Socially Conscious Hip-Hop:
Hip-Hop began in the late 1970’s, and has been a significant presence in urban African American communities since the late 1980’s (Morgan, pg. 2). It has emerged as a cultural, social, and political force constituted through language. As an entity its been used especially by the youth to mediate identity, speak on the black experience in the United States, and has “become the one cultural institution urban youth rely on for representation, honesty, keepin it real, and leadership”(Morgan, pg. 4). It has been instrumental in crafting a young, urban, African American identity. In many respects “the introduction of hip-hop’s cultural beliefs and values has resulted in a significant reclamation and restructuring of African American language practices”(Morgan, pg. 15). Considering that historically hip-hop’s language ideology is based on urban African-American norms, values, and popular culture it relies heavily on the knowledge of African American English. The genre is often being criticized for having a focus on aggressive raps, being misogynistic, and glorifying materialistic things. However, there are a variety of Hip-Hop styles that have different purposes. The choice of style depends on how artists construct themselves, and the typeof message in the rap.
What is Socially Conscious Rap?
Socially conscious rap is a sub-genre of hip-hop that focuses on creating awareness, calling for action, and imparting knowledge. Conscious rappers traditionally decry violence, discrimination, and other social ailments. It speaks to the dismantling of oppressive forces within society, and the empowerment of marginalized communities.
By analyzing socially conscious hip-hop much can be acquired in regard to how Black identity and sexuality is constructed. With socially conscious rap one can see how language is intentionally used in a manner that generates music that is both political, and provocative. Black identity is additionally constructed through the added visuals, and use of media. Granted, images of peoples of African descent have existed prior to music videos, and have been deeply engraved into the fabric of how the question of race has been constructed to reproduce racist ideologies via the media. This is why socially conscious rap is influential as a means to express black narratives, and speak on what it means to be Black in White America through music. The media is an important linguistic institution, because their output “reflects and shapes both language use and attitudes in speech communities” (Hall, pg. 40). Within socially conscious hip-hop there is a stark difference between how Black women artists, and Black men artists are received. Additionally, there are different standards to which they are held to, and a grand difference in the topics they speak on as a result of their contrasting intersectionalities. Overall, throughout the genre there seems to be a policing of Black women’s politics in the media. The differences between these artists display how they use their music, and language in a manner that celebrates the Black community while simultaneously confronting the regimes of White supremacy.
Some of the key artists that have produced socially conscious hip-hop include J.Cole, Kendrick Lamar, and Lupe Fiasco. These Black men have attained different levels of success, but all have critically used their art to construct and mediate the Black identity while serving a political agenda. Unlike the mainstream Hip-Hop, socially conscious Hip-Hop overall tends to be praised less within White America. Their work in the past has tried to be silenced for being too explicit and radical, but they’ve nonetheless made a tremendous impact, and attained success. Jermaine L. Cole better known by his stage name J.Cole is a recording artist and producer. He is originally from Fayetteville, North Carolina. He has risen to fame within the last eight years, and tends to speak on the adversities Blacks face, the realities of being of a lower socio-economic class, and experiences that are unique to the Black experience. Kendrick Lamar is originally from Compton, California and has a very similar lyrical style to J.Cole. Out of the three Black men listed above, he has acquired the most success. Lupe Fiasco is originally an artist from Chicago, and is known for his work focusing on social justice issues. He is known for his strong views against censorship, and throughout the years has lost his platform as a big hip-hop artist. However, he is still credited as being among the few that in recent years have contributed greatly to the socially conscious music movement.
In regard to Black women that have contributed greatly to this genre some of the greats include Eryka Badu, Lauryn Hill, and Beyoncé. Eryka is originally from Texas and is recognized for her use of music as a means to be an activist. Similarly, Lauryn Hill is known for her work that speaks on the intersectionalities and lived experiences of Black women. Beyoncé is debatably the biggest entertainer in modern times, and in the past couple of years has been scrutinized greatly for speaking so vocally on black issues through her music. All of these artists tend to also be thought of as R&B artists as well, but they undeniably have contributed greatly to socially conscious hip-hop.
Given the aforementioned, for my final project I decided to deconstruct all that has been previously stated, and conduct a small investigation placing an emphasis on analyzing how Women of Color that are and aren’t avid listeners of Hip-Hop interpret these works of socially conscious hip-hop. I decided to begin by analyzing the song lyrics and use of African American English in relation to topics that construct identity, and speak to the Black experience. I began by asking demographic questions. I interviewed eight women of color ranging from ages eighteen to twenty-two. All of the women identified as African American. I decided to use the songs from the artists I have mentioned above. This includes J.Cole’s “Lost Ones”, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright”, Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad”, Lauryn Hill’s “Black Rage”, Eryka Badu’s “Tyrone”, and Beyoncé’s “Formation”. I played each of the participants one minute snippets from each of the songs. Afterwards, I proceeded to ask questions exploring what their sentiments on these songs were, and if they think Black women were being condemned in a way that Black men were not. I further explored the topic of Black women’s politics being policed in music.
The specific questions all of the participants were asked after collecting their demographic information were:
– How often do you listen to Hip-Hop?
