Because of its unique demographic origins as a predominantly black, urban art form, some rappers have always been deeply connected to the social and economic issues that affect African Americans in the United States. Many of these issues — political rights, affordable housing, fair pay — were shaped into their present-day forms in the 1960s struggle for civil rights, a movement that is honored today in the national holiday commemorating Martin Luther King, Jr. Because they’re so proud of the tribulations through which their group has gone over the past several centuries in America, many rappers today bring to the forefront their forefathers’ contributions to modern-day racial debates, such as that over the Trayvon Martin shooting and “Stand Your Ground” laws. But don’t let us just tell you about it: let the artists themselves tell you how they feel about their own history on this day on which the entire United States remembers and memorializes the humanitarian contributions of Martin Luther King, Jr., Malcolm X, Rosa Parks, and others like them.
Talib Kweli – “The Proud”
“That’s why we don’t be fuckin’ with politics / They bet on that, parents fought and got wet for that / Hosed down, bit by dogs, and got Blacks into house arrest for that.”
In these lines, Talib Kweli perfectly walks a fine emotional balancing act between uplifting sentiments and brutal reality. He champions the efforts that prior generations of African Americans made to the civil rights movement before him, when they protested against terrorizing and harassing police forces. Talib Kweli’s parents, his mother a college professor and his father a university official, educated their children deeply in the history of blacks in America, as you can tell by Kweli’s references to W.E.B. Du Bois and other black intellectuals in his other songs. Here, his parents and their peers either literally or figuratively “got wet” when cops would spray down civil rights actors with fire hoses in order to break up rallies or other protests a few decades ago. Kweli’s depiction of these scenes is in no way dramatized, as you can see on an album cover from a different group on the list, the one for The Roots Things Fall Apart, where riot police are seen chasing down a fleeing black woman in a mid-20th century photograph from New York City.
However, Kweli’s starkest observation is what comes first, when he points out the reality of the under-representation of minorities in the political process. Although Blacks have been recorded as constituting 13.1% of the US population in 2012, only 9.8% of the members of the House of Representatives are black. There has also been the recent spread of voter I.D. laws, which have been studied and seen to overwhelmingly exclude minorities from the political representation process. Additionally, in 2013, the United States Supreme Court struck down a key provision of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, declaring it unconstitutional that states with a history of voter discrimination must have prior federal approval to change their election laws. And so it seems sometimes that the institutional hurdles African Americans must overcome now in 2014 are very similar to those from not just 2002, when “The Proud” was published, but back in 1964 as well, when the landmark Civil Rights Act was passed.
Run-D.M.C. – “Proud To Be Black”
“George Washington Carver made the peanut great / Showed any man with a mind could create / You read about Malcolm X in the history text / Jesse Owens broke records, Ali broke necks.”
We also must remember today not just Martin Luther King, Jr., who may be the most recognizable figure of the civil rights movement of the 1960s, but his own predecessors and contemporaries as well. In the space of only a few lines here, Run-D.M.C. mentions a legendary inventor, a great activist, and two groundbreaking athletes who all emphasized their blackness, which goes along with the theme of this track that is made so readily apparent in the title of it. Carver didn’t just make the peanut great; he was also a scientist, botanist, and inventor. This was a man who also overcame being a slave before he came to be remembered for a number of his creations.
Although Malcolm X is largely remembered today as a fiery militant in counterpoint with Martin Luther King, Jr.’s civil disobedience, his ideology changed considerably in the later years of his life after he left the Nation of Islam and became a Sunni Muslim who made the Hajj, a pilgrimage to Mecca that every able-bodied Muslim must make. Run-D.M.C.’s reference to Malcolm X emphasizes the fact that to be proud of being Black does not require making your image as palatable and acceptable as possible in order to gain rights.
Finally, Run-D.M.C. mentions the achievements of Jesse Owens and Muhammad Ali, who both made the case for racial equality in possibly the most effective way possible. In plain sight, they out-ran, out-hustled, and knocked out their opponents, who were sometimes considered superior both ideologically and biologically by some groups. Jesse Owens won four gold medals in the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Germany, during the run-up to World War I and in the heart of a Nazi Germany that largely subscribed to the idea that blacks were an inferior race in every way imaginable. Meanwhile, the oldest child in an African American family from Louisville, Kentucky, with a devastating right hook changed his name from Cassius Clay, Jr., to Muhammad Ali and refused to join the Vietnam draft of the U.S. army as a conscientious objector because of his Muslim faith. His principled stance would pave the way for later black Muslims in America, most notably 1970s and 1980s basketball star Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, formerly Lewis Alcindor, Jr.
