Hip-hop and politics – what have they got in common? I doubt David Cameron would make a good MC – although this video might make you think twice - but that’s the point of this article. Hip-hop culture has a long and proud tradition as a method of resisting oppression in its many forms, from the plantation life of slaves to segregated society, to the inequality and prejudice which still exists today. Hip-hop has changed the world before – and it can again, if we learn about its roots.
Hip-hop does not originate in New York City.
Instead you can trace it back to ancient Africa. Tribal rhythms and semi-sung lyrics survived “the Middle Passage” (where millions of Africans were cruelly transported across the Atlantic Ocean as slaves) and became part of life for slaves working on the sugar and cotton plantations in the Caribbean and America. In the 1920s jazz artists began to emerge from the former slave communities and by the 1950s blues and urban jazz musicians made African-American music known around the world. Modern hip-hop music evolved via spoken word artists like Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets – who were instrumental in promoting ideas of civil rights through their music and art. Politically conscious artists such as Public Enemy became household names in the late 80s and early 90s, while the lyrics of artists like Nas depicted the poverty and desperation many were still experiencing in the slums and forgotten communities of modern society. Hip-hop had survived for hundreds of years, adapted and evolved, yet still represented the same fundamental message of social justice.
Sadly, the stars of hip-hop today seem to have lost touch with this message and in many ways promote the worst excesses of Western culture.
Critics of hip-hop are often quick to dismiss as promoting materialism, violence, and the sexualisation and objectification of women – and if you listen to the stuff they feed us again and again on the radio, they’re probably right. Number 2 in the UK charts right now is “Me Myself and I” by G-Eazy. Firstly, let’s put aside the fact that the title is lifted from hip-hop legends De La Soul and look at the lyrical content. G-Eazy promotes his own personal brand of anger management as “swimming in money and liquor”. The fact that alcoholism directly correlates with domestic abuse should probably make radio DJs think twice about playing this (although they clearly won’t, I’ve heard it three times today) - and I’m not sure that during times of harsh ideologically-driven austerity measures (to fund tax breaks for the mega rich, like G-Eazy) that everyone can afford three Ferraris, as per his recommendation in verse 1. I’m not singling out G-Eazy; the point is that you can predict what most popular “hip-hop” tracks will be about before you even listen to them. It discredits the art form and atavistically promotes the sort of amoral and unjust society hip-hop has long fought against.
So what’s the alternative? How can we claim back hip-hop and make sure that modern artists respect the roots and culture of this art form?
The answer is straightforward: by engaging with those artists out there who are proud of hip-hop’s anti-oppressive heritage and promote this in their music and actions.
The great news is that we don’t have to look across the Atlantic for this either (although in the US there are artists like Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Immortal Technique who have made successful careers out of their conscious style). We can find a brand of hip-hop that promotes social justice right here in the UK. And what makes this even more exciting is that these artists don’t just make music about the issues that affect their communities; they are also involved in activism and social action. Their actions speak as loud as their words.
Akala is perhaps the best known of the artists I am about to list. Many of his albums have had a fair amount of commercial success, but what I think is most impressive about him are his activities outside of music (having said that, this freestyle contains more knowledge than I learned in the entirety of my school days – and arguably my university days too). Akala owns a business – the Hip Hop Shakespeare Company – which runs workshops in schools. These demonstrate how many of Shakespeare’s poems can be rapped over hip-hop beats, making English Lit GCSE’s infinitely more accessible and relatable to our young people. He has also travelled the UK giving university lectures which have discussed history and sociology – and has lists of his recommended books here and here. Lowkey – who retired from hip-hop in 2012 to concentrate on his political activism – is another well-known name whose music challenged prejudice and many of the opinions we see when we turn on the news. His track “Terrorist?” is as relevant today as ever, with the rise of xenophobia and anti-Muslim rhetoric on both sides of the Atlantic. A more underground figure is Chester P, whose style relies more on metaphor and symbolism, yet essentially delivers the same message of social justice. He does a lot of work with homeless people across the UK, check out his Facebook page to learn more. Another name worth mentioning is Logic, another conscious MC who has dealt with issues such as the Isreali-Palestinian conflict and socio-economic inequality. Finally, Jehst has explored themes like post-industrial decline in the UK and his track “England” captured the unrest in many deprived areas of the UK immediately before the riots in 2011.
It’s artists like these, rather than most of the ones you hear in the charts, who are keeping true hip-hop alive – they use it as a tool to highlight and fight oppression.
Their music promotes self-education and champions the things in life that money simply can’t buy such as knowledge and positive relationships. I feel extremely lucky that I stumbled across these artists when I was 16; ever since, this brand of hip-hop has acted as a road-map for my own personal exploration of politics activism. It made social issues accessible and challenged me to think about the world outside of the context of “me, myself and I”. It taught me the value of reading, of critical-thinking and of self-education. In many ways, it inspired me to go to university and study History and even today it reinforces my values on a daily-basis.
The more young people are exposed to these sorts of artists, the less young people will buy into the shallow ideology of extreme wealth, objectification of women and narcissism that we hear on the radio and see on music channels. In turn, more young people will start to rediscover hip-hop in its truest and most natural form; as music which gives you the courage to stand up to injustice in society, music which gives a voice to the voiceless. And when that happens, hip-hop might just change the world.
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