The first week of July 2016 will forever be remembered by anyone who experienced it firsthand. The past several years have seen the racial climate in America intensify, as repeated incidents of police officers killing black people with little to no consequences are exposed via social media. But with the murders of Alton Sterling in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, on July 5 and Philando Castile in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, on July 6, and the slaying of five police officers following a July 7 rally in Dallas, there is a sense of dread, anxiety, and anger permeating the national consciousness.
Black celebrities have voiced concern for the state of race relations in America and solidarity with a community that feels more under attack than ever. Beyoncé issued a lengthy statement condemning police violence against black citizens and demanding that everyone contribute to real reform; her husband Jay Z released a tribute single called “Spiritual” on his streaming service Tidal; rappers Snoop Dogg and The Game led a march against brutality in Los Angeles; and Atlanta hip-hop star T.I. participated in a march in his home city. Rappers David Banner and Killer Mike, meanwhile, have offered their perspectives to the ongoing dialogue surrounding black autonomy, police reform, and judicial responsibility, and R&B maestro Drake published an open letter after the death of Alton Sterling.
We can oftentimes overstate the significance of having very famous people lend their voices to the social challenges of the day. They can’t be counted on to be the most informed on issues, and it’s juvenile to assume that someone is qualified to address weighty societal problems just because they’ve made a lot of money singing, playing a sport, or acting. But its trying times like these when artists who are purportedly “of the people” need to embrace their status as pop culture influencers and use it to force an oft-apathetic or willfully obtuse white America to address that apathy.
But because so many view contemporary hip-hop as more defined by codeine and clubbing than raising awareness, there’s a lingering belief that today’s rappers don’t care like their forbears did. Hip-hop is no longer black people’s CNN, but perhaps it’s become something different: more of a town hall for the culture, a sounding board, a place to vent as opposed to a source of information. And maybe that’s still enough to help galvanize a generation. It certainly seems to be.
Now at first glance, it’s easy to believe that contemporary hip-hop artists don’t compare to the way OGs addressed police brutality in years past. The subject was broached most famously in N.W.A.’s classic 1988 track “Fuck tha Police,” but several songs also tackled the subject: Ice Cube’s first two solo albums make numerous references to harassment and violence by the police against young black males, and songs like “Illegal Search” by LL Cool J (1990), 2Pac’s “Violent” (1991) and “Holler If Ya Hear Me” (1993), as well as KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police” made an indelible impression at the height of topical hip-hop’s visibility. Rappers were called on by mainstream media outlets to offer perspective on historical flashpoints like the Rodney King beating and the 1992 L.A. riots. But when you look at what’s happened over the past few years, you see more similarities between now and the oh-so-lauded ‘90s.
In 2012, Mos Def and Dead Prez dropped “Made You Die” in tribute to Trayvon Martin. J. Cole released the Mike Brown tribute “Be Free” in 2014, and Game unveiled the all-star tribute song “Don’t Shoot” (with Rick Ross, 2 Chainz, Diddy, Fabolous, Wale, DJ Khaled and others) also in the wake of Brown’s killing. Uncle Murda and Maino dropped “Hands Up” following the death of Eric Garner in New York City. Kendrick Lamar’s entire To Pimp A Butterfly album was informed by the current cultural and racial climate, and his Grammy-winning song “Alright” has become the de facto Black Lives Matter anthem. Socially conscious rappers of today still do what socially conscious rappers of yesterday did, so perhaps we’re making the wrong comparisons. If you’re looking for KRS or Ras Kass in Young Thug or Desiigner, you will always be disappointed. Maybe you should pay more attention to Killer Mike or Cole. Hip-hop artists who actively presented themselves as spokespeople for a generation were taken more seriously in years past, but many of today’s rappers are mirroring a lot of their actions—just without their reputations.
A lot of what we romanticize about hip-hop’s Golden Age is image—and a reflection of our own youthful naiveté. We decided that rappers like Chuck D and 2Pac had the preapproved pedigree to offer criticism and insight; they’d earned a certain amount of cultural real estate, in that regard, because they’d always embraced commentary in their music. Many of us don’t feel that contemporary rap artists have the resume, so to speak, to truly affect change. But not having the same kind of admiration for one artist’s image doesn’t mean said artist “isn’t doing anything”—what they’re doing just means less to you. Maybe it’s because you’re not 17 anymore and never saw Problematic Contemporary Rapper as anyone who could contribute anything but a hit record. Maybe you should expand your estimation of that artist.
Another factor that has changed is accessibility. When P.E. and Kool G. Rap referenced the death of Yusef Hawkins, a black Brooklyn teen who was killed in the predominantly Italian-American neighborhood of Bensonhurst by a white mob in 1989, most outside of the New York area hadn’t heard about the case. Similarly, 15-year-old Latasha Harlins being killed in Los Angeles by a Korean shop owner was widely publicized via rap lyrics by Ice Cube and 2Pac—but the story wasn’t national news when it occurred. Social media has changed that dynamic completely. Today, the whole world knows these types of incidents the moment they happen, so many rappers appear to just be reacting to well-known stories as opposed to informing an unaware audience about them. That makes it easy for one to be dismissive, cynically declaring that an artist is only “jumping on the bandwagon” of a controversial topic, but there is value in solidarity—even if it isn’t at the forefront of a breaking story.
No, if you’re old enough to remember how you felt about hip-hop in 1992, then 2016 will probably never make you feel like ‘92 did, but it’s not necessary, realistic, or desirable to rehash and romanticize the past. No one needs rappers to lead anyone or anything—they simply need to reflect and amplify, which many of them are doing. Celebrities speaking out doesn't solve problems but it does make it harder for consumers of all colors to ignore those problems when their favorite is calling for it to be addressed. This generation of hip-hop stars is more topical and outspoken than perhaps they get credit for. Think of all that they’re getting right, theoretically, before you wax poetic about the good ol’ days. Everybody wasn’t a revolutionary then, either.
Besides, if an artist isn’t speaking up, you’d probably prefer they stay silent anyway.