When the mention of Harriet Tubman and her Underground Railroad is added to this venerable list in another part of the song, we come away with a kind of Mount Rushmore of African Americans in America that any citizen can be proud of.
J. Period & The Roots – “Malcolm X/Roots Of A Tree”
“I point these things out so that you and I will know the importance of being in complete unity with each other…As long as we practice brotherhood among ourselves and then others practice brotherhood with us, we’ll work for that.”
J. Period’s Rap production has been noted for his creative use of samples, but his album-long collaboration with the Roots takes things to a whole new level. A large part of a very famous speech, called “The Roots of A Tree” by that same Malcolm X from the previous Run-D.M.C. track, opens the 2006 album The Best Of The Roots. There are no Black Thought or Malik B rhymes on this one: the only freestyling comes from Malcolm X as he explains why it is important that African Americans respect and cultivate a love for Africa. The conclusion that he reaches at the end of the speech is one of self-sufficiency for African Americans in America. His thinking is, “We can’t wait for people to give us what we need; we need to make those things available to ourselves by ourselves.”
As some of the other rappers on this list assert, African Americans in the modern age need to be pro-active in going above and beyond what they already have achieved. As Martin Luther King, Jr., himself said, “Human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable…Every step toward the goal of justice requires sacrifice, suffering, and struggle…”
Pharoahe Monch – “Free”
“The label’s the plantation / Now switch that advance for your emancipation / Emcees are the field, like pick cotton for real.”
Talib Kweli’s New York City colleague, Pharoahe Monch, makes his own message hit home loud and clear by isolating the word in this track’s title that we most associate with Martin Luther King, Jr., on his day today: free. At last, at last, Pharoahe simply conjures Martin Luther King, Jr.’s 1963 “I Have A Dream” speech with a sample from Millie Jackson’s 1976 song “I’m Free.” From the mountains of New York, Pharoahe uses his first verse to compare the Southern slave life before the 20th century to the problems rappers, and anyone else out there hustling, face today in trying to make a living.
Although his metaphor is stretched a little bit — rappers voluntarily choose their profession and are compensated financially for it without coercion — his most poignant ideas come across in his use of evocative words, images, and emotions to place the listener back in the setting of the enslaved South in the 1800s or before. Even if Pharoahe has lived centuries after what his or his people’s ancestors went through, it seems that he still feels intensely the legacy of their pain in the modern day. But his outspoken and blunt delivery shows that Monch will not take these problems lying down: he will continue to fight on and change the status quo, as he asserts in these bars.
Lupe Fiasco – “All Black Everything”
“Constitution written by W.E.B. Du Bois… / Malcolm Little dies as an old man / Martin Luther King read the eulogy for him / Followed by Bill O’Reilly who read from the Quran / President Bush sends condolences from Iran / Where Fox News reports live / That Ahmadinejad wins the Mandela Peace Prize.”
In this song, someone who is oftentimes pegged as a “conscious” rapper dreams of there being no such thing. Why would he ever want to put himself out of a job, so to speak? Because in Lupe’s dream world, there’s no need to have a different term for rappers who are socially aware. Everyone, not just rappers, is exactly that.
Lupe Fiasco starts off this quotation from “All Black Everything” by mentioning many of the same historic black leaders that the other rappers on this list have, such as W.E.B. Du Bois, Martin Luther King, Jr., or Malcolm Little (his name before he changed it to Malcolm X to reflect his religious beliefs.) However, Lupe now places their contributions to society in a universal context. Everyone needs Martin Luther King’s message of harmony. Everyone needs the pride that Malcolm X tried to instill in the people that he identified with. And Lupe, himself a Muslim, reminds us that we still need these things in the world today, and not just in America.
Throughout this song, he fantasizes about a world where national and racial prejudice no longer abides. This extends even to our most feared and depicted enemies, such as Iran. And even though Ahmadinejad is no longer the President in Iran, Lupe’s message of peace rings true particularly in our time period, as America explores the easing of restrictions on Iran’s economy in order to stop the proliferation of nuclear arms in the world. On a day like today, maybe people should sometimes think of the most famous Southern Baptist preacher as a civil rights activist for all of humanity, and not just one particular group.
