I just read a magazine article that f–ked up my day.
Well, actually it was an online article and it didn’t really f–k up my day, I just like to quote Jay Z lyrics every chance I get. Still, on Sunday, The Atlantic published a piece by writer Jeff Baird, with a headline that read: “Why So Many Rappers Have Been Silent About #BlackLivesMatter.”
The headline immediately caught my attention, because in 2014 I’ve heard a great deal of hip-hop music which attempted to tackle sociopolitical issues in the black community. So my first thought was, “WTF?”
As I read, the author cited the impact of N.W.A.’s 1988 single “F–k tha Police” and then wondered where the modern day Public Enemy was. The piece went on to praise J. Cole for “Be Free,” a Michael Brown dedication which he dropped in August, just days after the 18-year-old was shot and killed in Ferguson, Missouri.
The writer also praised D’Angelo for his Black Messiah LP, but then went on to question where Drake and Jay Z’s protest songs were.
Maybe the article should’ve been titled “Why Jay Z And Drake Have Been Silent About #BlackLivesMatter.” That would’ve gotten more clicks, too.
Now, there was no question mark in the headline; instead, the piece aimed to actually explain why rappers (or just Jay Z and Drake) were so silent about #BlackLivesMatter. The conclusion was that, as hip-hop has become “interwoven into the fabrics of the majority” and “pop celebrity,” that the genre’s artists are “no longer as in tune to the qualms of the marginalized.”
Sure, hip-hop is bigger than it has ever been, and for all intents and purposes, it is the popular music of today — but there’s more to this. To suggest that hip-hop is “no longer as in tune” couldn’t be further from the truth. What Baird fails to address is the number of 2014 rap tracks dedicated to the cause, and how the major label record companies, radio and the mainstream media play into all of this.
Public Enemy captivated audiences in 1989 when they dropped their #1 Billboard rap single “Fight the Power.” The song was a part of Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing” soundtrack; the film was centered around a fictional race riot in Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn.
While Lee’s film wasn’t based on a true story, for residents of New York City back then, it captured the racial tensions following the death of Michael Griffith in Howard Beach in 1986, and eerily pre-dated the shooting death of Yusef Hawkins, who was shot and killed in Bensonhurst, Brooklyn two months after Lee’s film was released in theaters.
The climate in America right now, after the deaths of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, is strikingly similar to in 1989 when Spike put out “Do the Right Thing” and political voices like Public Enemy were in hip-hop’s spotlight. Still, we must not ignore the fact that PE were signed to a major label because of their voice, political stance and ability to make a hit record. Def Jam helped to market them, get them on radio and eventually help push them to become a platinum act.
I’d argue that it isn’t that rappers are silent in 2014, it’s that they aren’t pushed, promoted and held up the same way Public Enemy was in 1989. Plus, no major labels are signing the next Public Enemy, but they do exist.
The Atlantic article failed to recognize Common’s Nobody’s Smiling, an album that the veteran MC dropped in July to call attention to the deadly street violence in his native Chicago. Throughout the 10-track LP, Common continually messaged that black lives matter, even though the project came before the actual hashtag #BlackLivesMatter.
Let’s not also forget when he brought Michael Brown’s parents out during his moving performance at the “2014 BET Hip Hop Awards” and the entire crowd in Atlanta put their arms up in silent protest. I was there in that crowd, and had goosebumps all over my body. It was a powerful moment and one that shouldn’t be brushed aside when talking about hip-hop’s sociopolitical voice.
In August, Game dropped “Don’t Shoot,” a six-minute, all-star rap track that featured DJ Khaled, Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Diddy, Fabolous, Wale, Swizz Beatz, Yo Gotti, Curren$y, Problem, King Pharaoh and TGT, and I personally haven’t heard that song on radio once. Still, it exists.
Big K.R.I.T. is another artist who consistently raps about black lives and how much black lives matter, even if he never used the actual hashtag #BlackLivesMatter. On his current single, “Soul Food,” K.R.I.T. talks about the changing world as he stresses the importance of the black family structure.
Then there’s Kendrick Lamar’s “i,” which soulfully tackles issues of depression which is brought on by society’s ills and troubling headlines. When he sat with MTV News earlier this month, Lamar talked about his single and how “i” isn’t about how many records he could sell, but about presenting a necessary message in these challenging times.
Saigon dropped G.S.N.T. 3: The Troubled Times of Brian Carenard; Cormega tried his hand at healing on Mega Philosophy; Wu-Tang Clan released A Better Tomorrow just three weeks ago; all while Immortal Technique, Killer Mike, Talib Kweli, David Banner and Macklemore continually use their voices for the social cause. When Kanye West rants about racial inequality, he’s just labeled as crazy.
Cole, Nelly, Jeezy and Talib all showed up in Ferguson to protest, and Q-Tip and Nas have shown up to support the New York rallies.
So what if Drake hasn’t made a song dedicated to Michael Brown or Eric Garner or #BlackLivesMatter, that’s his choice. Not every rapper in Public Enemy’s day was politically minded either, though it’s easy to romanticize things 25 years later.
In the case of Jay, it’s funny that we forget the ridicule he caught when he started spitting pro-black and five precent teachings on “We Made It” with Jay Electronica in March. He was quickly painted as a sort of racist and his message was pared down to “whites are devils” in an article that appeared in The New York Post.
Even if Jay never utters the words “black lives matter” in his raps, actions speak louder than words, and he is the same rapper who set up an educational trust fund for the children of Sean Bell. Remember him? He was the unarmed man shot and killed by NYPD officers the day before his wedding in 2006.
Yes, black lives mattered back in 2006, too, and in 1989 when Public Enemy reigned. Through it all, hip-hop has used it’s voice in protest and there is real evidence of this. Can rap artists be doing more? Sure — but to charge that they’ve been silent is just wrong.
So if you really believe that rappers are silent about #BlackLivesMatter, I ask this question, in the form of a Jay Z lyric of course: “Do you fools listen to music or do you just skim through it?”