On Feb. 15, 2016, Kendrick Lamar took the Grammy stage at the Staples Center in Los Angeles for a performance of “The Blacker the Berry” and “Alright,” two songs off his 2015 album, To Pimp a Butterfly. Of the night’s 20 performers, one thing set Lamar apart. Kendrick’s slow, shuffling ascent to the microphone saw him handcuffed and shackled to a chain gang while his band played from inside prison cells. The six minutes that followed were a fiery display of the struggles faced by black Americans, culminating with a final image on screen in which Africa was labeled Compton, the city where Lamar was born and raised.
Rivera’s sentiment is not uncommon. Many Americans believe that the genre solely promotes drinking, drugs and promiscuity based on rap they hear on the radio. While this can be argued of some trap music, a subgenre of hip-hop, it is not representative of the genre as a whole.
Hip-hop has increasingly become a political platform for artists to discuss inequality, promote activism and give voices to marginalized people and communities who would otherwise be unheard.
The past three years alone have seen the releases of the likes of Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly and Jay-Z’s 4:44. To Pimp a Butterfly and 4:44 are soul-baring personal accounts of the black male experience in contemporary American society. These albums have the potential to resonate deeply with black students navigating their way through predominantly white campuses, as well as with white students trying to understand black issues.
These artists demonstrate that hip-hop is more than just drugs and alcohol. This simultaneously personal and political music has the ability to connect deeply with mainstream audiences. While Lamar and Jay-Z are well-known by the general population, younger artists are also shaping the genre in groundbreaking ways.
The self-proclaimed boy band Brockhampton is made up of members across a diverse spectrum of race and sexuality. Their
Saturation trilogy, a series of three albums released in 2017, highlight their individual experiences. Joey Bada$$ tackled issues of police brutality and encouraged political awareness on his 2017 album All-Amerikkkan Bada$$, while Vic Mensa candidly discussed his experiences with racial violence, mental health and addiction on his 2017 debut album, The Autobiography. Each of these artists has sent shockwaves through the hip-hop community and can mean a great deal to queer kids trying to find their place in the world, as well as to those who experience issues with mental health and drug abuse.
Furthermore, female artists such as Beyoncé, Princess Nokia and Kodie Shane are changing what it means to be a woman in hip-hop. While Beyoncé’s critically acclaimed 2016 album Lemonade is a triumphant take on what it means to be a black woman, Princess Nokia and Kodie Shane are shaping the genre with music that doesn’t shy away from sexual openness and queer issues.
Unlike those in any other genre today, hip-hop artists bare their souls to speak on issues that matter to marginalized communities, confront controversial topics head-on and promote political activism. If you want to be a more aware, well-rounded individual, turn off the radio, pick up some headphones and press play.
Braaten is an international relations and global studies junior from Conroe. She is a senior columnist.