Are Activist Voices Needed in Hip-Hop?

From the Back Lives Matter movement of 2020, not only did we see a surge of people taking the streets, but we also heard the voices of artists across streaming platforms showing their unrest. Songs ranged from the melodic rap hit ‘Lockdown’ by Anderson Paak; to DaBaby’s BLM remix of ‘ROCKSTAR’; to Lil Baby’s surprising release of ‘The Bigger Picture’. Interestingly, a few months after Lil Baby’s track, he then stated he would ‘’back up off politics’’, as he does not want to be a ‘’Malcolm X or Martin Luther [King]’’. Echoing the thoughts of other artists like A$AP Rocky and Lil Wayne, we’ve seen important figures actively avoid using their voices for a greater cause. This raises the question; Do we need to hear what these people have to say on such matters?

Looking back to Hip-hop’s origin in the 1970s, we can see it was a way for the black minority to depict their environment to the masses. Containing themes of violence, poverty and a lack of hope; we heard a mix of Jazz layered with poetry. It seems inevitable that Hip-hop would have activist elements, as its origins are revolutionary. You can’t hear Jazz without mentioning the likes of Nina Simone. Discussing black poetry can’t be done without saying James Baldwin. These two legends, out of the many, used their voices to amplify their experiences of oppression. Rap music’s revolutionary roots mean the Hip-hop artist’s voice cannot be separated from the political. Once that happens, the essence of Hip-hop will disappear with it.

Many believe the views of artists do not need to be heard. The ‘myth of action’ has to be taken into account. This argues influential media figures simply proclaim rather than demonstrate. Communities house the real figureheads, organising and strategising the steps to political prosperity. Direct action is arguably the key to real change, so why must we consider listening to someone who can rhyme lyrics successfully? People believe rap’s damaging common themes should not be spoken with the same mouth that preaches change.

Moreover, Campbell argues these actions are simply manoeuvred to change the ‘actor’s state of being or relationship to his or her environment’. I don’t totally disagree with this this notion, as 2020 was full of hollow attempts of change, such as ‘’#blackouttuesday’’ followed by white celebrities pathetically pledging to ‘’take responsibility’’ under a film noir-like filter. Using a rap song message to promote one’s image is a hand that artists and labels could easily play.

However, there has to be a legitimate call for artists to be more active in politics. The 2020 US election was a small indicator of how rappers can be influential. Seeing the uncomfortable images of a tattoo-covered Lil Pump with a fake tan covered Trump highlighted this fact. This tactic was not solely used by the Republican party, as 2 Chainz in Atlanta endorsed the Biden-Harris administration, followed by his awkward live performance of ‘I’m Different’. Even though these were undoubtedly lame attempts to gain supporters, even outdated public figures can identify the raptivist’s power. A common trend was seen in the UK in 2017 when ‘Grime 4 Corbyn’ gave Labour an upper hand in youth support over the Conservative Party.

Rap needs to reach the masses, seeing as politics isn’t doing enough. In the UK the voter turnout was as low as ‘51%’ for ‘black Caribbean’s and Africans’, with just ‘59.6 per cent’ of black people eligible to cast their votes in the US. Furthermore, ‘’four in 10 eligible [US] black voters’’ were millennials or generation Z. The black youth is an essential factor to assess, seeing as the majority of the group listen to Hip-hop. Not only is it important to mention the black consumers of Hip-hop, but also white consumers. There is no doubt Hip-hop relies on the white population for financial success. This may be a bitter pill to swallow; however, it presents the opportunity to change the minds of those who will inherit a racially defined system.

Moreover, it is not simply down to black voices to change the minds of listeners. Of course, there are white rappers; even though they are in the minority, they play a role. It is not cultural appropriation when white people express themselves through Hip-hop. Still, I believe they must use their influence to highlight contemporary issues that harken back to the roots that inspired rap’s birth. An example to point to is how Russ was able to get 14,000 callers to demand justice for Breonna Taylor in August 2020.

Rappers must realise that their lyrics are being weaponised, whether they like it or not. The State of Maryland’s Highest Court deemed rap lyrics as evidence of a defendant’s guilt. We can see this mirrored in the UK, where rap has been seen as a confession to crimes, disproportionally affecting young black men. Yet again, we see another racist ruling implemented to tarnish a black genre and a hegemonic tactic to remove freedom of speech from the black community. Now that rap is used in the legal space to ensure an individual’s downfall, the artist must use their art to form a positive outcome in the political area, opposing such an absurd law.

Generational wealth is a privilege enjoyed by the white majority through institutional racism. Like other cultural phenomena’s created in the black community, Hip-hop has filled the strategic void of generational wealth. We are now seeing a positive art form, birthed from negative environments, demonised dangerously. White people have the luxury of having one stream of political influence that works for them, mainly due to their majority. The black community does not have this luxury; therefore, they must create multiple political influence streams, including Hip-hop.