Hip Hop And Politics
From Easy-E to Jay-Z, the history of hip-hops infamous and 1600, Pennsylvania ave.
Imagine a young Black boy in the early ’90s watching his idols tear the government down as an establishment that does not recognize his culture. Now, imagine the same Black boy in 2017 watching his idols permeate the structures of the government and attain power. Suddenly, his ideals have changed. An entire generation of Black youth is now being taught how to fight the power, from the inside.
The Raft of Medusa, an oil canvas masterpiece painted by Théodore Géricault, is my favorite piece of art. The carnage and despair portrayed in the depressing depiction created a political firestorm when it debuted in France in 1819. The painting is based on the horrific true story of the French naval vessel, Medusa, that crashed into a sandbar off the Coast of West Africa. Unable to free the ship from the sand, a crew of 400 passengers desperately piled into the lifeboats. 146 men and one woman were unable to board the lifeboats due to a shortage of space. Hastily, the doomed survivors built a raft from the wreckage of the Medusa, and tied themselves as a tow behind the lifeboats. As they sailed for any sign of land, the raft was “unintentionally” cut loose. Left adrift for 13 days with only a bag of biscuits, two cases of water, and several cases of wine; needless to say the passengers became violent. Murder and cannibalism took place once food rations ran out. Of the 147 passengers, 15 men survived and were rescued by a passing ship.
The tragedy was a political scandal that caused the public to question the intellect of their leaders. Géricault chose to paint a vivid depiction of the tragedy to send a political message. In a time before cameras could give the public a means to view the world through the eyes of others, art was used to deliver the truth to the masses. Art is the tool of the rebel, a medium to disseminate the message of the anti-establishment.
“I never have dinner with the President.”
– Ice Cube on “No Vaseline.”
Birthed in the bowels of poverty and shared as an artistic rhythmic poem, rap was inherently anti-establishment. The first rap records in history were technically stolen disco records. There were no formulaic song structures, and nobody was counting bars. Essentially, rap was Dr. Frankenstein’s monster, a mutant built from several pieces. It was never meant to fit in, or go commercial. MC Shan had no aspirations to meet the president when he was crafting his verses. Rappers had no agenda to influence the political climate outside of what was going on in their own world.
If anything, rappers didn’t care about the political aspects of art, and they possibly did not understand it. Eventually, the power of their art form became apparent to the godfathers of rap, and their voices became louder. In a time before the cameras chose to point their lenses at the communities that were left to perish, rap was used to deliver the truth to the masses.
“How we stop the Black Panthers? Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer!”
– Kanye West on “Crack Music.”
In the late ’80s to mid-’90s, politicians decided that they didn’t like the truth they were hearing through their speakers. The F.B.I. sent a cease and desist letter to N.W.A. C. Delores Tucker, a civil rights leader who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr., led a crusade against gangsta rap. As a result, 2 Live Crew had their music deemed legally obscene by the Florida government, and the group’s music was outlawed in record shops. Ice-T’s rock collective band, Body Count, was banned from touring and lost radio spots after “Cop Killer” elicited a response from the then President, George H.W. Bush.
The Washington Wives, a group of influential women married to powerful politicians, led a campaign that culminated in the creation of the unmistakable “Parental Advisory” stickers. It was an effort to stop the spread of rap music by influencing the market. The relationship between rap music and politics grew acidic. Black heroes and rap activists such as Chuck D, Ice Cube, KRS One, Nas, and 2Pac were vocal about the backlash from Washington. Although unaligned within rap music, each of the rap legends were unified in their message to Capitol Hill. “If you don’t like the symptoms, fix the disease.” Rap music is an art, a vocal reflection of the environment that gave birth to the truths that were making Americans shudder. Change the environment, and subsequently, the music will change.
“They call it Thanksgiving, I call your holiday “hell-day”
‘Cause I’m from poverty, neglected by the wealthy”
Nas- “What Goes Around.”
As the voices of the Black heroes grew louder, their influence grew stronger. The rancorous relationship between rap music and politicians mutated into an awkward yet necessary marriage. As George W. Bush left office, the rap community united behind a pinnacle of hope, Barack Obama. Although there are the artists that chose to keep a cynical view of the government, such as Ab Soul, Kendrick Lamar, and Syd, the overwhelming majority of rappers stood together to support Barack. The switch from anti-establishment to pro-government was widespread, and was akin to the switch of parties that took place in the ’70s. Through the 1900s, the KKK backed the Democratic party. In fact, the entire squadrons of KKK members would flock down to the polls on election day to coerce American voters to vote for the Democratic Party. The Republicans, seen as the party that freed the slaves and promoted race equality, were attacked constantly.
