How and Why Hip Hop Has Always Been Political-But Will That Continue to Be the Case?

Whenever we talk about Hip Hop and Politics it’s always done from the stand point with us going to the ballot box as the ultimate goal. Don’t get me wrong, voting and participating in the electoral arena are important, but Hip Hop is so much bigger and so is politics.

For many of us politics is more than us voting for a particular candidate or having a catchy slogan that everyone chants at a rally. At its core, politics is about Empowerment. It’s the social, economic and political control of our communities with voting and political education being among the important steps we take to reach that goal.

Hip Hop is more than a ‘Hot 16‘, ‘fresh new gear‘ or ‘swagger devoid of substance‘. At the end of the day Hip Hop like politics is also about Empowerment. It’s about giving voice to the voiceless and helping remove both ourselves and the community from a position of being maligned and irrelevant with respect to the larger society. Like voting, knowledge and understanding of self and our communities is critical.

It’s important for us to have a firm understanding about the political and social conditions that existed at the dawn of Hip Hop’s birth in the early 70s. It’s important to note that our communities were under serious attack and the expressions associated with Hip Hop was one way in which we responded and ultimately coped.

The pioneers to this culture came up seeing how the FBI under the leadership of J Edgar Hoover and his Cointel Program, went all out to destroy the symbols of resistence and liberation from earlier generations including; Malcolm X who was killed, Martin Luther King who was killed and the Black Panther Party which was destroyed with many of its members jailed. Among those incarcerated during the dawning of Hip Hop was Afeni Shakur and the mother of Tupac. She along with her Panther comrades known as the New York 21. were jailed in 1971 while she was pregnant with Pac

The Free Speech and Anti-War Movements were under attack with then President Nixon declaring an all out war on radical youth. Hippies and Yippies were two components of youth culture caught up in the cross hairs as were Black and Brown organizations like SNCC, the Young Lords and the Brown Berets.

During Hip Hop’s dawning, New York City was enduring serious financial hardship as it teetered on the brink of bankruptcy. That calamity was avoided when city leaders decided to keep the cops, the firemen and garbage workers and instead fired 15 thousand school teachers leaving many of us without after-school programs, extracurricular classes like music and art and our overall education, shortchanged on many levels.

All this was exasperated by greedy landlords in the South Bronx who were burning down tenement buildings almost every other day and collecting the insurance money. Their actions put an already stressed community into an economic tail spin as the Bronx became the worldwide symbol of urban decay.

While all this was going on, the NYPD seemingly working in tandem with President Nixon’s War on Youth had launched an all out war on the gangs that were starting to emerge in the Bronx. They even had a special gang division who were just as brutal back in the days as they are now. Compounding this war by the police, was the fact that many Black and Brown gangs formed because they found themselves under attack by white greaser gangs who didn’t take too kindly to the Bronx neighborhoods expanding its Black and Puerto Rican populations. Hence there was serious racial tension.

It was in this climate that Hip Hop emerged.

Charlie Rock an original Zulu Nation member and former Black Spade which was the largest gang in New York gives a run down of the political and social climate at the dawning of Hip Hop

The Spirit of Resistence: Hip Hop Has Always Been Political

Resistence-It’s a facet in Hip Hop that is not fully appreciated and reflected upon.

So again let me repeat… Hip Hop is resistence…It was us fighting back, standing up to and flipping the script on oppressive forces. Bootom line Hip Hop was always POLITICAL.

Afrika Bambaataa

It was political when Afrika Bambaataa a former Black Spade warlord while attending Stevenson High School in the Bronx sought to escape gang life and formed the Organization which he later turned into the Mighty Zulu Nation. This was Hip Hop’s first organization which had among its goals to be a youth movement.

It was political when you went to hear Bambaataa spin at a park jam and he would rock Malcolm X speeches over breakbeats, reminding us what our political ideology should be.

It was political when Bam took the name ‘Zulu’ for his new organization after being inspired by the movie of the same name that depicted the South African Zulus fighting European colonizers. As the Zulu Nation grew, Bambaataa sought to instill pride and bring out the best positive attributes from the people around him. He did this by referring to Zulu members as ‘Kings’ and ‘Queens’. Bam once told me he did this to help raise people’s self esteem with the hopes that they would live up to the lofty titles he bestowed.

