An op-ed by Keona Frasier
Today, hip-hop is valued for representing black culture at its core and officiating the union of free speech and artistic expression. Rappers and fans alike can certainly credit their social and creative liberation to the freedom fighters of the civil rights movement. Here is a list of hip-hop songs that rappers use to pay homage to revolutionary leaders.
Word of Wisdom by Tupac Shakur: This socially charged track appears on the rapper’s debut album “2Pacalypse Now,” released in 1991. In a tone reminiscent of what you’d hear at a demonstration, Tupac “lyrically prosecutes” America for actions that he views as crimes against the black community. “America… I charge you with robbery for robbing me of my history. I charge you with false imprisonment for keeping me trapped in the projects.” On “Word of Wisdom” Tupac pays homage to various influential black activists. He specifically questions the absence of Malcolm X in history books.
Bring the Noise by Public Enemy: Bring the Noise was the second single on the rap group Public Enemy’s culturally necessary album “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.” The track begins with an excerpt of Malcolm X saying, “Too Black, Too Strong” before the group’s front man, Chuck D, provides social commentary over the busy funk samples. On this song, Chuck D doesn’t hold back his disdain for the lack of respect and appreciation for black musicians from the media.
The Story of O.J. by Jay-Z: Jay-Z recorded The Story of O.J. on his 2017 studio album, 4:44. The track received critical praise for the creative play on the track “Four Women” by beloved civil rights era singer Nina Simone. Music producer No I.D sampled Nina’s vocals, which tells a chilling narrative of four women who struggle in society at the hands of colorism, for the Grammy nominated track. The track references the infamous O.J Simpson murder trial to essentially highlight the cultural disconnect associated with fortune and high-status while being black in society.
My Way Home by Kanye West featuring Common: My Way Home is a self-produced track from the rapper-producer’s second album, Late Registration, released in 2005. The song samples the emotion-filled song “Home is Where the Hatred is” by the renowned social activist and poet-musician Gil Scott-Heron. Fellow Chicago native rapper Common provided the tracks only verse, channeling the poetic rhythm of the original track and the melodic theme of anguish. However, the lyrical content suggests hopefulness for social reform in black communities.
Mortal Man by Kendrick Lamar: While Kendrick Lamar’s 2016 album “To Pimp a Butterfly” addressed the political and social climate of modern America, the track “Mortal Man” detailed connection to African history. Kendrick Lamar’s primary message is conveyed in the lyric “The Ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it.” Essentially, the rapper appoints himself as a voice that will push the agenda presented by influential figures, such as the first black South African President and anti-apartheid activist, Nelson Mandela. The track also features samples of the Nigerian jazz musician and human rights activist, Fela Kuti, and excerpts from a Tupac interview that Kendrick Lamar uses to create a politically driven conversation.
A Song for Assata by Common featuring CeeLo Green: A Song for Assata is the 15th track on Common’s polarizing and unapologetically afrocentric studio album, released in 2000. Common’s verses flow effortlessly on the harmonious beat, detailing the events that lead to Assata Shakur receiving political asylum in Cuba. Shakur is a former member of the Black Panther Party and a radical activist who was convicted of murdering a New Jersey State trooper. Shakur also contributes to the track by delivering her thoughts on what freedom is.