When Nelson Mandela was released from prison after 27 years of imprisonment, the incomparable activist visited the United States with an eight-city stadium tour. On stops in New York, Boston, Washington, Atlanta, Detroit, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area, Mandela brought the continued struggle of the South African people to life for Americans. The trip was viewed as a celebration of human rights and further solidified Mandela as a symbol for those who have successfully stood for humanity and against racism.
However, even prior to his release, the hip-hop generation was inspired by his activism and heroism. Stesasonic’s A.F.R.I.C.A. (Free South Africa) in 1986 was the first hip-hop song to shed light on the struggle against apartheid.
The 80s were a time of message music in hip-hop. “The Message” in 1982 was the first prominent hip-hop song to feature a political commentary, but it would not be the last. Inspired by local and global events, KRS-One, Public Enemy and Brand Nubian made music that continued the Black Nationalism themes that had arisen out of the end of the civil rights movement. Early hip-hop was both directly influenced by and a continuation of the movement, of which Mandela played a major part in his country, and influenced leaders in America. Songs like “Self-Destruction,” (1989) spoke directly to ills in the black community. “Fight the Power,” became one of hip-hop’s most powerful songs and the theme for the film, “Do the Right Thing,” itself a black political piece.
The hip-hop generation became further engaged through action on college campuses by lobbying for divestment of major American companies and universities illustrated in television and movies. A Different World had a major storyline related to South Africa’s struggle for freedom and divestment was a part of the plot in the hit movie, School Daze in 1988.
In the years since Mandela’s release, hip-hop has continued to reference the iconic leader with lyrics in tribute to his life and legacy. Mandela has been named dropped in numerous hip-hop songs which has kept his name alive in hip-hop. Though political rap has waned, hip-hop is still a powerful voice of urban people.
“Why Mandela did all them years/All that blood, all that sweat, and all them tears?” —Styles P asked on 2006’s “Testify,” (feat. Talib Kweli) from the Time is Money album. Influenced by 2004’s “Why?” from his groupmate Jadakiss, which also referenced Mandela, “”What if Nelson Mandela could give his time back?”
One of the strongest lyrics came from The Game on “Blood Diamonds,” from his Jesus Piece album, “But nah, Mandela did 28 straight/without a fu**in complaint, put a afro on a saint.”
Hip-Hop has always had love for Mandela. A freedom fighter who served 28 years of a life sentence imposed upon him because he was fighting for freedom was a story that resonated with the world and young black Americans who grew up to become rap stars. Hopefully his death will continue to inspire us all to fight for what’s right in our own day and time.
R.I.P. Madiba. AMANDLA!!