It was political when Bambaataa and other artists including Kurtis Blow, Kool Herc, Mele-Mel, Run DMC and the Fat Boys all participated in the Artist United Against Apartheid project where they recorded several songs for the Sun City album. Later Bambaattaa would tour Europe doing concerts to raise money for the ANC (African National Congress).

What was even more remarkable and definitely ‘political’ about Afrika Bambaataa who was dubbed the Master of Records, was his goal to turn his former gang comrades into a positive force. Bam has often remarked how and he and others would spend lots of time working and building with folks. He said it took a ‘whole lot of meetings and whole lot of patience‘ but eventually folks grew and got it together.

When he started touring Bam took many of the folks from his Bronx River neighborhood with him. He gave them jobs as roadies or as security. He did whatever it took to get them into new environments to help expand their horizons. He was essentially doing a prison to work program years before the city was doing one. If that isn’t political I don’t know what is..

Years later we would see a number of other Hip Hop artists, most notably MC Hammer a former High Street Bank Boy out of Oakland, do similar things. Hammer spent hundreds of thousands of dollars creating jobs within his company in to help facilitate the transition friends and people in his neighborhood would have to make when returning home from the pen.

Hammer took his desire to transform lives to another level when he approached local Bay Area urban radio station KMEL in the early 90s and convinced them to let him air a radio show he created called Street Soldiers. The show was designed to give folks who were ‘in the life’ (gangs drugs etc) an opportunity to get out. Gang members would call in and talk about the challenges they were facing and get feedback from their peers and community experts who would help them turn their lives around. Hammer hosted the show for the first several months and then turned it over to current hosts Joe Marshall and Margret Norris of the Omega Boys club.

The Geto Boys

In a similar vein we have the Geto Boys out of Houston. Everyone is familiar with many of their politically charged rap songs that dealt with everything from crooked police to shady DEA Agents to a President and his quest for war. We’re also familiar with the fact that Willie D used to do a political talk show on Houston radio.

However, what many people didn’t know was that the GB spent quite a bit of money paying legal fees and other court costs trying to get innocent people out of jail. Bushwick Bill and Scarface talked about this in great detail a few years ago when they came on our daily Hard Knock Radio show to protest the state of Texas executing Shaka Sankofa. If I recall correctly, Bushwick said they spent at least 200-250 thousand dollars in their efforts. That was another example of Hip Hop’s spirit of resistence.

Hip Hop Has Always Addressed Electoral Politics

Melle-Mel recorded a song called 'Jesse' praising Rev Jesse Jackson-It one of the earliest rap songs encouraging folks to Get Out and Vote

Moving into the arena of the Ballot Box, Hip Hop has been a participant in some form or fashion going all the way back to 1984 when Melle-Mel of Grand Master Flash & the Furious 5 recorded a song called Jesse’ which highlighted Reverand Jesse Jackson‘s historic run for the White House. The song also encouraged everyone to ‘Get out and Vote‘ while at the same time taking then President Ronald Reagan to task for the economic harm he was causing poor people around the country.

See Ronald Reagan speaking on TV, smiling like everything’s fine and dandy
Sounded real good when he tried to give a pep talk to over 30 million poor people like me
How can we say we got to stick it out when his belly is full and his future is sunny?
I don’t need his jive advice but I sure do need his jive time money
The dream is a nightmare in disguise (Let’s talk about Jesse)
Red tape and lies fill your for spacious skies (Let’s talk about Jesse)
But don’t think that DC just did it first (Let’s talk about Jesse)
There’s a lot of DC’s all over this universe (His name is Jesse)

Later in the song, Melle-Mel smashes on the former President for his initial refusal to meet with Jesse Jackson after he offered to go to Syria and help secure the release of Navy Lt. Robert O. Goodman Jr. who was being hostage after his plane was shot down when he ‘accidently’ flew into their airspace. Ironically even though the song was popular in clubs and at rallies, many urban station never played the record. Jackson himself, told me he didn’t hear the record until the some 10 years after it was recorded. Talk about a disconnect between generations.

