This past week’s protests and demonstrations didn’t start with the death of George Floyd. This didn’t start with Breona Taylor, either. This didn’t start with Philando Castile. It didn’t start with Sandra Bland. It didn’t start with Freddie Gray, Tamir Rice, or Mike Brown. It didn’t even start with Amadou Diallo, who you might remember was killed by NYPD officers who shot him 41 times as he pulled out his wallet to identify himself. This fight has been going on much longer than social media has documented it. Before Instagram, Facebook, Periscope, and Twitter, rap music and hip-hop culture spoke to the often-violent, brutal policing Black people have suffered under in America for more than a century.
Of course, you know this. You’ve likely heard “Fight The Power” by Public Enemy or “F*ck The Police” by NWA. These songs are parts of our national lexicon. They are pop culture tentpoles, appearing in films and TV shows and even commercials. But hip-hop’s history of protest stretches far before and beyond those two pieces of art. In fact, hip-hop itself is a protest; the first DJs, rappers, b-boys, and street artists committed to their respective art forms as a way to protest their impoverished conditions and lack of other opportunities.
Barred from elite art schools where they could dance and paint, they took to the streets, making walls and trains their canvases, performing on corners and in parks — anywhere they could lay out their broken-down cardboard boxes. Without expensive instruments, they used looted sound equipment — namely, record players and mixing boards — to make music that expressed the joy, pain, frustration, and yearning for freedom in their young hearts. Their drum machines and four-track recorders and microphones became the tools to record the words used to speak their truth to power.
A large part of that truth, unfortunately, has always involved violent overreach by police forces all across the nation. Two of the earliest songs to bring this harsh reality to light were among hip-hop’s most controversial. NWA’s “F*ck The Police” is often cited as the beginning of so-called “gangsta rap” (allowing for earlier examples such as Ice T and Schoolly D), sparking the largest public backlash for its intense, unfiltered messaging — the first time much of America had heard anything like it. “F*ck The Police” is often seen as the catalyst for the wave of fiercely political, anti-police rap music that followed.
Songs like Paris’ “Coffee, Donuts & Death,” Intelligent Hoodlum (aka Tragedy Khadafi)’s “No Justice, No Peace,” and KRS-One’s “Sound Of Da Police” were the songs that spoke to the frustration young Black men felt as targets of law enforcement’s seemingly endless campaign of aggression and oppression. They often drew the ire of politicians and law enforcement officers for presenting not only critical language, but also the expression of justifiable rage in the form of violent, cop-killing fantasies. On AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, the solo debut of former NWA member Ice Cube, “Endangered Species (Tales from the Darkside)” predicted that South Los Angeles would become the epicenter for an uprising two years before riots protested the acquittal of the officers who beat Rodney King in 1992.
Throughout the years, hip-hop would continue to speak to the authorities’ violent oppression of Black people and people of color, even when the bulk of the music shifted toward themes of mafioso movie-inspired excess. Before becoming the avatar of “Thug Life,” Tupac Shakur repeatedly addressed the topic of police brutality on tracks like “Holler If Ya’ Hear Me,” “Changes,” and “Runnin’ From The Police.” Bay Area band The Coup, Chicago rapper Common, Native Tongues collective members A Tribe Called Quest, De La Soul, and their peripheral members like Brand Nubian, The Pharcyde, and more continued to comment on the abusive tactics that police forces throughout America used on people of color, particularly Black men.
However, in 1999, the seeds of modern political activism in hip-hop were planted when New York City Police Department plain-clothed officers accosted a 23-year-old Guinean immigrant named Amadou Diallo and gunned him down, firing a total of 41 shots when he pulled out his wallet to identify himself. New York rappers took note, uniting for the Hip-Hop For Respect EP featuring “One Four Love” parts 1 and 2, “Protective Custody,” and “A Tree Never Grown,” all dedicated to Diallo and other victims of police brutality. The project assembled 41 notable underground MCs, including Mos Def, Talib Kweli, Pharoahe Monch, El-P, Aesop Rock, Grafh, Jean Grae (as What? What?), Rah Digga, Ras Kass, Kool G Rap, and Dead Prez for its collection of posse cuts condemning police violence.
Many of those artists became figureheads of the so-called “conscious rap” movement which sought to further the struggle through both outspoken protest music and collective community action. Dead Prez told the world “It’s Bigger than Hip Hop” with songs like “Police State” and ‘They Schools,” which decried the school-to-prison pipeline and lack of options that prompt violent confrontations with members of law enforcement. Mos Def and Talib Kweli, both individually and as the duo Black Star, spoke against state violence on tracks like “Thieves In The Night,” “Gun Music,” and “Mr. Nigga,” denouncing racial profiling and endorsing self-defense.
Those seeds sprouted with a new wave of politically and socially aware young rappers, who used social media to speak out against a fresh wave of police killings, beginning with the death of Mike Brown in 2014 and including a growing number of incidents captured on camera phones and circulated online. Among them, Chicago’s Chance The Rapper used his platform to challenge his city’s mayor, while J. Cole communed with protestors in Ferguson, Missouri. While not intending to speak specifically about police violence, Kendrick Lamar offered the unofficial theme song of resistance with his 2015 anthem, “Alright.” Women’s voices are now being heard at the forefront as Cardi B, Chika, Lizzo, Noname, and more voice their concerns through Instagram and Twitter, mobilizing protestors, organizers, and donors in the ongoing fight.
The voices of the struggle are crystallized and amplified by artists like El-P and Killer Mike of Run The Jewels, who have used their four LPs to vocalize the increasing frustration of both Black people and allies, while also recommending the next steps, encouraging true political involvement and leading by example. Even Jay-Z, once the paragon of commerce over message (“If skills sold, truth be told, I’d probably be lyrically Talib Kweli”), has become an outspoken if imperfect advocate for change, teaming up with Meek Mill to fight for prison reform and defend citizens’ rights from the overreach of an increasingly militarized “peacekeeping” force that has consistently failed to protect and serve all communities in America.
Hip-hop has given a voice to those who previously didn’t have one, those who have been oppressed. It has always spoken out against injustice and recounted the products of that injustice — the poverty, the crime, the broken families, and trauma that marks so much of the music. It’s always been an outlet, but now — combined with the emergence of social media — it’s become a greater force for change. Hip-hop has always been the sound of revolution. Now, it’s too loud to ignore.
We encourage everyone to donate to the Official George Floyd Memorial Fund set up by his family and to organizations like Black Lives Matter, the NAACP, the Center for Constitutional Rights, Fair Fight, and Dream Defenders. Some artists mentioned here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.