Hip-hop is a genre best-known in some circles for its depictions of excess and opulent displays of material wealth, but many of its most prominent figures are equally well-known within the culture and communities they represent for their noblesse oblige — especially during the holiday season.
When you grind from the bottom to mainstream success, there’s a certain expectation that you return to your origins and share the wealth once you’ve achieved the back half of your rags-to-riches narrative. Rappers say they love their respective cities, so it’s only right for them to show that love by allowing them to share in the spoils of your victories after they shared your struggles.
While many rappers are known to give back throughout the year, the holidays provide an especially opportune time to make their presence known in a material way that not only provides good PR but also concrete evidence of their generosity and a positive impact on their communities. Of the superstars that do give back, one of their favorite methods is the holiday toy drive, which provides the chance to be hands-on, becoming the Santa Claus figures they likely wish they had themselves.
While the toy drives are a long-established tradition among hip-hop, the crew that is most widely-recognized for it might be the Watts-established label Top Dawg Entertainment. Established in 2013, the drive is not only a day that allows the label to feed the community that fostered its development in the early days but also to show that community the results of its years of fierce support with a concert that plays like a mini-festival of local favorites.
Although Kendrick Lamar is the biggest star of the collective on mainstream radio, the big draw and closing act each year in Watts is local legend Jay Rock, who for the last two years closed out the show with triumphant renditions of his celebratory anthem, “Win.” Encouraging visitors to bring gifts, the annual Toy Drive uses the celebrity of its stars Ab-Soul, Kendrick, Schoolboy Q, and SZA to draw fans from far and wide, each bringing a present for a child who might not otherwise receive one.
Those fans might not otherwise ever set foot in the Nickerson Gardens housing project, content to simply hear about it on record. In drawing them to TDE’s ancestral home, the label gives those fans a chance to participate in the storytelling and see that the people of this community aren’t just props and extras in Jay Rock’s gangster narratives, but human beings who deserve compassion. Fans can watch as their love for their favorite artists becomes acts of kindness and charity for the people those artists love — and get to see guest stars like Travis Scott in the mix, as well.
Roddy Ricch held a toy drive in Compton yesterday. pic.twitter.com/I1GVQlwkiR
— Rap Alert (@rapalert2) December 13, 2020
Unfortunately, there won’t be a 2020 giveaway for obvious reasons. However, this year, another South Los Angeles star has risen to the occasion to pick up the slack. Compton’s Roddy Ricch took over his hometown’s local airport to host his own toy drive — one he took pride in boasting was done under rap media’s radar. This wasn’t just a photo-op for the 2020 Grammy-winning, 2021 Grammy-nominated rapper. After arriving in a helicopter, Roddy later told late-night host James Corden “we gave thousands and thousands of toys away in Compton.” He elaborated it was “important this year more than anything with how restricted things have been.”
Los Angeles radio DJ Hed noted a line nearly two miles long for the giveaway, which had been announced on short notice on Instagram but promoted — as things so often are in Compton — by word-of-mouth. As a child, I would pass the airport often on my way to church, enamored by the fact such a thing existed in my little overlooked, underappreciated, and often-deprecated pocket of the universe. While I marveled that my tiny little city had such a huge impact on the world at large — NWA and Dr. Dre were already huge stars most of my young life — I can only imagine how proud, fulfilled, and appreciative today’s young Comptonites felt, as one of their own handed out gifts to ensure that no one went wanting on Christmas.
Even those rappers who haven’t had the same level of material success are quick to show up for their communities. Brooklyn rapper Rowdy Rebel, whose breakout predated the recent drill wave by about five years, wasn’t able to enjoy the benefits of his success due to a 2014 conviction for gang activity alongside Bobby Shmurda and the other members of their GS9 crew. He was only recently released after serving a six-year sentence and will be on supervised release for some time.
That didn’t stop him from hosting a toy drive of his own at the Brooklyn Museum just days after walking out of prison and celebrating by going on a jewelry shopping spree. Ironically, many of the kids receiving presents from Rowdy’s drive are more likely to recognize the late Pop Smoke or his confederate Fivio Foreign than their street anthem predecessor. Yet, for Rowdy, his toy drive demonstrates his priorities; before ever releasing a new record to kick-start his stalled career, he ensured that kids would have presents under their trees on the 25th, despite having spent so many Christmases away from his own family and friends.
Other rappers who held giveaways this year have included Atlanta’s Gunna, Chicago’s Chance The Rapper and Twista, Houston’s Travis Scott, and Memphis’ Moneybagg Yo and NLE Choppa, among others. Last year, Cardi B gave away thousands of dollars in holiday gifts and likely stands to repeat the gesture this yearl. These acts of goodwill receive a fraction of the attention their peers’ criminal actions do; more mainstream news outlets report on the violent deaths of obscure up-and-coming artists than they do A-listers’ philanthropic efforts — and shame on those outlets for embracing the ethos of “if it bleeds, it leads” rather than the Christmas spirit of giving.
This hyperfocus on the violence and flash of the rapper lifestyle underlines the priorities and prejudices of the news media, as well as of the American public. There is far more interest in painting rappers as caricatures — ones that reaffirm negative stereotypes about Black men and women, especially when they originate from poor neighborhoods — than there is in depicting them as compassionate, empathetic people sharing their wealth with their old neighborhoods and people who have fewer means but who deserve just as much consideration.
Sure, they could give more. Sure, they could do so more often. But they didn’t create the systems that led to the plight of the less fortunate. And while fans hope that these stars will live up to their promises to support the hoods that supported them, there are no guarantees. That’s what makes these giveaways so meaningful to the kids who see themselves in their favorite rappers and aspire to follow in their footsteps. And that’s why these rappers deserve recognition when they do make efforts to remain committed to their home communities and true to their roots. Behind the glitz and glamor of rap life, there are still human beings who deserve to have their humanity recognized, just as they recognize the humanity of the people who’ve put them in the positions of privilege they now enjoy.
Some artists covered here are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.