In 1988 Luther Campbell aka Uncle Luke of the 2 Live Crew teamed up with one of his artists Anquette to back former US Attorney General Janet Reno who at the time was a Dade County (Miami) District Attorney vying for another term.

Anquette did this incredible James Brown inspired song called Janet Reno where she praised Reno for her legal prowess and for going after dead beat dads. The song helped Reno win the election which in turn angered her opponent a lawyer by the name of Jack Thompson.

Thompson sought revenge on Campbell and launched a campaign where he pressured officials throughout the state including Governor Bob Martinez and Broward County sheriff Nick Navarro to go after the 2 live Crew for violating state obscenity laws. Eventually Navarro won a ruling that deemed the group’s album As Nasty As They Wanna Be as obscene.

Local record store owners were warned not to sell the album or they would be arrested. Many shop owners protested but didn’t dare test Navarro. Things came to a head when 2 of the 2 Live Crew members were arrested for performing songs off the album. This is turn set off a huge legal firestorm around first amendment rights.

Campbell, fought this case all the way to the Supreme Court where Harvard Professor Henry Louis ‘Skip’ Gates testified on behalf of the 2Live Crew. He noted that the salacious material they recorded was rooted in the oral/song traditions of African-Americans. The ruling of obscenity were overturned. Again, all this legal drama was caused by Luke’s subversive efforts and Anquette’s song which help turn the tide in an election.

Now we could do an entire book on Hip Hop and Elections where we’d have to cover everyone from Diddy‘s Vote or Die efforts to Russell Simmons Hip Hop Summit Action Network to the Hip Hop Political Conventions that took place in 04, 06 and 08. We’d also have to talk about the formation of Hip Hop Congress and the work they do on campuses around the country, the introduction of Rap Sessions and the political town halls they hold around the country, The League of Young Voters who put out Hip Hop oriented voting guides and recently has been doing work around the census and we’d have to cover Washington based Hip Hop Caucus that routinely engages elected officials on Capitol Hill and did the Respect My Vote Campaign in 08.

We would also have to talk about the recent victory of artist/activist Ras Baraka to the City Council in Newark. He used to serve as deputy mayor. We’d have to talk about the Honorable George Martinez who is currently serving as cultural Envoy, Hip-Hop Ambassador at U.S. State Department. Prior to him serving that position well known Brooklyn based freestyle artist Toni Blackman was this country’s Hip Hop Ambassador. I believe Martinez who also once served on the New York State Democratic Committee is currently running for Congress in NY’s 12th district.

Also running for Congressional office is author/ activist Kevin Powell. This is his second attempt and from the looks of things he stands a really good chance of beating the 28 year incumbent Edolphus Towns. The battle ground is in New York’s 10th district in Brooklyn

Lastly we’d have to talk about Dr Jared Ball out of Maryland who is best known for his political mix tapes ‘Freemix radio‘ ran for Green Party nomination for president in in 08 and long time activist Rosa Clemente who made history by securing the vice presidential nomination for the Green Party. She and former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney had their name on the ballots in all 50 states and garnered impressive numbers even though their historic bid was overshadowed by Barack Obama’s run for the White House which definitely brought out and politicized many in the Hip Hop generation.

From Paris to Brazil Fear of a Politicized Hip Hop

Never in our wildest dreams did marginalized Black and Brown ghetto youth living in the South Bronx, one of the poorest most dilapidated regions of the country ever think this culture of music, dance and oratory expressions we call Hip Hop would mean so much to so many people all over the world. From the slums of Nairobi, Kenya to the streets of Paris, France to the favelas in Rio, Brazil to the hoods in Detroit, to the streets in Gaza, Hip Hop’s presence is not only felt, but has been a driving cultural force in resistence movements especially amongst the young, poor and oppressed. Much of this was inspired by seminal artists like Public Enemy, KRS-One, dead prez , X-Clan and 2Pac to name a few who embodied this spirit of resistence.

