The Politics of Rap: Political Hip-Hop’s Long & Outspoken History Didn’t Begin or End with N.W.A. (Audio)

The marriage of political engagement and Hip-Hop culture has been a permanent fixture ever since artists began using the mic as a means of delivering dispatches from inner-city life, where systemic problems of economic disparity, educational inequality, poverty, and racism remain far too common for far too many. For many, the residual effects of slavery have only been strengthened, first by Jim Crow legislation and then with disproportionate incarceration rates for minorities, resulting in what can only be described as centuries of discrimination and political disenfranchisement coupled with insufficient representation in positions of real political power for African Americans and other marginalized racial groups in the United States.

As with the Slave Songs, the Blues, Jazz, Rock & Roll, Funk, Disco, and all related subgenres, Hip-Hop music was developed by the Black American and almost immediately served as a tool for awareness. Messages of anger, despair, frustration, hope, and critiques of the powers that be run rampant through all music, but it is Hip-Hop’s era today, and the effect is infiltrating areas of popular culture in ways never seen before. Straight Outta Compton has been a major source of contemplation for many, and on yesterday’s NPR program “On Point with Tom Ashbrook,” politics and Hip-Hop were the fodder for a discussion and examination of the history, circumstance, and results of where music and activism meet, inspired by the recent N.W.A. biopic that has swept the nation.


In the nearly 50-minute episode, host Ashbrook introduces the conversation with snippets of N.W.A. songs and right away ties in the messages in their music with today’s issues around policing and racial tensions. The conversation extends into the music of today and includes the contributions of author Bakari Kitwana who has written several books including Hip-Hop Activism in the Obama Era and The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. Also participating in the discussion is Frannie Kelley, and editor for NPR Music who works along side A Tribe Called Quest’s Ali Shaheed Muhammad on the “Microphone Check” podcast.

Topics discussed include the current events unfolding in Ferguson, Missouri; how the music of N.W.A. and other artists applies to the objectives of the Black Lives Matter movement, particularly when it comes to police brutality; the contributions of contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, Ferguson’s Tef Poe, St. Louis’ T-Dubb-O, and Pittsburgh’s Jasiri X; the media’s role in the creation of the label “gangsta rap,” which arguably contributed to the music’s easy dismissal by critics; the marginalization of political Hip-Hop artists by the record industry and many more. Callers are invited to voice their feelings, and those run the gamut from not being impressed with N.W.A. at the time of their reign to a being a “suburban White kid” whose “music band Mt. Rushmore” includes N.W.A.

Kitwana’s perspective on the political acuteness of N.W.A. is based on the notion that they were not the most political of artists out at that time, but that they nonetheless contributed greatly to a discussion about real issues facing many Black communities, including Compton. “N.W.A. has to be understood in the political context of the time,” he explains. “There were other artists far more political than N.W.A. who were out before and simultaneously. For example, you had Public Enemy…groups like Kool Moe Dee, the Jungle Brothers…Queen Latifah.” He goes on to express his feelings that N.W.A. was more “anti-Black” and “anti-woman” than political and that their depiction of “paramilitary police” that were a result of the War on Drugs constituted most, if not all, of their political contribution to music.

Kelley brings forward the lack of women in the discussion about political Hip-Hop, a comment she makes after a snippet of Outkast’s “Humble Mumble” is played as an example of political rap throughout the years (it was released in 2000). Featuring Erykah Badu, the song inspired Kelly to say “we do need to have a conversation and discuss the absence of women in these stories because they were there…if you wanna talk ‘reality rap,’ like, women were crucial to these things that have happened.” When the conversation turns to misogyny in Hip-Hop music of today, she says “I don’t really like to discuss misogyny in Hip-Hop outside talking about misogyny in our general culture…in my daily life I’m more harmed by harassment in the street, harassment in my workplace.”

Listen to their entire discussion right here.

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