Although viewed by some as mindless lyrics and 808 beats, rap becomes especially meaningful when listened to in its historical and social context. Rap serves as a way to highlight injustices, particularly those faced by black Americans.
Rap first took a distinct form in the 1970s in New York City. As disco began its decline, rap emerged as a new form of expression that incorporated rhythmic speech over a backing beat. As sound and techniques progressed, the mid-1980s saw a shift from relatively simple rhymes and raps to complex rhyme schemes and clever wordplay, a time period often referred to as the “Golden Age”.
As rap continued to grow in popularity in the 1990s, distinct styles and subgenres developed. A Tribe Called Quest helped solidify jazz rap, a fusion of jazz and hip-hop featuring jazz instrumentation such as trumpets and double bass. OutKast proved instrumental in securing Southern rap’s place during a time when the East and West Coast dominated sales. Perhaps most notable amongst the subgenres was the growth and popularization of conscious rap.
Conscious rap comments on current social issues with the aim to raise awareness and inspire change. Hailed by many as one of the greatest rappers of all time, Tupac frequently included socially conscious lyrics in his songs, from covering teen pregnancy and weak family structure on “Brenda’s Got A Baby” (1991) to the war on drugs, police brutality, and economic inequality on “Changes” (1998). Socially conscious lyrics began to frequently appear in mainstream music, including the Wu Tang Clan addressing gun violence and HIV on “Tearz” (1993) and Mos Def using statistics on “Mathematics” (1999) to emphasize the effects of poverty, drugs, and racism on urban black communities.
Modern rap continues this trend of highlighting social issues. In response to the police shooting of teenager Michael Brown in 2014, J. Cole released “Be Free”. He dedicated this mournful song to every young black man murdered in the United States. Another rapper who frequently includes socially conscious lyrics is Kendrick Lamar, whose To Pimp a Butterfly (2015) stands as one of the most impactful albums of the past decade. Incorporating a range of styles, including jazz, funk, and soul, Lamar focuses on racial inequality and institutionalized discrimination throughout the album. The single “Alright” (2015) provides a message of hope and is associated with the Black Lives Matter movement after the chorus was chanted at multiple protests.
Politically charged lyrics are not limited to only conscious rappers. 21 Savage released a video version of his hit single “a lot” (2019), including mention of the Flint Water Crisis and criticism of the United States’ immigration policies, particularly the forced separation of families. He was arrested by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) just five days after releasing the video, sparking suspicion from his legal team that he was targeted in part due to the critical lyrics.
I could list countless more examples of rap addressing the inequalities faced by black people in America.
In the past decade, rap has grown to be the most popular genre in the United States, surpassing both rock and pop in streamed music consumption. Despite America’s apparent love for rap, black people continue to face the same injustices that have been discussed in rap songs since the 1980s. In response to the police killing of George Floyd on May 25th, Jalen Rose, ex-NBA star and regular on ESPN, notes, “I wish America loved black people as much as they love black culture”. It is unacceptable to claim to love and support famous black artists while not believing that every black person deserves the same respect. Even the casual rap fan should feel a responsibility to join the fight for justice, whether it be through protesting, posting information on social media, or discussing racism with family and friends.
The following link provides educational resources, organizations seeking donations, petitions to sign, and more: https://blacklivesmatters.carrd.co/.