For those who think this is far-fetched, think back to 2005 when Paris erupted in riots and over 200 French politicians signed a petition calling for legal action against Hip Hop acts and their aggressive lyrics which they said incited the riots. Acts like Monsieur R and Sniper became the main targets and were actually brought up on charges and faced lawsuits because of their songs that encouraged resistence to the police and government oppression.

Although there were no government petitions signed, in the late 80s, the FBI’s assistant director Milt Ahlerich saw fit to shoot off a letter to Priority Records expressing outrage over the song ‘Fuck tha Police’ which was put out by NWA. In the letter he noted that “advocating violence and assault is wrong and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action“. Over the years NWA found themselves not being allowed to perform that song at many of the venues because of police pressure. The one time they did in Detroit, 20 plain clothes officers rushed the stage to shut the group down.

MV Bill is an artist we should all know

Several years ago in 2004 a corporate MTV-like 2 day Hip Hop festival called Hip Hop Manifest featuring Snoop and Ja Rule was boycotted by a coalition of Brazilian artists including the enormously popular MV Bill who stated in a Stress magazine article “The organizers are not interested in our issues, or what we rhyme about, they just want to buy our legitimacy, and I have a moral commitment to uphold the history that has created hip-hop. I pity the black man who sells our history for a price.”

What was at stake was these corporate media promoters refused to reinvest the profits into the poor communities in the area and lower ticket prices to make the event more accessible. Many of the Brazilian artists gave up hefty paychecks and a chance to get serious international spotlight, but they felt strongly about the issue and held their ground. They also put a call out to Snoop and Ja Rule and other American rappers to recognize the injustice they were fighting and invited them to come spend time in the poor communities.

“We cannot allow ourselves to be seen simply as idols. Ever since I began creating hip hop, my dream was to show Black people that we could be free and break the shackles.” Snoop, isn’t this beautiful?”, is the question Sao Paulo rap star LF posted to Snoop in an open letter.

M-1 of dead prez who recently went to Gaza always represents for the people

These are just a few of the dozens of examples that could easily be cited to show the resistence and political nature within Hip Hop. From the anti-police brutality albums, put together by artists like Mos Def and Talib Kweli, to the legendary voter registration rallies in Harlem once put on by Sista Souljah to the Stop the Violence Movement started by KRS-One, to the Orphanage recently opened by Immortal Technique in Afghanistan to M1 of dead prez making a trip to Gaza to the anti-police brutality work done by groups like One Hood in Pittsburgh or Hip Hop Against Police Brutality in Texas, to Knaan having his song Raise the Flag be used in the World Cup to Invincible and Finale using their song Locust to make a full fledge documentary about gentrification in Detroit, Hip Hop doesnt give lip service to politics.

From the anti-war efforts put forth by numerous artists (over 200 songs have been recorded at last count) to the efforts around the Jena 6 with artist like Jasiri X doing a theme song. tireless work put forth by artists like David Banner, Nelly, and others in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina to the recent efforts put forth by artists like Wyclef Jean, NY Oil, Mystic and many others to help bring relief to victims of the earthquake in Haiti, Hip Hop artists have proven to be a responsive. Pick a subject, Immigration, Domestic Violence, Gulf Oil Spill, you name it and Hip Hop has and is there. The reason being because there are always people in our communities who will resist and are down to fight for Freedom no matter what.

Currently, Hip Hop’s biggest challenge is to resist all the attempts to dilute and redirect its potential to spark meaningful social and political change in the face of oppression. This especially true for Hip Hop that makes its way into corporate backed mainstream enclaves. The corporate agenda is to reduce Hip Hop down to a meaningless disposable song and to reduce politics to a voting over catchy phrase or sensationalistic headline and scandal.

It’s no mistake that much of what I’ve written about has not been highlighted, celebrated, shown on TV or played on the radio. It’s not because people won’t find these acts interesting, newsworthy or popular. The end game is to lessen the influence of an artist and dumb down the audience so game can be run on us. That game of course is to sell us product and complacent ideology. The end game is to get Hip Hop to be used as a tool to drive consumerism vs activism and make the music and our people disposable entities to be discarded or conquered.

