity without being shot to death is not truly freedom. And this consideration should not be exclusive to Suburbia but all other cities within the United States. To hold the freedom of gun/hunting culture above freedom is not freedom at all.

Although I support the right to bear arms, the AR-15 is an army assault weapon and it should have never been allowed to be obtained by non- army personnel with mental illness or not no matter if they like to hunt. Conservatives seem to be busy trying to conserve a principle that was written centuries ago to fit the needs or understanding of needs for those times. No one should conserve any century-old principle without scrutiny and proper consideration for how it should be molded to fit our current world

It was not the prevalent mass shootings alone that caused me to realize that there should be gun reform. It was when I learned about the gun violence that is very prevalent in inner cities and urban areas as well. The complexity of the kinds of mass murders that takes place in the inner cities requires more than just the gun reform but this should have also prompted as many people to lead protests and marches and media coverage. This also should not be forgotten

It is true that security measures should have been taken throughout the entire situation but now is not the time to place blame because the crimes have already been committed. More people have died because of a mass massacre and it will continue to happen if proper action is not taken. Some action has been taking place but it must be persistent and when the media forgets and moves on to the next topic, we cannot.

Cover Image Credit: LA Times

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