Who’s Carrying the Political Torch in Hip-Hop Today?

Gina Torres and Chuck “Jigsaw” Creekmur contributed to this report.


An interesting thing happened to Styles P in 2005.

The rapper released “I’m Black,” a song that lit a fire in the heart and minds of hip-hop fans of all colors and cultures. Fans waited and waited – for a video and a formal single, which never materialized. “I’m Black,” featuring singer Marsha Ambrosius, was a ‘hood hit without question.

The song was true to the streets, had a catchy hook and was a true inspiration to a lot of different kinds of rap fans.

Styles never fully explained what happened, chalking it up to “politics and bulls**t” in an interview after his album Time Is Money dropped a year later.

Rap veteran Willie Dee of the Geto Boys agrees and explains there is a concerted effort to stop music like Styles P’s from getting to the masses.

“It’s still out there – they just aren’t playing it on the radio. Way back when, [radio] program directors didn’t hesitate to play the music if it was good,” Willie Dee said during the recent Hip-Hop Honors in New York. “You could not deny Public Enemy’s sound.” Rapper Ice Cube, whose longevity in the game was cemented by smart personal and business transitions over the years, concurs with the Geto Boy’s reasoning.

“At some point, they didn’t want their kids to praise Chuck D (of Public Enemy). They didn’t want a poster of KRS-One or Ice-T or some of the more political rappers on their kids' walls,” Cube says. “They didn’t want their kid’s to idolize these guys that were talking about equality when its all said and done. So they decided to push that kind of rap to the back, not letting us have those outlets. By 93-94, it was escapism rap…everything that was destructive…that became mainstream.”

Watch to Ice Cube's full explanation of how rap with a message was dismantled. (click here for a youtube link.)

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At a time when hip-hop’s critics are lamenting over the lack of political substance in rap, some artists like Styles P find their commentary silenced by record labels or overshadowed by mainstream consumer demands.

“People are still making political rap – you’ve got people like Talib Kweli, Mos Def, Common, and definitely people like Immoral Technique who are still trying to tell people what’s going on in the world,” says UGK’s Bun B, who is known for sharing his political views. “But, I think the fact is people just don’t want to hear it. People are scared of the truth – you’d be surprised,” he adds.

Few would argue that hip-hop is filled with gritty truth, with most rappers hailing from poor inner cities, where crime, drugs, and injustice have always provided content for songs. In the golden age of political hip-hop – mid-to-late 80’s, and the red-black-and-green days of the early 90’s – the protest on songs like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” was clearly a response to harsh economic times and political leaders who didn’t seem to care about the plight of the ghetto.

During the happier, materialistic Clinton years, some say the political content in rap disappeared. In the late 90s, bling became king, and many rappers took a more “me-centric,” competitive stance that was less focused on the stories of oppressed people. The new “ghetto fabulous” lifestyle was personified best in the Hot Boys song “Bling Bling,” where Manny Fresh bragged hat he was “tha n***a with tha Lex bubble/Candy coated helicopter/With tha leather cover.”

Cash Money Records co-founder Birdman defends the apolitical image the Hot Boys portrayed to youth, telling AllHipHop.com, “To me, I think music is an art and a culture. To me, a message and who it comes from are two different things. Guidance comes from your home – music can’t do that.”

“The music business is hard right now and to say that political rap is gonna make a comeback…I don’t think so.”-Juvenile

Kaine from Atlanta’s Ying Yang Twins argues that the political messages are still there, even in that type of contemporary rap: “Our songs all have messages – never mind if you agree with them or not. There’s two sides to every story. So who cares if they love or hate, as long as they tune in – that’s how the industry looks at it.” Adds Birdman, “All rap still has a message – the message is to try to make it, ‘cause it’s hard out in these streets.”

Along with the bling, the mid-to-late 1990’s was an unprecedented growth period for overtly “conscious” rap that played heavily on musicianship. It had a lighter, more acceptable sound, but the ‘hard in the streets’ message still played heavy. Within conscious rap, artists such as Black Star and Common painted lyrical pictures of the souls of ghetto people in their songs.

DJ Kid Capri notes that during that time, MCs with mainstream political marketability like Nas also emerged: “[Nas] makes records that make you think, and make you change and see things in different ways,” Kid Capri tells AllHipHop.com. “It’s that you have to get it across to the masses, and how you do that is to have the perfect beat and hook.”