Public Enemy – “By The Time I Get To Arizona”
“Who’s sitting on my freedom, oppressor, people beater / A piece of the pick, we picked a piece of land that we’re deserving now / Reparation, a piece of the nation, and damn, he got the nerve.”
Sure 2014 just started, and if you haven’t kept your New Years resolution so far, make a new one that’s easier to keep: to watch this music video. As many civil rights leaders would say, actions speak louder than words, and in this instance, Public Enemy’s video says a lot more than their lyrics, as powerful as they are, ever could. The video begins with a mock re-enactment of a 1986 press conference by former Arizona Governor Evan Mecham in which he explained why he had rescinded the status of MLK Day as a state holiday, a move that had wide support from Arizona voters. Public Enemy, who have always used searing irony like no one else, inter-splice that video with photographs and pictures of 1960s civil rights protestors in sit-ins and other civil disobedience actions. This controversy in Arizona that never should have happened, along with the Rap lines quoted above, bring to the forefront of the American conscience the question of how it is that society should deal with the legacy of slavery in the modern age.
Chuck D engages this discussion by referring to the “40 acres and a mule” that freed slaves were promised after the Civil War, as set out in the Freedmen’s Bureau bills and special orders given by Union Army General William Tecumseh Sherman, both of which are from 1965. The land was supposed to compensate in some manner the freed slaves after the Civil War so that they could start their lives over with something to work with. Unfortunately, these decrees were eventually annulled by President Andrew Johnson and President Ulysses S. Grant in political concessions to Southern states in order to bring them back into the Union. Chuck D himself has a few ideas of his own for how the country might reconcile its prosperous present and future with its monstrous past, but it involves you staying the hell away from Arizona before he makes it there.
Whatever reparations are ultimately made will be defined how the country sees slavery today, even as we are further and further removed from the period.
Game feat. Nas – “Letter To The King”
“Didn’t understand the dream of a King, do the math… / Not even thinkin’ ‘bout how Rosa Parks done it for us / How she stayed behind bars and she done it for us / And she stayed behind bars ‘til she won it for us / Sometimes I wanna give up or least take a break / That’s when I close my eyes and see Coretta Scott’s face.”
If Lupe’s rap is about the universality of a message like Dr. King’s, Game’s is about Dr. King’s message in a personal, individual way. Game asks the question: what does a 39-year old, mid-20th century Southern pastor have to do with a teenage gangbanger in the 1990s in Compton, California?
As it turns out, quite a lot, Game says. In this “Letter To The King,” Game delivers a portrayal of himself as a youngster very similar to the one given by Nas in the latter’s own feature verse. They both say that they didn’t appreciate the sacrifices that Martin Luther King, Jr., and others like him made back in the day so that these two famous rappers could enjoy a lot of what they do in life now, such as pervasive popularity. In his life now though, Game does recognize the contributions that Dr. King made, especially when he pictures the wife of the Baptist preacher, Coretta Scott, herself a champion for civil rights who was widowed too early in her life.
This song grounds the depiction of Dr. King in the realities of every day life. Instead of an idealized image of Dr. King singlehandedly solving all of society’s problems, Game and Nas talk about what Dr. King’s struggle does for them in their own lives on a daily basis. It instills them both with a sense of pride and accomplishment to keep going to achieve what they dream of. Both a message like Lupe’s and Game’s is necessary for a full appreciation of King’s impact in our world.
Tupac – “Words Of Wisdom”
“Emancipation Proclamation? Please! / Lincoln just said that to save the nation / These are lies that we all accepted /
Say no to drugs but the governments’ kept it / And yet, they say this is the Home of The Free / But if you ask me, it’s all about hypocrisy.”
Many rappers relate to the fight for civil rights as outsiders. Few are like Tupac, who can truthfully say that he was born in it, raised in it, and lived it. His connection to the civil rights movement started before he was even born, as both of his parents were members of the Black Panther Party in New York City in the years before and after his birth in 1971. Furthermore, Tupac’s godfather and stepfather were both Black nationalists who at times fought violently for a rightful place for African Americans in a country they saw as hostile to their community. And before he had even learned to walk Tupac was named after Túpac Amaru, a South American revolutionary who led an uprising against his imperial Spanish colonizers. This all means that when Tupac talks about the civil rights struggle, you listen. So with a family history like that, how could ‘Pac NOT release a song like “Changes,” or the less well known but no less powerful “Words Of Wisdom?”
