Conscious Rap Is Back & Writing New Chapters In Black History
In honor of Black History Month 2018, Ambrosia For Heads is highlighting some of the most inspiring Black entertainers, athletes, and artists whose contributions to Black history extend far beyond their artistic talents. These Black heroes have dedicated their time, resources and platforms to uplift Black communities, inspire young people and create opportunities for the less fortunate. #HistoryByUs celebrates the special few who speak out against injustice, champion the causes of Black people globally and give to the world their gifts and talents, inspiring joy and hope.
The #HistoryByUs series was created by several emerging Black artists: Aaron Williams, Angela Hines, DéVonté Rhea, Jerome T. White, Kevin Gentry, Patience Lekien, Andy Akangah and Gordon Rowe. #HistoryByUs is brought to you by AT&T.
The #HistoryByUs series highlights Alicia Keys, Rihanna, QuestLove, Misty Copeland, Zendaya, Maya Angelou, Erykah Badu, Michael Jackson, Martin Lawrence, Roy Ayers, Muhammad Ali, Spike Lee, Basquiat, Stevie Wonder, Dr. Dre and SZA. Common, J. Cole, Kendrick Lamar and Chance The Rapper are also among those celebrated in the series. With their messages of substance designed to uplift, and the incredible success they’ve achieved over the last few years, they are living proof that Hip-Hop, a culture that is often criticized for perpetuating negative stereotypes, is as conscious as it has ever been, and continues to play a vital role in Black history and showcasing Black Excellence.
Hip-Hop, as we know it, has been conscious throughout its existence. Responding to one’s surroundings in a way that awakens may be why Hip-Hop exists in the first place. Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five’s 1982 “The Message” confronted stress, classism, and other societal ills facing the Black community. Throughout the 1980s, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, De La Soul, Queen Latifah and others built these narratives into cohesive albums and power-to-the-people anthems. However, anyone following the charts or the Grammy Awards could see that the impact of this art was rarely met with commercial dominance or mainstream accolades. So often, the Rap music most celebrated in the mainstream masses as a representation of Black people dealt with dancing, partying, violence, or outright caricature, above matters of the mind and soul.
Hip-Hop has come a long way since then. Over the last few years, despite the misconceptions, the culture has been dominated on almost every level by trailblazers such as Kendrick Lamar, Chance The Rapper, Common and J. Cole. In 2017, Kendrick was one of the biggest artists on the planet, in any genre. The Compton MC’s DAMN. album was the best selling of the year, and also the most critically-acclaimed. Just weeks ago, he walked away from the Grammy Awards with five trophies, including for “Best Rap Album” and “Best Music Video.” This was not a fluke. In 2015, he tallied an astonishing 11 Grammy nominations for his To Pimp A Butterfly album, and again took the “Best Rap Album” award. He did this with music that promoted messages of self-improvement, unity and Black pride. His song “Alright” even became a de facto anthem for an entire generation that was feeling oppressed by police brutality.
Kendrick’s impact was not limited to his music, however. The talented artist became a regular visitor to the White House, with President Obama inviting him for a one-on-one visit, as well as to be an ambassador for his My Brother’s Keeper initiative. In fact, the President named Lamar’s song “How Much A Dollar Cost” his favorite song of 2015. Over the years, Kendrick has donated hundreds of thousands of dollars to Compton’s school district to fund music and after school programs, earning him a key to the city. He also has inspired scholarships for high school students, had his likeness displayed in the U.S. Capitol building, been named a generation icon by the State of California and, most recently, become the first artist ever to curate a soundtrack for a Marvel film.
Similarly, for the last few years, Chance The Rapper has been one of Hip-Hop’s brightest beacons. Last year, it was Chance who dominated the Grammy Awards, winning three, including “Best Rap Album,” and he did it with an album that was rooted in messages about spirituality and gratitude. He also made history by becoming the first artist, in any genre, to win a major award or appear on the Top 200 charts with an album that was never sold for money. Chance’s refusal to sell his projects over the years has made him mythic, as an MC who has put his fans above anything.
