Back in January, Jay-Z sat down on Oprah’s Master Class, speaking on Hip Hop’s influence on race relations in America. He said that except for Martin Luther King, “Hip hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons.”
Since then, the killing of un-armed Black suspects by police officers has continued to be a national lightning rod. In light of the recent implosion after days of peaceful protests into riots and looting, a common question arises about leadership. Is it necessary to galvanize the movement around leaders? Who will they be if it is? One place some people within the movement have looked toward is the Hip Hop community.
In a divided America (figuratively and literally), Hip Hop can bridge the gap between different racial, political, class, and generational understandings about what is happening in not only Baltimore, but across the country. On a base level, we know Hip Hop can get a generation of Americans to sing “F*** the Police!” (for the right or wrong reasons), but getting them to understand why the Baltimore riots occurred is a task of much greater difficulty.
Artists such as Talib Kweli, J. Cole, and Killer Mike regularly comment on and contextualize the pressing social issues of our time. Many other artists have spoken out on the Baltimore riots, but the majority, especially Hip Hop’s biggest stalwarts, almost always remain silent. While we praise our favorite artists for being on the frontline of key political issues within their music, we should be critical when we don’t see their feet on the ground. We haven’t held the Jay’Zs to the same accountability as we do the Jesse Jacksons, even though both are extremely influential in their own ways.
But the responsibility is not just on artists. We must not only use our social media pulpit to discuss and challenge, but to actually go to planning meetings and protests. It left to its own devices, this country will continue love Black culture more than it loves Black people. It will continue to ask for peace while names of Black victims becomes new hashtags. Hip Hop music can provide energy for the movement, but it can’t replace action. As amazing as “To Pimp A Butterfly” is, we still need to turn off our iPods and go to a protest. Hip Hop is a fuel and a tool, but beat and rhymes are not the front line.
In many ways becoming a better, more informed citizen is like becoming a better Hip-Hop head. It’s forging a deeper understanding and connection a culture, to history, and the issues of the time. It’s listening to the critiques of society and self, and understanding how things are connected. It’s turning inspiration into action.
None of this is to say that everyone within the Hip Hop or broader communities will agree on everything. Some have decried the rioting, looting, and violence that tainted the mostly peaceful protests, while others contend that it was the implosive tipping point of historical anger against institutional oppression plaguing Black communities in this country. There are plenty of Americans who love rap, but think #BlackLivesMatter is “reverse racism”. We know people who swear they “don’t see race” because they have Black friends and listen to Chief Keef, but are ready to slam “black-on-black” crime statistics on the table whenever Black folk express rage about white cops killing Black people with impunity.
Whether we agree or disagree on the issues at hand, having these conversations gets us closer to galvanizing around social justice. Real solidarity is intersectional and can only come from talking about genuine differences without being divisive. As prolific scholar Paul Gilroy says, it “doesn’t take care of itself”.
But while the whole Hip Hop community should chime in on these issues, it’s disheartening to see most of its top icons’ delayed commentary or flat-out silence on issues of national significance such as the deaths of Oscar Grant, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Walter Scott, Rekia Boyd, Freddie Gray, and many others. We need more of Hip Hop’s leaders to use their platform to drive the discourse forward in the mainstream
Maybe this is asking too much from a cultural art form. But in a culture many consider the loudest voice of a generation, the most powerful figures rarely if ever speak up. We can be proud of what Hip Hop has done for America and the world, but we also need to acknowledge what it has not, maybe cannot do, and what we need to do as people away from the mic, away from the boombox in Baltimore and beyond.