Rap Enters the Political Sphere

Photo: The Source Magazine

Photo: The Source Magazine

Photo: The Source Magazine

Cole Mier, Opinions Editor

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“George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” These words were uttered on national television by rapper Kanye West during NBC’s post-Katrina Concert for Hurricane Relief on September 2nd, 2005. Kanye’s statement that night sent shockwaves through the media and had serious implications. Now, twelve years later, West’s actions on that 2005 broadcast are as significant as ever. In the era of the celebrity President, where Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson seems as plausible as a presidential candidate as Elizabeth Warren, popular culture figures are becoming mainstays in our political conversations. Just last weekend President Trump went after both NFL and NBA players on Twitter. The weekend before that, Stephen Colbert had Sean Spicer appear on the Emmy’s as Jimmy Kimmel became an important facet of the health care reform conversation. With comedians and athletes becoming more trustworthy figures than actual politicians, it is necessary to analyze the influence these pop culture figures have on politics. However, arguably the most influential group in popular culture seems to be widely ignored in terms of political discussions. The viewpoints of mainstream rappers must be examined because they are now the most influential group in terms of the political socialization of America’s youth. Examining the up and coming Joey Bada$$ and the current king Kendrick Lamar reveals the importance of rap to the political sphere.

        First and foremost, a quick caveat. Some will disregard this article immediately- calling it silly. Others cannot stand the vulgarity of hip-hop music and will ultimately disagree with this article based on music preference alone. Both of these stances are severely misguided. Voter turnout from America’s younger voters is incredibly small, especially in comparison to the population’s eldest. This is not a silly issue, but one of grave national importance. If politicians can see the topics prevalent in American hip-hop, then they will also see the political issues most relevant to younger Americans. By emphasizing these issues, turnout in younger demographics will increase. Secondly, while vulgarity is certainly present in hip hop, it is certainly not the crux of the message. South Park exemplifies this in another media form, for it often contains brutal political and social satirical devices that relevantly summarize the issues of today, while simultaneously containing poop, pee, and other bodily fluid jokes. Bad words in rap songs are the same way. While there are rappers to which this does not apply (21 Savage is not the next John Locke), it proves true for all the socially conscious ones. First and foremost of these socially conscious rappers is Brooklyn rapper Joey Bada$$.

        Although he was not a new face in the rap game, Joey Bada$$ burst into mainstream relevancy this year with his most recent album, “All-Amerikkkan Bada$$.” The title of this project alone shows striking political sensitivity, with the “KKK” reference in the title proving ever relevant following the Charlottesville tragedy. While he is not yet selling out arenas like Drake and Kanye, Joey’s album has done well commercially, debuting at number 5 on the Billboard top 100 list and selling 51,000 units in the first week. His single “Devastated” also charted well, even going Gold in the US. The commercial power of this album is relevant because, unlike Joey’s previous music, “All-Amerikkkan Bada$$” is entirely political. Every track has a well developed message about a specific political issue. Instead of being considered preachy, this has been Bada$$’s most successful project, proving that rappers with a message draw crowds. The most important aspect of Joey’s commentary is his eloquence. For example, on the song “Land of the Free,” Joey raps, “The first step in the change is to take notice / Realize the real games that they tried to show us / 300 plus years of them cold shoulders / Yet 300 million of us still got no focus / Sorry America, but I will not be your soldier / Obama just wasn’t enough / I just need some more closure / And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over / Let’s face facts ’cause we know what’s the real motives.” In this album, Joey Bada$$ sternly states his political views with no hesitation as a huge portion of America’s youth listens intently. With hip-hop being the most ubiquitous style of music in America, it is time for politicians to stop dismissing and start listening.

Although Joey Bada$$’s political lyrics brought him concrete success, Kendrick Lamar’s more nuanced politics have made him what some consider to be the king of hip hop.  His 2015 album, To Pimp A Butterfly, shook the U. S. and the world when it debuted at number one on the US Billboard 200 with its provocative album art.  Many consider it to be the best album of 2015.  On the album cover, Lamar and a group of black men and children, waving money, middle fingers, and champagne, crowd over the body of a dead white judge.  The album cover, however, is just the tip of the iceberg. Within the album, Lamar covers a variety of topics, including police brutality with references to the riots in Ferguson.  His message was clear; if the black community chose to rally together, they could beat the racial injustice ingrained in the American political and judicial system (hence the album cover.)  Throughout the album, Lamar refrains with growing parts of a poem (starting with “I remember you was conflicted.”)  At the end of the album, the poem is read entirely, describing Lamar stepping out of the gang wars in Compton and into the social wars of “apartheid and discrimination.”  Marc Lynch, for The Washington Post, suggests Kendrick’s political philosophy is in line with “strategic non-violent resistance.” The political scope of Lamar’s masterpiece requires a much longer essay for thorough analysis, but the point remains: To Pimp A Butterfly was a deeply political album that resonated with audiences across America.  

So why does this matter, and why now?  Hip hop has always been political, from NWA’s “F*ck the Police” to almost every song by Public Enemy.  In recent years, however, two important things have launched  hip hop stars into prominence on the stage of American politics.  Firstly, hip hop has moved into the mainstream.  This year, Nielsen, a prominent music analytics group, found that hip hop and R&B have replaced rock as the most popular music genre, taking up a quarter of all music consumption (obviously, hip hop is even more prominent within younger audiences).  Furthermore, trust in public officials and politicians has plummeted. The Pew Research Center found that in a study of trust in the federal government between 1958-2015, the amount of Americans who said that they trusted the government hit an all-time low.  Even within each individual’s own political party, trust in public officials seemed bleak: within the Bush and Obama administrations, neither party ever reached an average of over 50% trust- even when their own party was in office.  Americans do not trust their own elected officials.  Trust in Donald Trump is even more catastrophic.  Both of these factors combine to create a the perfect conditions for a hip hop artist’s politics to become more influential than statements from our own elected officials.  Nielsen also conducted a study of radio listeners, and found that the category of music that was considered “urban” (defined as hip hop and R&B) was streamed by predominantly liberals.  While it’s true that radio listeners in general are more left leaning, urban listeners were more than 50% liberal.  On average, US radio listeners are only 43% left leaning.  While it’s true that correlation does not equal causation, and thus, many liberals just happen to enjoy hip hop more, this does not account for all listeners and the fact cannot be ignored that hip hop artists are making political statements that are being internalized.   Hip hop has always been political, but politics have not always been about hip hop.  That has changed in recent years. More young people are tuning out political discussion and turning up their favorite artist, but even those who are politically active are influenced by what they hear.

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Rap Enters the Political Sphere