To understand the awesome shared history of hip-hop and activism you have to acknowledge that while music can shine a light on injustice, it can’t, on its own, heal the wounds of oppression. We’re not all waiting for that perfect anthem to save the day. The one that effortlessly samples from the heartache and the anger, the resiliency, and the mistrust, and maybe even the wilting hope found in the black community.
It’s important to recognize that while hip-hop is its own entity, it’s still just a part of a greater movement when it comes to speaking out against those injustices. Nothing and no one can stand alone in this fight.
People have long tried to reason with oppression. They’ve tried to shout at it, thrown bottles at it, cursed its name and lit the streets on fire beneath it. Hip-hop is on the right side of things because it’s about thought and emotion, not a violent action. It is inspirational and it can galvanize. It can open people’s eyes and reach them in a way that words gloriously composed and passionately shouted cannot — it cuts through the noise of the politicians and the pundits who think they know what it’s like and what people want to hear even though they rarely come down face to face with the street.
The beat penetrates and breaks down barriers. The poetry holds onto you and can be a dispatch to the outside world about the shape of oppression as well as a rallying cry that can advance progress little by little when paired with passion and controlled, non-violent rage. But the signal needs a boost from time to time.
Today’s hip-hop artists have the megaphone as rap stands as the beating heart of pop-music, but that hasn’t always been the case. For a long time, socially conscious hip-hop was a fringe segment within a fringe genre. In light of this boom in social relevancy, though, there are multiple questions begging for an answer: Are these artists willing to leverage their hard-won popularity to speak out against the unrelenting cycle of unanswered violence and police brutality, systemic racism, and a caustic economic reality? Can they live up to the awesome example of hip-hop’s socially conscious elders even if it means alienating listeners and fans? And most importantly, can these efforts help to not just spark awareness, but also real change?
We took a look at the long history of hip-hop and activism, examined its ability to be a force for good, and spoke to hip-hop legend Talib Kweli, hip-hop artist and St. Louis-based activist Tef Poe, and activist and Campaign Zero co-founder Johnetta Elzie in pursuit of these answers.
Music Has Always Been There
Hip-hop culture was born screaming in the 1970s as an outlet for black and brown New York City youth who were disproportionately affected by racism, classism, and poverty. With the benefit of an undeniable influence — and an innate ability to speak to the youth — the genre quickly evolved into a global form of expression. But its roots go deep beyond the pavement.