So it’s no surprise when Tupac’s words on the topic are at the least deeply cynical and at the most absolutely disbelieving of all the American societal progress that has supposedly been made since the 1960s. His narrative of the fight for rights here is one that is often glossed over in discussions that take place on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day. Tupac charges that the accomplishment of the 1960s, such as the Civil Rights Act or Voting Rights Act, weren’t the end of anything, and they might not even have been a proper foundational beginning. He asks, what has really been gained? Many African Americans are still poor and uneducated in the 2010s, just as they were in the 1960s.
The most troubling thing about Tupac’s accusations here is that none of them are sensationalized. Lincoln did write in a letter in which he said, “If I could save the Union without freeing any slave, I would do it, and if I could save it by freeing all the slaves, I would do it.” When Tupac raps, “‘Say no to drugs’ but the government’s kept it running through our community,” he is right as well. While Ronald Reagan was president in the ‘80s, some high-up officials in his administration sold weapons to Iran despite a trade embargo on such sales that made them illegal. The officials used the funds they raised to finance the Nicaraguan Contras fight against the ruling Junta of National Reconstruction government in their country. Meanwhile, the Contras were funded by the illegal drug trafficking of cocaine to the U.S., which hit black communities there particularly hard.
Truth hurts, and Tupac may think that the U.S. might just eventually die of that pain.
Dizzy Wright – “Black People”
“We went from leaders to be followin’ shit / So we bottle it in like we don’t see it / When we know we believe it /
So I’m here to make you change for a reason…”
Ever since the advent of modern Rap in the late 1970s with groups such as Afrika Bambaataa and the Soulsonic Force, Rap has been used as a force for societal good. This fact sometimes gets lost in all of the debate over the graphic depiction of violence, sex, and money by certain artists in the genre, who in reality make up only a small portion of the artistic breadth that Rap music is capable of. From groups like Bambaataa and on through KRS-One, Common and Mos Def, and most recently down to Lupe Fiasco, it looks like Dizzy Wright is trying to carry their banner for at least one song.
This track goes beyond being a description of the state of Dizzy Wright’s demographic in the modern age. It is an exhortation and a recipe of directions for how anyone, not just African Americans, can better their lives. So to “Make you change for a reason,” this Las Vegas emcee suggests you turn down the consumerism (“You teaching kids how to be fresh, but you forget to teach them how to have some respect”) and turn up the virtue (“Don’t do what you can for nothing, ‘cause if you’re gonna stand better stand for something.”) Dizzy certainly has done his share of Soul Searchin’, the title of the mixtape on which this song appears, and something that is of a kind with the general purpose of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.
Common feat. will.i.am – “A Dream”
“Hold the same fight that made Martin Luther The King / I ain’t using it for the right thing / In between lean and the fields, hustle and the schemes / I put together pieces of a dream, I still have one.”
There would be no better place to finish this list than with a beat that samples the most enduring moment of the most enduring speech of the 1960s civil rights movement. Common raps powerful lines in between producer will.i.am’s samples of the real, live audio of Martin Luther King, Jr’s. “I Have A Dream” speech, which was delivered on August 28, 1963, to a group of over 250,000 supporters in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. The music video for this song is also full of civil rights references, with text of the original “I Have A Dream” speech appearing throughout it. There’s only one way this article can end to properly reinforce the message that all of the rappers have provided here, and that is in the same way that Dr. King’s famous speech does:
“Let freedom ring. And when this happens, and when we allow freedom to ring — when we let it ring from every village and every hamlet, from every state and every city, we will be able to speed up that day when all of God’s children — Black men and white men, Jews and Gentiles, Protestants and Catholics — will be able to join hands and sing in the worlds of the old Negro spiritual: ‘Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, we are free at last!’”
You can watch the whole “I Have A Dream” speech below:
Martin Connor is a Philadelphia, Pennsylvania native who has contributed his own unique brand of incisive rap music analysis to both academic institutions, including Eastern Kentucky University, as well as a variety of blogs, such HipHopDX, RapGenius, and his own website, www.RapAnalysis.com. You can Google ‘Rapper’s Flow Encyclopedia’ for more of his work, or follow him on Twitter @ComposersCorner.