“My emancipation don’t fit your equation.”
—Lauryn Hill “Lost Ones”
John F Kennedy, a Democrat, was a different man, to say the least. He supported the Civil Rights Movement, a move that was publicly criticized by politicians in his own party. After his assassination, his successor, Lyndon B. Johnson, decided to honor Kennedy by fulfilling his promise to the segregated and oppressed minorities of America. After signing the Civil Rights Act, Johnson stated, “We have just lost the South for a generation,” a sentiment that proved true. The KKK, feeling betrayed by one of their own, abandoned the Democrats for allowing African-American to gain civil rights, and joined the Republican Party. The south, once unified as a Democratic home front, evolved into the “deep rep” states we are familiar with today. The parties switched, causing a shift in history that unhinged the political narratives at the time, and forged the ideals of the parties we know today. A similar shift is currently unfolding today, and rap music is an essential piece in the process.
African-Americans who had never voted in their life, such as my immigrant mother, registered and found themselves at the polls in 2008. A colossal shift in the dynamics of Black culture was taking place. Dave Chapelle, in an emotional SNL monolog, gave the American public an insight into a party held by Barack Obama during his presidency. The anecdote painted a beautiful picture of a White House, filled with Black entrepreneurs, musicians, athletes, and politicians. While Jay Z’s signature ad libs reverberated through the White House halls, rap music’s political history and influence culminated in the heart of America.
Just like The Raft of Medusa sent a powerful political message that resonated with the French public, rap music now employs the same amount of power. Bill Clinton has admitted to enjoying the same music he used to demonize. Marco Rubio is a Tupac fan and alleged hip-hop head. J. Cole raps about his meeting with Barack Obama on “High For Hours,” and Beyoncé has struck up a friendship with Michelle Obama. While President Trump may have supporters in the Black community, such as Terrell Owens, Mike Tyson, Shawn Merriman, Azalea Banks, and Chingy, his election threatened to disrupt the matrimony of rap and politics. Instead of a mass exodus from political parties, rappers instead chose to entrench themselves further.
Run The Jewels, T.I., Scarface, and Bun B allied themselves with Bernie Sanders during Trump’s presidential run, and continue to support his efforts after his loss. Hilary Clinton was able to amass an army of rappers behind her cause as well… ASAP Rocky, Waka Flocka Flame, Timbaland, Snoop Dogg, and Young Jeezy all showed support for the potential first female president. Even after President Trump’s victory, rappers continue to dig themselves deeper into politics, instead of surrendering to defeat. Even Kanye West declared his intentions to run for president. Although not rapper themselves, vocal hip-hop heads Chris Rock and Dwayne Johnson have also publicly announced desires to run for president.
Chance The Rapper met with the governor of Illinois to discuss public school education in Chicago, and a league of rappers have been blessed with the ability to feel at home in the White House because of Barack Obama. Of course, some of those presidential runs seem improbable, and rappers meeting with politicians doesn’t necessarily mean certain issues will change. The idea is not based on whether or not the rapper would win, or if the politicians will lend their aide. The point is the rappers are trying to get inside the oval office instead of attempting to burn it down from the outside. They are endorsing and donating to political causes and campaigns, as well as performing at rallies and attending conferences. There has been another dynamic shift.
–New York Democratic Rep. Hakeem Jeffries paid tribute to Biggie Smalls
As the relationship between rap and politics becomes more entangled and less estranged, the benefits of the marriage will be felt within Black communities countrywide.
“Maybe I should take the time to share what many of US would like you to see. Should it ever at times seem as though WE are against YOU, I assure you it’s a result of YOU defining yourself as the representative for those who are and who always have been against US. The deck has always been stacked against US in this country. With every generation there has been strategic steps taken to oppress, imprison and control US. All we’ve ever wanted was equality and empathy as the historically disenfranchised citizens that we are, in a nation that we’ve contributed to just as much as anyone else who calls America their home.
We’ve helped to mold the arts and culture of this country, as well as help build, create and contribute to its greatness, in spite of it all. From an economic perspective, our community’s buying power is THE strongest of all consumers. Yet we’re shown repeatedly that our lives don’t matter as much as our dollars, let alone as that of a person of a different race or skin color. These basic human rights of freedom and equality are ones that EVERY RELIGIOUS BOOK of reference says is a GOD-GIVEN right that should be fought for and defended with one’s life.
Yet and still, as many of US continue to live in life-threatening, unspeakable conditions with poisonous water systems, failing schools, broken criminal justice systems, lack of decent healthcare and affordable housing, all while scraping for a basic living wage many of US are still fighting to find our way.”
-From T.I’s Open Letter To President Trump