– Do you recognize all of these artists and know lyrics in depth?
-Do you think Hip-Hop is empowering/ critical?
-What topics do you see discussed by the men/women?
-How did the lyrics/snippets make you feel?
-How do you see these artist’s work received/ how do they speak to Black women?
-Did you see the Superbowl/ Grammy? How did you think both works were received by White America, and what were your sentiments towards it?
After collecting all of the data, both the avid and non-avid listeners admitted that Hip-Hop can be political and empowering. They all expressed that this kind of art allots a voice to marginalized peoples. It was interesting to see that there seems to be a trend where the avid listeners still sing along to problematic lyrics that they find within these songs despite being aware of them while the non-avid listeners refuse to sing along to those specific lyrics. Three of the non-avid listeners of Hip-Hop commented on how Hip-Hop ,even socially conscious hip-hop, doesn’t necessarily always empower Black women, because in the videos it portrays the policing of Black women’s bodies. Additionally, all of the participants expressed feeling like the Black women artists have a greater sense of social consciousness than the men, because they are more inclusive of intersectionality. They concluded that Black women have a better overarching depiction of Black lives. Meanwhile even when Black Men are producing socially conscious hip-hop there still are the remnants present of men still trying to show how masculine they are, and there is still the use of women as props.
After scanning the use of language in each of the songs I used for my final project, it is evident that there is a difference in the way these artists have used language to construct identity, and bring about certain topics that matter specifically to the Black community.The topics covered in the songs crafted by Black men include abortion, the use of derogatory words towards women, the struggle of black folks, single mothers, money, and power. African American English is cleverly used as a vehicle to speak on the topics previously mentioned. However, even within Lupe Fiasco’s “Bitch Bad” there seems to be a greater blame placed on Black women for their status in society than on men. Below are some of the lyrics to the song,
Now imagine there’s a shorty, maybe five maybe four
Ridin’ ’round with his mama listening to the radio
And a song comes on and a not far off from being born
Doesn’t know the difference between right and wrong
Now I ain’t trying to make it too complex
But let’s just say shorty has an undeveloped context
About the perception of women these days
His mama sings along and this what she says
“Niggas, I’m a bad bitch, and I’m that bitch
Something that’s far above average”
And maybe other rhyming words like cabbage and savage
And baby carriage and other things that match it
Couple of things are happenin’ here
First he’s relatin’ the word “bitch” with his mama comma And because she’s relatin’ to herself, his most important source of help And mental health, he may skew respect for dishonour”
While Lupe is critical of people trying to reclaim the word bitch, he still seems to miss how women have internalized all of this, and that it’s not that the women has an undeveloped context, but truly an extension of how the patriarchy works. Nonetheless, I think this song is a great example of meaningful work that asks listeners to think critically, and empower Black women/ men. In J.Cole’s “Lost Ones”, we see the single Black mother narrative being portrayed. While J.Cole is being critical of it, and being very honest it still isn’t as uplifting as other works. Below are some of the lyrics to the song,
“Baby girl, I can’t imagine what it’s like for you
I got you pregnant now inside there is a life in you
I know you wonderin’ if this gon’ make me think ’bout wifing you
Like if you had my first child would I spend my whole life with you
Now I ain’t tryna pick a fight with you, I’m tryna talk
Now I ain’t tryna spend the night with you
I’m kinda lost see
I’ve been giving it some thought lately and frankly
I’m feelin’ like we ain’t ready and it’s hold up now
Let me finish
Think about it baby me and you we still kids ourself
How we gon’ raise a kid by ourself?
Handle biz by ourself
A nigga barely over twenty, where the hell we gon’ live?
Where am I gon’ get that money?”
This isn’t your typical song about money, sex, and weed. However, there is a one dimensional narrative being portrayed essentially reaffirming that it is the Black woman’s duty to handle the situation. The song however is moving, because it’s reflective of how life happens, how sometimes one has to make hard decisions, and ultimately it is a call for accountability and instills hope that at the end you’ll be okay.
The works by the Black women artists mentioned above contrastingly speak on Black hair, relationships, rage due to White America’s oppressive ways, community, ancestry, abuse, resilience, the social expectations for Black men and women, and slavery. It seems as if these women are a lot more radical in their works, and indeed do provide a more holistic depiction of Black lives. Even in some of the more light hearted songs like Eryka Badu’s “Tyrone” there is a deep criticism of Black men. Below are some of the lyrics to the song,
“I’ma test this out right quick on y’all
Now keep in mind I’m an artist and I’m sensitivie about my shit
So y’all be nice about it, alright
Sisters how y’all feel, brothers y’all alright
Let me see how y’all groove to this
Alright, I’m gettin’ tired of your shit
You don’t never buy me nothin’
See every time you come around
You got to bring Jim, James, Paul, and Tyrone
See why can’t we be by ourselves, sometimes
See I’ve been having this on my mind for a long time
I just want it to be, you and me, like It used to be, Baby
But ya don’t know how to act
So matter of fact, I think ya better call Tyrone (call him)
And Tell him come on, help you get your shit (come on, come on, come on)
You need to call Tyrone (call him)
And tell him I said come on
Noweverytime I ask you for a little cash
You say no and turn right around and ask me for some ass
Oh, Well hold up, listen partna, I ain’t no cheap thrill
Cause Miss Badu is always comin’ for real you know the deal, nigga”
Eryka’s work calls for Black women everywhere to recognize their worth, and not let men take advantage of them. In this song we see the empowerment of women via Eryka’s call for sexual liberation, and independence. Works like these not only provide the commentary from the perspective of a Black person, but also provide feminist commentary. Similarly, Beyoncé’s “Formation” pays homage to her ancestry, and celebrates blackness while refuting White standards of beauty. Lastly, Lauryn Hill’s “Rage” symbolizes what socially conscious hip-hop truly entails.
