Hip-Hop as Activism: Power to the People


Published: November 13, 2008

Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama, Obama. It took me a few seconds to figure out what I was listening to. When I realized it was Lil Wayne’s song, “A Milli,” only the repetition of the phrase “a milli” had been replaced with “Obama,” I was intrigued. Upon further YouTube searching, I found that A.P.T., the artist behind the song, is a Hampton University graduate living in D.C. who decided to share his interest in politics, particularly his support for Barack Obama, with the world. His desire to communicate this passion with others reflects the driving force of self-expression behind the creation of hip-hop culture. A similar spirit of protest drove Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five to set the stage for conscious hip-hop through its depiction of life in the ghetto. In doing so, “The Message” moved hip-hop from party songs to a platform for discussion of political and social issues. That is where the power of hip-hop originated with its listeners: it lent itself as an artistic form of activism for people who would otherwise go unheard.

Having been born in the same place as hip-hop, I have always respected it. I grew up in a household where my father played Joan Baez and Simon and Garfunkel, and his musical influence instilled in me the view of music as a form of protest in historical context and as a cultural expression. Although the mentioned artists were connected to the ’60s hippie movement, they utilized the power of music to express ideas of peace and global awareness. Likewise, I have come to appreciate hip-hop as a culture born out of protest and cultural expression.

However, today’s face of hip-hop disappoints the genre’s roots of self-expression. The majority of hip-hop artists today focus the power of their words on material wealth, misogyny and violence instead of being a force of equality and social awareness. For every conscious rapper there are five more using their platform to degrade women and support materialism. In becoming mainstream, hip-hop has lost its edge as a voice of dissent. Recent examples include Ludacris’s “One More Drink,” which portrays women as sexual objects that become more attractive the more he drinks, and Ron Browz’s “Pop Champagne,” in which he manages to brag about the money he makes while giving a woman shots of liquor in order to take her home with him. He boastfully says, “All the girls give it to me.”

In spite of this sellout, loyal hip-hop listeners have the power to recreate what Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” originally did for hip-hop. The power of change begins with each individual who sees an opportunity for cultural or political expression behind hip-hop. However, for those who are not ready to commence a rapping career, you can support the artists who dignify hip-hop. Artists such as Lupe Fiasco, Talib Kweli, Mos Def and Common, who intertwine hip-hop with social justice, help to counteract the degrading forces in mainstream hip-hop. In the same way that hip-hop began on the streets and in the clubs of the South Bronx, you can share your socially conscious music with others, only without the inconvenience of bulky records. You can make the alternative or underground hip-hop the mainstream.

I don’t intend for you to rid your life of any hip-hop party songs. Regardless of how senseless Lil Wayne’s songs might be, they are catchy. However, if you are up to the challenge, you have the power to think about what you listen to critically. You can settle for the materialistic and sexist hip-hop, or you can expect more from the music you listen to. True hip-hop can possess intelligence, analysis and social and political consciousness. The consumers give mainstream hip-hop its power, and as an individual, it is your choice: accept mainstream hip-hop the way it is or demand more. What message are you sending?