Inside Hip-Hop’s New Activist Era
On July 7th, Jay Z did something out of character: He released a protest song. The rapper had reportedly wired tens of thousands of dollars to bail protesters out of jail in Baltimore in 2015, and Tidal donated $1.5 million to Black Lives Matter-related causes earlier this year. But it was only after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile by police officers in Louisiana and Minnesota – as well as the shooting deaths of five Dallas police officers at a protest days later – that he finally spoke out. "Just a boy from the hood that/Got my hands in the air in despair/Don't shoot," he rhymed on "Spiritual." He elaborated in a statement: "I'm saddened and disappointed in this America. We should be further along."
He was not alone. In the days after the videos of the shootings went viral, Beyoncé released a letter that read, in part, "The war on people of color and all minorities needs to be over." Snoop Dogg and the Game led a march in L.A., and T.I. protested in Atlanta. At least a dozen other artists, from Miguel to Swizz Beatz, released songs in the wake of the shootings.
"You're seeing a new generation of activists being sparked," says Talib Kweli. Beginning with the shooting of Trayvon Martin in 2012, the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred a wave of politically charged hip-hop and R&B, from artists like J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Beyoncé. But the recent shootings have provoked a massive response and moved even previously apolitical artists to speak out. "We saw Alton Sterling get murdered," says longtime activist Kweli. "Philando Castile, you watch him die. We've never seen images like that back-to-back." Love & Hip Hop star Joe Budden, who referenced Sterling and Castile in a four-minute freestyle over Beyoncé's "Freedom," said he decided to take action "when I heard that little girl" – the daughter of Castile's fiancee – "having to console her mom after he had been murdered." Kweli contributed a verse to the song "I Can't Breathe" – inspired by the dying words of Eric Garner, choked to death by police in 2014 – and appeared in a video that featured celebrities like Lenny Kravitz and Alicia Keys talking about police violence. "We are in our 'We Are the World' moment," he says.
Kweli warns rappers wading into politics that they need to educate themselves. "If you're not speaking the same language or don't know where the movement is going," says Kweli, "you might end up sounding foolish." Snoop and the Game were criticized by members of Black Lives Matter after the rappers appeared with the mayor and police chief in Los Angeles. ("The celebrities erased the work that we're doing," said activist Jasmine Abdullah. "The mayor is using [them] to divide and conquer our community.") G-Unit rapper Young Buck released two tracks that seemed to advocate meeting violence with violence, drawing fire from conservatives. One of them, "Riot," implores listeners to "get your motherfucking guns" and "start a motherfucking riot." "I'm not encouraging individuals to take an innocent cop's life," Buck says, "but I'm for those that believe in protecting their own lives in any way necessary."
DeRay Mckesson, one of the most prominent voices in the fight against police brutality, points to Beyoncé as an example of how an artist can make a difference. "Her celebrity works in the function of social justice and does not overshadow the work," he says. "When Beyoncé lists the names of the victims at her concerts, or puts a link to lawmakers on her website, she invites more people into the conversation." Adds Kanye West protégé Vic Mensa, who in June released "16 Shots," about the killing of Laquan McDonald by Chicago police, "What we can do as artists is inspire people to give a fuck."
Chuck D of Public Enemy says the stakes have never been higher. "It's like Grandmaster Flash's 'The Message,'" he says. "'Don't push me, 'cause I'm close to the edge/I'm trying not to lose my head.' Melle Mel wrote that shit more than 30 years ago. How can you think that doesn't apply to right now? So many people are close to the edge, and the tipping point is not far away."