“Black rage is founded who fed us self hatred
Lies and abuse while we waited and waited
This grid and it’s cages
Black rage was founded on these kinds of things
Black rage is founded on dreaming and draining
Threatening your freedom
To stop your complaining
Poisoning your water
While they say it’s raining
Then call you mad
For complaining, complaining
Old time bureaucracy
Drugging the youth
Black rage is founded on blocking the truth
Murder and crime
Compromise and distortion
Who makes this fortune?
Greed, falsely called progress
Such human contortion
Black rage is founded on these kinds of things”
The lyrics above depict how as listeners we see the soul of Black folks being reflected within the song. This song was Lauryn’s response to all that was going on in Ferguson in regards to the systematic disregard of black lives. It is a deeply moving piece directed to White America, and a call for action.
Below are some of the music videos that accompany these works:
Why Kendrick Lamar didn’t face backlash like Beyoncé:
When Beyoncé took to the Super Bowl stage and performed the “blackest” song of her career, “Formation,” she received an overwhelming amount of critiques. Through the use of her lyrics, and the creation of the video that accompanied it she advocated against police brutality, and rejected the white beauty lens by celebrating her “negro nose with Jackson Five nostrils” and Blue Ivy’s “baby hair and Afro.” It’s a song celebrating Blackness, bringing Black issues to the forefront, and it’s empowering for Black women specifically. White America condemned her for employing her blackness in the video and during her half-time performance at the Superbowl. Some police officers even refused to provide their services at her concerts, and other attempted to boycott her which speaks volumes.
A week or so later, Kendrick Lamar, took to the stage of the 58th Grammy Awards to perform “Alright.” Lamar delivered a performance lauded for its unapologetic blackness. His performance, which included the visual symbolism of prison uniforms, chains and African drummers covered in body paint, was speaking directly against White supremacy. Beyoncé’s and Kendrick’s performances carried similar messages, however he didn’t receive the backlash that she did. Black women and black men are clearly held to different and unequal standards. The reception of both of these works, and the topics of sexual expression they cover depict that Black men have the freedom of expressing both sexual pleasure and speaking up against White supremacy.
While Beyoncé risked losing fans when she condemned the state-sanctioned violence against black bodies, Kendrick Lamar’s performance was applauded in a manner that her work wasn’t. Her work was even more critical, because not only does it go against White supremacy, but it also goes against the patriarchy.Kendrick Lamar’s performance no doubt represents a powerful resistance as well. However, just as with other socially conscious rappers that are Black men their work often ignores the misogyny that keeps black women oppressed in both their blackness and womanhood.
Below are clips from both political performances:
White America’s Reaction to Socially Conscious Rap:
Ultimately, we see time and time again how uncomfortable White America is made by these political works, and how there’s always a push to silence these artists. In the case of Beyoncé, many of her white fans began freaking out about her speaking so much about her blackness. The beauty about these kinds of critical bodies of work is that they confront white supremacy head on, and shed light on discourse that otherwise would get ignored. Saturday Night Live made a hilarious skit sarcastically displaying what happened when Beyoncé released her song/video, and how White America was forced to acknowledge that she is indeed Black. While the video is simply a parody, it nicely conveys how socially conscious music is necessary to remind people of the issues that plague the Black community, and reclaim spaces that are typically used to idolize white norms, and further oppress these marginalized communities.
Below is the SNL skit:
Hip-Hop as an art form is such a powerful institution, and it’s important to continue to critically examine the function of music in the media. In relation to activism it evidently is a powerful force, and platform. Additionally, considering that White Middle class men are the largest consumers of the genre it is especially important to note how blackness is conveyed, and how it is being consumed. The media is a powerful source of affirming the marginalization of Black/Brown folk, and truly is a reflection of our society. In regard to socially conscious music, we need more artist to be mindful of representing intersectionalities, and we absolutely need to be skeptical of the different constructs Black women and men work under. This will bring about awareness surrounding the power of language, and the consequences of how race is discussed in the media.
Morgan, Marcyliena H. Language, Discourse, and Power in African American Culture. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge UP, 2002. Print.
Greene, Jasmin S. Beyond Money, Cars and Women: Examining Black Masculinity in Hip Hop Culture. Newcastle: Cambridge Scholars, 2008. Print.
Bynoe, Yvonne. Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership, and Hip Hop Culture. Brooklyn: Soft Skull, 2004. Print.