Trump is Here: Will Mainstream Rap Resist?
“We don’t need no culture except revolutionary culture.”
Me and Lord got a clip with an extendo
And we rollin’ with it, hangin’ out the window
We on 16th ridin’ by the police station
We might make a pork rind out of pig, bro'
- Vic Mensa “16 Shots”'
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In a speech on November 1969, weeks before he was assassinated by the Chicago Police Department, Black Panther Party leader Fred Hampton said, "We don’t need no culture except revolutionary culture.”
As President Trump welcomes Jeff Sessions to his cabinet and promises more “law and order” in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, Fred Hampton’s quote seems just as relevant today as it was when he was being targeted by the FBI and CPD under Richard Nixon. With resistance in the air and boots on the ground marching for change, will mainstream rap music begin to punch back at the system?
Once upon a time, popular music reflected the black social justice movements of its era — the civil rights movement created freedom songs, the Black Power movement produced James Brown’s "I’m Black and I’m Proud" and the birth of hip-hop was a political movement unto itself. But if you currently look at today’s Billboard Top 25 Rap chart, there is not a single song that reflects today’s mass protest movement, let alone makes a revolutionary political statement against the current order:
Some will say the reason for this is because conscious music and protest music are not catchy, whereas any of the songs above will get the club and party T’d. That’s a valid argument, but an incomplete one. Yes, there have been numerous wordy rappers giving social commentary over lackluster production. (I’m sure several snooze-chella rappers have popped into your mind.) What I’m arguing for is a change in message and attitude, not in lyrical dexterity or overall musicality.
Wouldn’t 21 Savage’s “No Heart” be just as awesome if every “nigga” killed in the song was substituted for a racist cop? What if Quavo’s shooters in “Bad And Boujee” were making politicians duck instead? Why are the agents of oppressive institutions exempt from the violence that pervades popular rap music? It’s fascinating considering the current sociopolitical climate: an American city doesn’t have clean drinkable water for all; the DOJ has confirmed that multiple police departments are racist; hate crimes followed the election of Donald Trump; people are being deported at a rapid rate; the largest prison strike in U.S. history took place last year and militarized police forces often greet unarmed black people marching with their hands up. As more injustices take place and more lives are lost under Trump, can we afford for popular rap to continue to be apolitical?
“But what about Kendrick Lamar or J. Cole? Don’t they have the message you’re looking for?” you ask. To put it succinctly, no. The music of Kendrick and J. Cole is social commentary; their songs most often serve as introspective analyses on the subject of dealing with the world’s ills. Their message isn’t retaliation against the system, or even about the system at all. Instead, it’s a description of the harsh realities that urban young black men face — a narration of the effects of the system.
It’s not “We gon' be alright” that I’m advocating for, but rather, calls to control and define our sociopolitical circumstances like the one Vic Mensa delivers in his song “16 Shots.” This moment in history does not call for cries for help like “Be Free,” but for antagonistic music that shouts offensive messages at the very systems J. Cole seeks to be free from.
All my niggas that be running shit
Police coming and we gunning them
Middle fingers right in front of them
Give a fuck about the law
All we wanna do is ball
Nigga united we stand, but bitch divided we fall'
- David Ellis'
I’m only posing this question to popular rap because many underground rap artists are using the medium to push revolution. In my hometown of Chicago, you can find rappers like David Ellis, Bella Bahhs and Tweak standing toe-to-toe with police officers at protests and aggressively using their voices to take a firm position against oppression. In St. Louis, rappers Tef Poe and T Dubb O were highly visible in the Ferguson demonstrations and have remained vigilant in their music.
By refusing to compromise on their politics, some of these artists have sacrificed personal gain in order to invest in the long and strenuous work of community organizing as well as politically educating the masses about revolution. In light of this, it is deeply important for rappers who have a larger platform to not only speak truth to power, but to take an oppositional approach in their music against the status quo, creating a space for more revolutionary "raptivists" in the mainstream.
When artists punch back at system, they widen the political spectrum. Donald Trump entered the White House with a Republican dominated U.S. Congress and a conservative led Supreme Court. The United States is in the hands of the conservative-right so much so that the word Nazi is becoming common again. Mainstream rappers who can employ a radical-left sentiment in their music are needed to bring fresh points of view to an American consciousness that is expeditiously moving right — if not for the sake of revolution, then at least for the sake of balance.
Many mainstream rappers know the system and understand that America is not about serving the interests of its most marginalized. We’ve witnessed murderous policemen like Dante Servin and Darren Wilson walking free without any mention of accountability from the governing structures citizens pay for. If the country is incapable of providing the justice its citizens rightfully deserve, at minimum art should provide a level of accountability.
One thing that every artist — and every person — has complete power over is their thoughts and words. Rappers speak politically, intentionally or unintentionally, every time someone presses play on their song. The next time I press play, I want to feel as if a Nazi is getting punched in the face.