Music

The ‘Judas And The Black Messiah’ Soundtrack Sounds Great, But Falls Short Of The Film’s Message

Ten years ago, on the Watch The Throne album cut “Murder To Excellence,” Jay-Z name-checked Illinois Black Panther chapter chairman Fred Hampton, rapping, “I arrived on the day that Fred Hampton died.” The line is a reference to the coincidence of December 4, 1969 — both Jay-Z’s birthday and the day the FBI conspired to have Hampton murdered at home during a raid in which federal agents fired over 99 shots to the Panthers’ one.

Shortly after the song’s release in 2011, Fred Hampton Jr. objected to Jay-Z’s rhyme, saying, “Fred Hampton didn’t die. He was assassinated. Saying Fred Hampton died is like the school teacher telling students that Christopher Columbus discovered America.” He’s also noted calling Jay “Slave Z” and questioning the motivation for the lyrical salute, as Jay-Z’s Black capitalism is as far away from the Black Panthers’ democratic socialism as it’s possible to be.

Ten years later, Jay-Z appears on the soundtrack of the film Judas And The Black Messiah, a newly released crime thriller about the assassination plot against Fred Hampton Sr. In the lyrics to “What It Feels Like,” Jay’s first collaboration with Nipsey Hussle, the Brooklyn rapper finally addresses Hampton Jr.’s comments, revisiting his “Murder To Excellence” bar with an amendment: “I arrived on the day Fred Hampton got mur– hold up — assassinated, just to clarify it further.” If the new line is meant as a mea culpa, it’s a poor one.

The awkward moment is a microcosm of the problem with the Judas And The Black Messiah soundtrack project: As a compilation, it’s sonically engaging and thematically cohesive, for the most part, but it sounds like it should be the soundtrack to some other film. With scant exceptions, none of these rappers should be on a project “inspired” by this film’s story.

If anything, the gold-plated tales many of them spin set them firmly on the side of the Judas, William “Wild Bill” O’Neal, the FBI informant portrayed by LaKeith Stanfield, who spends the entirety of the movie being hoodwinked, bamboozled, manipulated, and ultimately threatened into betraying the unifying leader of the Panthers and the burgeoning Rainbow Coalition.

Throughout the film, the only one who gets portrayed driving a fancy car, eating lavish dinners, smoking Cuban cigars — at the height of political tensions with the island nation, no less — and counting his stacks is O’Neal, often in the company of his FBI handler Roy Mitchell. When Nas paints the image of a mafioso-style meal at an upscale restaurant in his Hit-Boy collaboration “E.P.M.D.,” it does not call to mind a reflection of the austere Panther Party ethos of free lunches and clinics for downtrodden ghetto neighborhoods. It sounds like the fat cats Hampton railed against when said the famous quote:

“We don’t think you fight fire with fire best; we think you fight fire with water best. We’re going to fight racism not with racism, but we’re going to fight with solidarity. We say we’re not going to fight capitalism with black capitalism, but we’re going to fight it with socialism. We’ve stood up and said we’re not going to fight reactionary pigs and reactionary state’s attorneys like this and reactionary state’s attorneys like Hanrahan with any other reactions on our part. We’re going to fight their reactions with all of us people getting together and having an international proletarian revolution.”

This is perhaps why Chicago MC Noname, originally billed to participate on the soundtrack, bowed out. “I was supposed to be on the song with saba and smi but after seeing the movie I decided to pass,” she explained in a tweet after expressing her hope that the movie would inspire viewers to learn more about Fred Hampton’s politics and legacy. She’s been one of the few Black celebrities who has seemed to be more concerned with the mechanics of a rights movement than its aesthetics, often taking fire for calling out her fellows for their disingenuous presentation of “Black excellence” as an advance for the race as a whole.

This issue has been writ large over the past several years of political awakening with the advent of social media. The root problem, the racism and white supremacy of our political systems and their violent means for keeping control, hasn’t changed much since the days of Jim Crow and “separate but equal.” Sure, the Constitution was amended so that it’s no longer technically “legal” to voice discriminatory policies out loud or in writing, but they’re being exercised just the same, albeit more quietly and furtively, with a glance over a shoulder to make sure no one’s camera phone is filming.

But instead of embracing the methods of resistance practiced by our ancestors like Hampton, Angela Davis, Malcolm X, Kwame Ture, and yes, even Martin Luther King Jr., Black celebrities today have adopted Black capitalism as a means of gesturing toward the idea of resistance without taking the risks involved. As Judas And The Black Messiah makes crystal clear, the penalty for being too outspoken is so often death — planned, public, and as violent as it can possibly be delivered.

Hip-hop, as a community and as a culture, has always adopted the aesthetics of those revolutionary days. Malcolm X T-shirts were a fixture on HBCU campuses in the 1980s, dashikis and kufis came into fashion in the 1990s, and the 2000s and 2010s have loved to call back to the stylish Black Panther Party aesthetic. But those revolutionary figures weren’t revolutionary because of their brands and their looks; it was their actions, thoughts, and words that both lauded them as heroes for Black Americans and painted targets on their backs.

Co-opting their likenesses to lend an air of revolutionary thought to repackaged, tired ideas about Black excellence and capitalistic success serves absolutely no one but the celebrities whose wealth only increases and the few recipients of their charity. As these artists celebrate their personal successes or those of their teams, I can’t help but juxtapose these pronouncements of personal wealth against the very real suffering of the people on the streets they say they represent. People are starving, homeless, and battling the detrimental effects of a failed pandemic response wreaking havoc on our social systems, our neighborhoods’ infrastructures, and our already precarious standing in the healthcare system.

So to hear ASAP Rocky lamenting his “Rich N**** Problems” as I recall Hampton’s own words condemning Black millionaires for espousing an “if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em” philosophy just sits wrong in my spirit. Ironically, the arguments are made creatively and deftly on these songs — Dom Kennedy sounds revitalized on “Respect My Mind,” “Broad Day” by Hit-Boy is especially effective, and even the wildcards like Nardo Wick and Pooh Shiesty sound lucid by their expected standards, even as their contributions stick out amid the more soulful productions on the majority of the soundtrack.

But putting all these songs on an album bearing the “inspired by” tag when the inspiration behind the film once threatened to “catch that n**** by his collarneck and beat him to death with a Black Panther paper” sparks a truly dizzying sense of cognitive dissonance. Especially knowing Fred’s policies regarding the treatment of female comrades, hearing Dom sneer “I like when they do it with no teeth” stings. The Black Panther Party chairman’s beliefs were so at odds with the casual misogyny and ostentatious materialism of modern hip-hop that it’s hard to believe he’d want his name stamped on such a project, even if it sounds great and features an intro from his son.

Maybe this all reads as thinking about it too hard, thinking too deeply about it, or just plain old haterism. But I like the album. Although it meanders a lot in its middle portion, it does an admirable job of trying to tie together multiple disparate viewpoints on its subjects — the gangsters, the revolutionaries, the lovers, the intellectuals, and the dreamers — much like the multifaceted coalition of creeds and colors Fred Hampton himself once succeeded in creating.

But it feels like the true revolutionary spirit of Hampton gets lost amid chest-beating, posturing, and meaningless flexing, all delivered with a thin veneer of his fiery rhetoric in an effort to hide the fact that this “movement” is going nowhere at all. It’s an electrifying, titillating experiment in self-aggrandizement and while that’s a staple of hip-hop too, it’s a disappointment and a shame that it had to disrespect a legacy that we should be learning from, not exploiting.

Judas And The Black Messiah is out now via RCA. Get it here. The film is now streaming on HBO Max.

Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.

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