Return to Davey D’s Hip hop Corner

11 comments on “How and Why Hip Hop Has Always Been Political-But Will That Continue to Be the Case?

  1. Brilliant piece, although the Charlie Rock piece from you tube seemed to have been expunged, at least on my little computer.

    Yes, resistance is the word. This is how West coast hip hop came into existence and West Coast hip hop artists became the inheritors to the throne of Hip Hop Prominence for a while:

    “Oakland the chocolate folk land…A place where the legacy’s torn, where the Black Panther Party was born, and many are still forlorn on the streets of Oakland…Some call it Coke Land. — ABOG”

    Also, the current hip hop fashion sense is directly related to West Coast hip hop’s success and influence, the baggy pants sagging, etc was basic West Coast ghetto shit: You better not have your shit hanging with that East Coast Hawk trying to get in your ass! Started in the West with poor ass project boys twisting dope and spitting rhymes to get outta here. Now you can go to Macy’s and buy that shit for $199.00

    Then while in Europe (2000 – 2004) I saw the young people there emulating these things and I had never been so proud in my life, with the exception of the way I felt at Panther Rallies and other Civil and Human Rights movements and efforts throughout the late 1960’s through the mid 70’s.

    Hip Hop. I love her like a naughty next door neighbor girl. She makes me want to turn a whore into a housewife!

  2. “The end game is to get Hip Hop to be used as a tool to drive consumerism vs activism and make the music and our people disposable entities to be discarded or conquered.”

    There is no “end game” (or whatever)…. just individuals and mobs of people doing whatever they want when they want.

    The most “radical” thing anyone can do in this day and age is live simple, be concise, practical and to-the-point. These are all things that are inherently undercut by sensationalism and entertainment – not emphasized by them.
    That includes Hip Hop regardless if it is political or not.

  3. good article, although it seems like i have read it before.

    “Also, the current hip hop fashion sense is directly related to West Coast hip hop’s success and influence, the baggy pants sagging, etc was basic West Coast ghetto shit: You better not have your shit hanging with that East Coast Hawk trying to get in your ass! Started in the West with poor ass project boys twisting dope and spitting rhymes to get outta here. Now you can go to Macy’s and buy that shit for $199.00”

    my understanding is the sagging is directly related to the high incarceration rates which began around the time Reagan was elected and continues to this day. prisoners in jail were not allowed to have belts, so their pants sagged. when they were paroled and returned to the ‘hood, they brought this style to the streets. i’m not sure its directly associated with the east or the west. the gang-influenced style might have started on the west coast but it’s pretty much everywhere now. out here in oakland now the fashion is plain white tee’s with expensive jeans and nikes or vans.

    one more thing on the fashion tip, i remember when Beanie Siegel came out with his State Property line, which to me crossed a line. actually selling jail-inspired clothing as fashion for young people. that to me was totally irresponsible, considering what was happening as far as incarceration and recidivism rates. i remember when the dashikis and African medallions were the flavor…hop-hop was better then overall.

    i dont dispute that there has always been a political/socially-aware aspect to hip-hop, but i think that has more to do with the context of the culture (and the environment around it) than anything. one could easily say hip-hop has always been about ignorant lyrics and dance steps as well. the interesting thing is that both are true.

  4. Interesting article. Some good information on the foundations of hip-hop and some interesting predictions about where it’s going…I’m glad you touched on COINTEL.

    A few things though:

    You use the pronoun “we”. Can you elaborate who you are referring to?

    “Currently, Hip Hop’s biggest challenge is to resist all the attempts to dilute and redirect its potential to spark meaningful social and political change in the face of oppression.”
    Isn’t this true of virtually all genres of music and social movements (youth)? Why is hip-hop special in this regards?

    How would hip-hop cease to be political?

    Why did you omit out the role of Latinos and other oppressed minorities in hip-hop within this essay?

