The expression of black identity and culture has always been a powerful thing. Whether through poetry, art, or music; no matter how others have tried to imitate, the ever-growing and unique identity of blacks has always had purpose rooted in historical experience and revolutionary expression.
Music has always been a popular medium for expressing African-American culture. Music has chronicled our evolution of thinking and style as a people. The popularity of our music such as jazz and spirituals has also had a double purpose as a conversation between us as a people and a way to articulate our oppressions and blessings.
Hip-hop, being no exception to this notion, has a had long history of being political. Whether we were ‘fighting the power’ or sending ‘the message’ to the man we have always found ways to have hip-hop serve as a love song to a significant other in one verse and the anthem of a movement in another. The tradition of hip-hop songs being political is far from over.
Today, we have gathered top political hip-hop songs to celebrate this exact history:
“The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”, Gil Scott-Heron (1971)
The late great Gil Scott-Heron brought black social issues into prominence in the medium of hip-hop in the early 70s with his poem turned song “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised”. Often noted as Scott-Heron’s most influential work, this song in itself became and continues to be a movement. His message is most clearly illustrated by the opening verse: “You will not be able to stay home, brother. You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out. You will not be able to lose yourself on skag and skip out for beer during commercials, because the revolution will not be televised.”
“The Message”, Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five (1982)
This early eighties hit is often dubbed as the ‘original’ political hip-hop song and the greatest rap anthem of all time. In a simple yet effective way, “The Message” illustrates the sense of hopelessness an African-American can feel growing up and living in an ‘urban area’. The lyrical social commentary portrayed in this song can be summed up in the opening line: “it’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I can keep me from going under.”
“F**k tha Police”, N.W.A. (1988)
This powerhouse protest anthem speaks clearly out against police brutality. “F**k tha Police” highlights many of the ongoing tensions between black youth and those who wear ‘the badge’. This song also stands out for it’s sentiments against white and black officers, claiming that black officers are often times worse. This point can be illustrated by the lyrics: “But don’t let it be a black and a white one ‘cause they’ll slam ya down to the street top. Black police showin’ out for the white cop.” “Fuck tha police” continues to be an anthem that influences pop culture today.
“Fight the Power”, Public Enemy (1989)
“Fight the Power”, a song requested by Spike Lee for the soundtrack for ‘89 movie “Do The Right Thing”, is a an anthem that continues to ring on. Though the Public Enemy album version and the soundtrack version vary slightly, the general message stands. With heavy samples and mashups from songs popular throughout black culture coupled with allusions on the state of black identity at the time, Public Enemy was calling for blacks to “fight the powers that be” in an unapologetic and unforgiving tone.
“Self Destruction”, Stop the Violence Movement (1989)
In the late eighties, rapper KRS-One responded to the violence in the black community by gathering the powerhouse hip-hop names of the time to come together to send a message that would reach wide
and far. “Self Destruction” is a collaboration between Public Enemy, Heavy D, Doug E. Fresh, and MC Lyte to name a few. This song was created with the purpose of producing a vision of hip-hop that could speak for generations to come. This movement is illustrated by the line: “I never ever ran from the Ku Klux Klan and i shouldn’t have to run from a black man cause that’s… self destruction.”
“U.N.I.T.Y.”, Queen Latifah (1993)
This early nineties grammy-award winning song and feminist anthem’s message can be summarized by the line: “Everytime I hear a brother call a girl a b**ch or a h**, trying to make a sister feel low. You know all of that gots to go.” Though Queen was not the first female rapper, she was one of the first to bring feminist consciousness into prominent light.
“Changes”, 2Pac (1997)
“Changes”, released posthumously, explores topics such as police brutality, racism, gang violence, classism, and the art of ‘getting by’. A key lyric in “Changes” is the opening line: “I see no changes, I wake up in the morning and ask myself is life worth living or should I blast myself? I’m tired of being poor, and even worse, I’m black.”
“Freedom”, Jurassic 5 (2003)
The lesser known hip-hop group, Jurassic 5, has a long list of political hip-hop songs. This tune stands out from their four-album discography for the exact range that this hip-hop anthem covers. “Freedom” explores the idea of what it means to be free globally, and then brings it home with the line: “Yo, my forefathers hung in trees to be free, rest in peace. Got rid of slavery but still kept the penitentiary, and now freedom got a shotgun and shells with ‘cha name. Release the hot ones and let freedom ring.”
“Jesus Walks”, Kanye West (2004)
This early 2000’s song is an overall criticism of media outlets for glamorizing songs about sex, lies, and violence but not mainstream hip-hop songs that discussed other matters such as religion. “Jesus Walks” also conveys the message that ‘Jesus walks’ with anyone trying to pursue faith even if they are drug dealers/addicts, prostitutes, killers, or murders. This song also criticized other issues such as police brutality against blacks, whiteness, and racism.
“The People”, Common (2007)
With Gil-Scott Heron and Kanye West as writers, this Common song has been noted as one of the most influential songs of the early 21st century. “The People” was written as President Obama was announcing he was running for the Presidency. Common took the opportunity to address political, social, and economic issues ‘everyday people’ of color were facing such as poverty, gang banging, drug use, and premature death.