The positive effect of hip-hop on anti-racism

The world has been reeling since the devastating murder of George Floyd on 25th May 2020. The internet and social media channels have become flooded with posts about how to donate to related charities, spread peace and pledge allegiance to the ongoing Black Lives Matter campaign, and reach out as an anti-racist. I’ve been reading, watching and generally trying to educate myself about systemic racism and how much agony it causes. And although I couldn’t claim to say I was completely unaware, I certainly have never felt qualified to write about it until now. 

So, you’re probably visiting Record Weekly for the music. However, this is my platform to do my due diligence, so here I am. While I used to feel that penning my thoughts about racism only positioned myself as another bandwagon-jumper or speaker from an uninformed position, I realise now that this is the time to stand up for the black community openly and without hesitance.

As someone who has been a huge hip-hop fan for around a decade, I deem it appropriate to marry my insights and feelings about the current situation with how that genre has touched me. I also posit that it’s guided me as an anti-racist; a term used for people who stand against racism. 

Allow me to explore how music has become an emblematic stage for artists to provide a voice to black citizens. There’s no denying the inextricable link and inherent tie between the black community and hip-hop. While rap artists all have stories to tell, you do invariably find that the majority of the most successful and well-known musicians are or were black. I’m talking Kanye, Jay-Z, Common, 2Pac, Biggie, Lauryn Hill… the list goes on. 

I became so interested in hip-hop that I even wrote a linguistics essay at university about the use of AAVE (African American Vernacular English) in all rap music. This encompassed a discussion about Eminem and his successes, as a white artist employing these same AAVE language techniques, to signal an association and affiliation with the black musicians who originally founded and carved out a widespread future for the genre. 

The rise of rhythm and blues from the 1940s onwards shaped and influenced many hip-hop artists, which paved the way for sampling. This ode to the original musician’s work encapsulated them in time and has allowed us to honour and cherish their sounds well into present day. 

At the moment, we’re surrounded by people from all walks of life who want to aid the movement. The understanding that — as someone who identifies the effects of automatic white privilege — I may never truly understand the pain and suffering of the black community, means I’m here to vow to listen, and help combat racism to turn the tide. 

One sector in particular that has been at the forefront of campaigning and using their status to do good is the music industry. On Tuesday 2nd June 2020, led by record labels including Def Jam, Sony/ATV, Capitol Music Group, Warner and a whole host more, a day off social media to reflect on what’s happening took place. It went under the name of ‘Black Out Tuesday’, and that coupled with the #TheShowMustBePaused trended as a hashtags, often in accompaniment to a black image posted on social media.

Now, because I’m already following an abundance of artists, it was all too easy to pinpoint who was supporting this — in short, it was basically everyone. I would say that this was, by and large, because black artists have been at least involved with, if not at the helm of, a great portion of music we enjoy. That’s where my proposed correlation between listening to hip-hop and identifying as an anti-racist comes in. 

Am I constantly angered and riled by gut-wrenching shootings and cases of misconduct rhymed about by my favourite rappers? Yes. Am I horrified to learn of how many have been stopped in the street and ‘randomly’ drug-searched? Absolutely! Does it make my blood boil to learn that hate crimes have been perpetuated towards many of these artists, solely because of their skin colour? It couldn’t leave me more in despair. I can’t fathom why somebody would actively target another person because of their ethnicity. I was taught from day dot that people are people — we’re all equal and should be united. We should be kind to all souls on this planet, because why on earth would we not be? If you come to dislike another human, it’s because they’ve done something to hurt or wrong you. However, that feeling must be warranted — why would it possibly be justifiable to generalise and dislike another person purely based on their appearance? 

So, if my identification as an anti-racist hinges on the path that’s been shown to me from a tender age, where does the hip-hop link come in? Well, I think my respect, reverence and admiration towards rappers — of which around 85%, in terms of my music library, are black — has assisted my journey as an unwavering anti-racist, and raised my awareness of gun violence in the US, unlawful imprisonment, mass incarceration, unjust brutality and killing in the name of police power. That’s not to say I’m comfortable with any of these — I’m far from that — but it means that I’m fairly aware of how corrupt the system against the black community is and can be, and so I’ll continue to oppose it. Black rappers are storytellers walking us through painful, harrowing events, and we need to listen. Sure, sometimes good music is good music, plain and simple, but in the case of hip-hop, it’s regularly about meaningful messages, too.

I don’t know whether this is ringing true for some of you reading this, but as an example, I was incredibly excited about the early release of Run the Jewels’ ‘RTJ4’ last week. It dropped for free, by way of a spirit-raiser in a time of crisis. 

While it’s a catalogue of punchy, powerful rap, in true RTJ fashion, it’s littered with raw honesty and moments of unfiltered emotion. For instance, they collaborated with the legendary Mavis Staples and Josh Homme on ‘pulling the pin’. These artists are both visionaries in their own way, but it was gospel singer Staples’ hard-hitting lines — though supposedly more about money and power — that made me sit up, listen and draw similarities between the lyrics and the reason for today’s protesting. “And at best I’m just getting it wrong, And at worst I’ve been right from the start / It hurts, I’m being torn apart / There’s a grenade in my heart, And the pin is in their palm / There’s a grenade, There’s a grenade, A grenade…”

It isn’t just the explosive lyrics you’ll find in rap that should connote feelings of empathy, it’s what these musicians often stand for. Unity, equality, freedom — who wouldn’t rise up in favour of these? So, while people consider which side of the line they’re on, I urge them to sift through their record collections and see what’s left if all black musicians’ LPs are removed; to list all the successful black sportspeople they idolise; to remember how many black people they know and care about. I imagine all that would make you recognise exactly where you should be standing… 

While you might have read this thinking I’ve just made a tenuous link between promoting hip-hop and identifying as an anti-racist, I ask whether you feel closer to the black community because you’ve been exposed to rap. Are you such a true fan of so many black artists that you would unquestionably stand with them? People can say what they will about hip-hop — everyone’s entitled to an opinion, given music’s subjectivity — but I don’t think it’s hampered an understanding of what terrible ordeals people suffer; I think it’s helped. 

This is the time to realise we must educate ourselves about how we can steer the future against racism. It feels like change is afoot, and I really hope it is. Speak out about how Black Lives Matter, however you can — even if you don’t feel it’s your place. The only way to proceed is to be in this together. 

Unsure about how to actively do your bit? The following links are for helpful sites about donations (if possible), anti-racism and the black community:

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