As times changed, the voice of hip-hop changed. In today’s money-driven music industry, artists are less likely to channel their politics in songs. Former Hot Boys member Juvenile, in the midst of a recent comeback, admits his last political song was “Get Ya Hustle On” after Hurricane Katrina in 2005.

“The music business is hard right now,” says Juvenile, “and to say that political rap is gonna make a comeback…I don’t think so.”


Nowadays, beyond the “militant-political” hip-hop dungeons where Dead Prez, Immortal Technique and others dwell, most rappers – while they often care—are less focused on a brazen political agenda within their music. Many have even become more cause-driven and reactionary to “breaking news” such as the murder of Sean Bell by the NYPD.

There’s a definite media angle to hip-hop politics now that didn’t exist in the past, and rappers and hip-hop influenced politicians such as Real World veteran Kevin Powell (D-NY) and Newark, NJ's Ras Baraka (D-NJ and an affiliate of Lauryn Hill) have capitalized on the spotlight. Incidents such as Columbine, Hurricane Katrina, the Haiti earthquake, the Jena 6, and topics like AIDS awareness and healthcare, have provided platforms that hip-hop artists and activists can champion alongside their mainstream White counterparts.

As an example, Kanye West used his personal experiences with conflict diamonds as content for his popular 2005 track “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” Around the same time, VH1 aired a documentary film entitled “Bling’d: Blood, Diamonds and Hip-Hop,” which took Raekwon, Paul Wall, and Tego Calderone across the ocean to learn up-close how the conflict diamond trade in Sierra Leone has destroyed an entire African community.

Just two months after releasing “Diamonds,” West used his appearance during the Red Cross’s Hurricane Katrina telethon to make an emotional attack on the younger President Bush for his poor rescue response in New Orleans. His words echoed across the airwaves, prompting many in urban America to agree with his sentiments.

And sometimes, hip-hop’s influence is helping rally urban communities around issues that seemingly don’t affect them directly. Rapper Drake is speaking out against offshore oil drilling – the menace behind our worst oil spill in history – and Kanye West, Pit Bull, and Cypress Hill are boycotting performances in Arizona over the state’s controversial immigration laws. Immortal Technique, touched by the ravages of war, is building orphanages in Afghanistan, and Jasiri X is rapping about everything from society’s ills to “minstrel” rap.

“The majors are owned by Wall Street, which is strictly numbers and no heart – the root of the problem.” -Willie Dee of The Geto Boys

Hip-hop icon Jay-Z has come to symbolize the political prowess that top rappers can possess today. He has donated concert proceeds, spearheaded a global clean water effort, and is creating ventures with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, as well as Bloomberg Financial. Top hip-hop artists have also helped raise significant dollars when they align themselves with political causes. Diddy’s popular “Vote or Die” campaign was a merchandising bonanza for t-shirt sales, and Wyclef’s Haitian relief effort, though mired by mismanagement of funds, raised over $1 million using Twitter and other social media.

Meanwhile, the occassional political song is tucked among today’s typical guns and glamour rap content. Some examples include Eminem’s “Mosh,” Young Jeezy’s surprising election anthem “My President is Black,” and Lil’ Wayne’s “Georgia Bush,” a scathing commentary on Bush’s Hurricane Katrina response. The most political rappers are underground MCs like Dead Prez and Paris, whose content often denies them radio airplay, so they tour instead to survive. Still, Dead Prez is reportedly working on a Gangsta Grillz mixtape with DJ Drama and have worked with DJ Green Lantern in the past to gain more notoriety.

The unquestionable reach and influence of hip-hop, along with the obvious concern held by artists, still leaves many to ponder why isn’t there more political commentary in today’s rap songs. Willie Dee sums it all up with the wisdom of an industry O.G.: “Everybody’s just playing the numbers game. The corporations have eaten up all of the independents. The independent movement was like the backbone of hip hop – with the independence, you didn’t have to answer to the majors.”

“The majors are owned by Wall Street, which is strictly numbers and no heart – the root of the problem,” Willie Dee adds. “See, once you go to the root and start playing with the numbers, and you say ‘hey, we want to hear this type of music,’ then that’s the kind of music that’s gonna be played.”

Voices like Talib Kweli and Jay Electronica rise from the political ashes. Kweli's recent take on the controversial Arizona immigration policies, “Papers, Please” offers an education on the hot button issue over a triumphant track and reminds us that “a people united will never be defeated.”

And then there is the internet and the new freedom associated with it, essentially offering new hope for politically and civic-minded artists.

With that, enjoy "I'm Black" by Styles P and share it...virally.

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