As impressive as his musical accomplishments have been, Chance may have even greater impact as an activist. In 2015, he led an initiative to provide coats for more than 1,000 homeless people in his native Chicago, and raised over $100,000. In 2016, he used tour dates to register voters at his shows, and even physically led hundreds of Chicago youth to early polling destinations. He also joined Kendrick Lamar in the White House, as a member of the My Brother’s Keeper Initiative. In 2017, he raised the stakes even higher, by donating $1 million to Chicago schools while challenging local businesses to match is efforts. Through it all, he showed it was possible to both do good and do well, as he and Kendrick were among Hip-Hop’s top earners during the year.
Common, another Chicago native, also has used conscious Hip-Hop as a launching pad for positively impacting his community, and he continues making Black history in real time. While music has remained Common’s primary focus for 11 albums (and a new group, August Greene), the MC has mastered new ceremonies. He acted in Selma, in a sprawling list of 2010s roles. However, performing and co-writing the film’s song “Glory” would earn Common his latest Grammy (after two previous wins), and an Oscar award. Similarly, “Letter To The Free” from 13th, earned Common an Emmy in 2017. This artist continues to win on mainstream stages with songs rooted in Black history, containing messages of perseverance and pride, as well as demands for change.
Common is doing more than acting and making soundtracks; he is now a film and television producer with his company, Freedom Road. He is behind The Chi, a newly-premiered TV series giving authentic glimpses of growing up in life-or-death circumstances in Chicago. Just as Common has done with lyrics (especially on Nobody’s Smiling, where he addressed his hometown’s violence epidemic), he is humanizing a misunderstood and forgotten people with film and TV. Outside of the arts, Common has been a 20-year-plus source of activism. From PETA and animal rights, to vowing to stop homophobic lyrics in Hip-Hop, to encouraging HIV/AIDS screenings and awareness, he promotes change. He also leads the Common Ground Foundation, a youth charity in his hometown that instills leadership, education, and a love of literature from the author of his own One Day It’ll All Make Sense memoir. In the early ’90s, Common sent a demo cassette to The Source magazine, which gave him his first platform, and subsequently, a record contract. Nearly 30 years later, Common has leveraged his voice, his art, and his heart into good.
An artist that Common has partly influenced is J. Cole. The Fayetteville, North Carolina representative has become one of Hip-Hop’s most renowned MC/producers. Throughout the last decade, Cole has returned the album format to very personal, self-contained forms of expression. His last two albums, both platinum, #1 releases, have not involved any Rap guests. Moreover, the artist’s messages also defy the old guard industry. Cole took his song, “Neighbors,” which detailed an unwarranted police raid on his upper-middle-class home, and turned it into a moving anthem that went to #7 on the charts. When he released the subsequent video, Cole’s lament about racist neighbors calling the cops was bolstered by actual surveillance footage of police officers descending upon his house. As Hip-Hop has long called its followers to “keep it real,” that’s what this multi-faceted artist does daily.
While Jermaine Cole makes powerful statements through his songs, videos, and HBO documentaries, he has proven to be a man of the people and committed to causes. Since 2016, Cole has advocated for Colin Kaepernick’s protests during the National Anthem. Even before the NFL star would go unsigned throughout the 2017 season, Cole used Kap’s jersey as a badge of protest, a statement that fast grew in popularity. He grew to become an advocate and an artistic ally with the common cause of protesting injustice—especially the killing of unarmed Black men and women. Ahead of that, Cole went to Ferguson, Missouri after the killing of teenager Michael Brown. Years later, he continues to be involved there. Inconspicuously, he was spotted in late 2014 in New York City, protesting the fatal choking of Eric Garner. J. Cole stands with the people, physically as well as symbolically. J. Cole’s words and beats call for change. But as a man, this is an activist and visionary who still believes in taking it to the streets and showing his listeners their own power and potential.
Any excellence—but especially Black Excellence—seems impossible without consciousness. Artists such as Common, Kendrick, Chance, and Cole are promoting peers, empowering others, and teaching listeners about those overlooked voices and events, all in real-time. Being not only informed, but woke to the forces at play in society, politics, health, and arts is paramount to modern existence. Whereas “conscious” once seemed a strike against any Hip-Hop voice, it is now creating the anthems of change, and cementing new chapters in Black History.