how hip hop got its political voice back
In the wake of the killings of Eric Garner, Trayvon Martin and Michael Brown, hip hop has rediscovered its conscious roots.
From N.W.A to M.I.A, Lauryn Hill to Lupe Fiasco, hip hop has long been one of contemporary music's most politicized genres. But in a landscape once littered with prominent socio-political thinkers like Public Enemy, Mos Def and Dead Prez, in recent years, rappers have stayed a little too late and a little too long in the club. In the wake of the deaths of Trayvon Martin, Eric Gardner and Michael Brown, the times, though, are finally a changing; Game, Common, J. Cole and Kendrick Lamar are beginning to make their voices heard… As Chuck once said, It's time to fight the power!
When photographer Hampus Lundgren described taking a photo in the aftermath of the 2011 Oslo bombing, he said, "My mind shut down a bit I think, because I don't remember taking the picture. I just felt adrenaline. I became a photographer and not a person." I've been thinking about that quote a lot lately. When I first watched the now viral footage of Eric Gardner, an unarmed African American man who was placed in a chokehold and wrestled to the ground by a-five strong police team, I wondered if that's how the bystander behind the iPhone felt: not able to intervene, filming a tragedy while running on autopilot.
I also wondered if, at the time, he'd had any idea how important that three-minute video would become. Eric Garner's last moments echoed the fate of Trayvon Martin, another unarmed black teen, killed two years earlier. The Garner video was filmed just a month before Michael Brown and Tamir Rice would also lose their lives at the hands of the police. Ferguson, the town name now synonymous with these injustices, has sparked international outcry. At demonstrations in Chicago, Toronto and London - 4,000 miles from Ferguson - you'll see the same thing; Eric Garner's haunting last words written on placards and clothing: "I Can't Breathe".
As well as protests, there's been a massive creative outpouring - from poetry to documentaries, photography to podcasts - this kind of commentary, I expected. But what I didn't see coming was the protest songs. To me, music hasn't felt this vital in a long time.
"In the late 80s / early 90s, it was widely felt that part of ones duty, if you were a black MC, was to address issues that concerned the black community," Dorian Lynskey explains, author of 33 Revolutions Per Minute, which documents politically motivated music in the last 50 years, "but taste changed; that fell out of favor. What happens," he continues "is that something will come along, like Hurricane Katrina, or Ferguson, where the people who are being hurt by racist acts… look like rappers, it's too close to ignore… They feel obliged to step up and be counted, and actually do a protest song."
Last summer, Roots drummer Questlove wrote an Instagram post, which challenged musicians to "push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in."
"I really apply this challenge to ALL artists," Questlove said, "We need new Dylans, New Public Enemies, new Nina Simones. New De La Rocha's. New ideas! I mean real stories," he urged, "Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don't have to be boring or non-danceable or ready made for the next Olympics. They just have to speak truth."
His call was met. Alicia Keys, Run the Jewels and countless others released protest songs off the back of Ferguson. J Cole put out Be Free six days after the police shooting of Michael Brown. It's a sombre and impassioned plea for justice. Over the lulling piano, Cole sounds exhausted, choked up. His bars are interspersed with a recording of Dorian Johnson, Michael Brown's friend, and eyewitness to his killing, "Once my friend felt that shot," Johnson's testimony begins, "he turned around and put his hands in the air, and he started to get down. [Brown] stopped, turned with his hands up and said, 'I don't have a gun, stop shooting!' But the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and fired several more shots."
Day's later came The Game's, Don't Shoot, featuring a 10 strong team of rappers (Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Diddy, Fabolous, Wale, DJ Khaled, Swizz Beatz, Yo Gotti, Curren$y, King Pharaoh) and one R&B supergroup, TGT (Tyrese, Ginuwine, Tank). It's a testament to every artist involved. "I managed to get everyone on board fairly easy", The Game told Rolling Stone, "simply because we have the hearts." It reached No. 1 in the U.S. Billboard chart, and became one of the most talked-about tracks on Twitter. It's ambitious, intelligent and urgent. The most poignant moment is in the final bars, heart-wrenchingly sung by The Game's daughter in a ghostlike stupor: "God ain't put us on the Earth to get murdered, it's murder, don't point your weapons at me."
And it isn't just the heavyweights. 20-year-old Chicago rapper Tink's Tell The Children, produced by Timbaland, is a Lauryn Hill-esque warning against complacency. The lyrics are thoughtful and candid; it's a massive move from a fledgling artist and it hasn't gone unnoticed. Last week, her show at Northern Illinois University got cancelled, due to 'security reasons'.
Tracks like these come after years of people declaring the death of the protest song. In discussion with folk musician Johnny Flynn, Billy Bragg argued that any musician demonstrating a political opinion [is] dismissed, "as earnest or whingeing", and in a way, Bragg's right. Whining, preaching, and being crass or patronizing are all common flaws associated with the form. "It's hard to write a good lyric, whatever you're doing, but people don't care if you're writing about love. Boring love songs are released all the time and nobody holds it against them. With politics, if you get it wrong, then people blame the form itself, rather than the individual," says Dorian. "People say, 'Protest songs are boring', even though there's tons of great ones out there."
That's what's so exciting about Tink's Tell the Children or J Cole's Be Free - they stand up to the shortcomings you might associate with protest music. They don't patronize like Do They Know It's Christmas? or shock like Plan B's Ill Manors, or preach like a U2 album. Politically aligned tracks are fresh and current, and it's not just happening in hip hop. Zine teen queen Tavi Gevison and co, created the song Go Forth Feminist Warriors as part of her annual pop culture yearbook, Rookie. Lorde's revolutionary anthem, Yellow Flicker Beat soundtracked one of the highest grossing films of the year, while John Legend and Common's civil right's ode, Glory, written for the film Selma, just got nominated for an Oscar.
Protest music might never have really gone away, but it has refigured itself into songs that inspire and excite more than ever. Up-and-coming artists are writing Songs - you want to stream and share them because they're listenable and they're cooler than they've ever been before. 'Cool' won't bring back victims any more than a song will stop a shooting. But if nothing else, it might just get us to turn up the volume on a subject that we can't afford to mute.
Text Shannon Mahanty
Photography Alasdair McLellan
The Nationality Issue, Issue No. 259, October 2005