    You briefly touched on the role of oppressed people in third world countries and hip-hop. Do you think hip hop artists in other countries have influenced political hip-hop in the states? How do you think freedom is imagined in these countries differently than the US?

    As the largest demographic of hip-hop music consumption, what is the role of white people in helping hip hop continue to be political?

    You touch on race (briefly) and class. What about religion (specifically Islam) and its intersection with political issues and hip-hop?

    Why did you choose to leave out The Coup? You rep Oakland, right?

    By the way, I would highly recommend the recent issue of WAX POETICS (the hip-hop issue!) has some great interviews that are related to this topic.

    Peace and respect-

  5. Frske..

    U asked alot of questions… First a book on Hip Hop and politics could be written.. I have hundreds of examples I could cite..and for lack of space time etc.. I chose a handful I thought would be interesting.. I didn’t meantion Public enemy, KRS or X-clan too much.. or Paris, Ice Cube, Brand Nubian, Da Lench Mob, PRT, naughty By nature, Yo Yo and a lots of other folks who i personally know.. I didn’t talk about the numerous Hip Hop/education conferences.. I didn’t talk too much about Academia…. I didn’t mention, Dyson, Cornel.. NOI, Five Percenters. Hip Hop at UN..Minneapolis, Detroit, Houston all which had lot of political underpinnings.. I’d still be writing if I did..

    I focused on History and wanted to bring forth a couple of landmark scenarios.. like Anquette which many don’t know about and overlook.. Most including Jesse up until a few years ago didn’t peep the Melle-Mel song.. Remember he did dozens of political songs..

    White folks.. are not the largest demographic of consumption..there’s a history of manipulation with numbers and stats designed to secure ad revenue.. I written on that in the past especially since I worked at one of the main places that perpeuated that myth.. bakari Kitwana addresses this issue as well..

    I did include Latinos in the article.. Didn’t have time space or capacity to go deep with other folks..

    I think Hip Hop is way ahead of the game politically speaking in other places and sadly has very little influence here.. Thats why I included a couple of examples.. to maybe raise an eyebrow or two.. I like MV Bill.. He’s huge in Brazil and unknown here.. France was glaringly obvious because its one of the larger scenes in the world and we had riots where Hip Hop was blamed and prosecuted..

    I left out Boots, paris and lots of Bay cats..prop 21, Youth Speaks, ise Lyfe.. etc.. The Bay is thick with the politics.. and Maybe I should mention the Mau mau TRhythm Collective cause that was landmark.. I also didn’t mention my own ventures.. which are Bay Area Hip Hop Coalition, Street Knowledge, my firing after 9-11, the political stations we launched on line.. Just not enough room and space..appreciate the heads up..Although one thing about Boots he’s political but is not really a electoral politics type of guy..

    White folks…I don’t see them as being the biggest consumers.. I’ve written about this in the past and talked about this sordid history of manipulating numbers and stats with a goal of winning ad dollars. I worked at one of the main landmark places that perpetuated this myth.. Bakari Kitwana also addresses this in his book.. why white kids love Hip Hop..

    There are some key people who I think did things behind the scenes to provide a platform.. dante Ross, michelle santuosso..a few others.. Artist there’s along list..another place another time..This was written for the Grio so I’m speaking to us..

  6. great piece! i particularly found it poignant that the Brazilian artist refused to perform with materialistic American artists. It shows how far hip hop has gotten from its roots. i wish you’d spoken a little more on the N-word though. you mentioned Bam calling his followers kings and Queens but you neglected to mention how most rappers address their fans and each other. I talked about this in my latest blog post: The Globalization of the N-Word

  7. The use of the N word has been done to the point it pointless.. They use the N word back in the 70s not because of Hip Hop but because of movies like Nigger Charlie which had full life size posters on public subways and because Richard pryor, Red fox and others.. White folks didn’t use the word unless they were using it as an empithet..

    Bam didn’t call folks Kings and Queens as a reaction to that word.. he did it to uplift us..Not sure what to do abt the N word except to make sure u don’t use it in my house and toward me

  8. WTF! Where’s the article! I saw the title & got interested, I click & all I get is other people talking about how good it is.

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