2016, the year hip-hop hit the campaign trail
In 2016, rappers from Missy Elliott to Killer Mike lead voter registration initiatives, sat on panels, wrote op-eds, protested on the front lines, and made some incredible music.
Hip-hop has always been political, since its emergence from rubble in the late 70s Bronx — a critical period during which New York City faced economic devastation and high crime rates. Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five spread "The Message" of what life was truly like for inner city communities of color in the early 1980s; later in the decade, Public Enemy fought the power with a positively explosive resistance anthem. A Tribe Called Quest gave a cheerful endorsement to NYC mayor David Dinkins in its 1990 jam "Can I Kick It." The Fugees's 1996 opus The Score remains a powerful meditation on police brutality.
Sociopolitically speaking, 2016 was no ordinary year. And artists across hip-hop's dynamic spectrum — from Atlanta's rap game godfather Gucci Mane to Chicago's next-generation rhymers like Chance the Rapper and Vic Mensa — were among the most vital political voices in popular culture this year. And much of this activism wasn't pursued simply through song (although lots of great music came out of this tumultuous year). Rappers lead non-partisan voter registration initiatives, participated in panel discussions, wrote op-eds, created PSAs and awareness campaigns, and protested on the front lines. Their causes ranged from dismantling systems of mass incarceration and police brutality, to encouraging solidarity with Standing Rock water protectors and the LGBT+ community.
For some artists, things came down to candidates. West coast gangsta rap's modern torchbearer YG followed up his debut record My Krazy Life — at points, a revelrous portrait of South Central gang life — with the sobering, politically charged Still Brazy. Its centerpiece, "Fuck Donald Trump," ignited YG's bold anti-Trump crusade. He expanded the conversation with the single's follow up, "FDT Part 2, which featured G-Eazy and Macklemore contributing their perspectives as leading white rappers. He renamed his tour the "Fuck Donald Trump Tour," occasioning a few protests in the cities it stopped in. He boosted local politicians like Compton Mayor Aja Brown and State Senator Isaac Galvan on Twitter, and established a non-profit organization dedicated to empowering Compton's disadvantaged youth. Hell, he even handed out "Fuck Donald Trump" bagels to voters on election day.
"The rap game has been watered down for a minute. There haven't been many people using their platform, speaking up, encouraging people to really get involved in politics and know what's going on in the world, in they communities — where we from, where we live, where we pay taxes at," YG told i-D this summer. "Motherfuckers are talking about drugs and parties and guns and shit. But they gotta know there's more shit going on. We gotta say something, cause if not, it's like we're out here standing for nothing, like we ain't got no morals," he said when we met a month later to talk about Trump specifically. "That ain't what it is. That ain't me. So I decided to speak up."
He certainly wasn't the only one. While many rappers joined YG in hitting back against Trump's racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic doctrine, others voiced their endorsement of presidential hopefuls. Big Boi, Lil B, and Bun B all expressed support for Bernie Sanders, but it was Run the Jewels lyricist Killer Mike who became one of the Vermont senator's most ardent and valuable allies — within hip-hop and beyond. He stumped for Sanders along the campaign trail and in the spin room, at each point contextualizing Sanders's strategies with some no-bullshit wisdom about the nation's myriad issues of inequality. The pair memorably engaged in a six-part interview — conducted at Mike's barber shop in Atlanta — that touched on social justice, healthcare, and the broken economy. "A revolution doesn't end with a presidential campaign," Mike said in his address to heartbroken and frustrated Sanders supporters at the Democratic National Convention. "We have been dramatically transformed. We have higher expectations. And good enough is no longer good enough. Whether we're black, gay or lesbian, Muslim, a woman, an indigenous person…we all have a common oppressor. We all have a common enemy. It is money in politics. It is corporations before human beings."
Pusha T — formerly of venomous lyrical duo Clipse, and presently president of G.O.O.D Music — got in Hillary Clinton's corner big time. Though Push acknowledged that the hardline "super predator" crime policies endowed by husband Bill's administration in the early 90s contributed to today's mass incarceration problem, the Virginia Beach living legend believed in Hillary's ability to fix it. He went to the White House in April to meet with President Obama about the criminal justice system and spent extended periods of time on Clinton's campaign trail with her Vice Presidential candidate Tim Kaine. "I can't dwell into the inner workings of her mind," Push told Vulture, addressing criticism that the Secretary rather obviously pandered to the minority voters who her policies have hurt in the past. "But the fact that she's speaking on mass incarceration, I decided I'm going to support her and I'm going to make this my issue that I see through."
Still other rappers decided to make issues, rather than candidates, their focus this year. Both Killer Mike and Pusha T crafted deeply nuanced arguments in support of marijuana legalization (Push released a PSA directed at California voters which explained how legalization reduces recidivism, and is a major component of dismantling mass incarceration; Mike wrote an excellent op-ed about how people of color can and should economically benefit from legalization efforts). First Lady of hip-hop Missy Elliott teamed up with the First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama to drop "This is for My Girls" — an empowering track (and a straight up banger) dedicated to education.
Voter registration and voting rights were also hot topics in the hip-hop community. Ty Dolla Sign performed at Rock the Vote's benefit concert at the Democratic National Convention, before releasing an election-themed project Campaign — which featured "No Justice," a collaboration with Ty's brother Big T.C., who is currently serving a life sentence. Gucci Mane encouraged students at Florida Memorial University, South Florida's only historically black college, to exercise their right to vote on election day because he — as a convicted felon in the state of Georgia — presently doesn't have that right. Chance the Rapper literally lead thousands of voters to early voting stations following his free, non-partisan Parade to the Polls concert, while his fellow Chicagoan Vic Mensa participated in a Hip Hop Caucus panel about the importance of voting.
Mensa, like many rappers, addressed issues of police brutality in the music he made this year — most chillingly "16 Shots," inspired by the shooting of Laquan McDonald. Jay Z released "spiritualized" in response to the killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile on the same day that the The Game and Snoop Dogg lead a police brutality protest in L.A. Beyond institutionalized violence, Mensa also railed against the contamination crisis in Flint, created an anthem in solidarity with the LGBT+ community in the wake of the Orlando massacre, and most recently, protested against the Dakota Access Pipeline with water protectors at Standing Rock.
Mensa named his latest EP, released in June, There's Alot Going On. It's a simple title, but it captures the helplessness, frustration, and futility we often experience in a world where so much feels broken. And following the outcome of November's election, 2017 will surely have much more going on. But as Mensa and so many other MCs proved this year, speaking out and taking action aren't simply tenets of hip-hop's history — they are vital facets of its future.
Text Emily Manning
Image via YouTube