The New Resistance: A history of Black Lives Matter and hip hop
Arusa Qureshi explores why the Black Lives Matter movement is so important to hip hop today
The disconcerting rise in police brutality captured on camera in the United States has cast a menacing shadow over the daily lives of many minority ethnic communities, whose very existence is increasingly threatened by hostility and prejudice. Responding directly to this systematic and intentional violence against black people, Black Lives Matter is a movement that draws inspiration from the African-American Civil Rights Movement and the Black Power movement in its affirmation of the value of black lives. Despite the support that the movement has received thus far from prominent musicians, including Beyonce and Jay Z, the hip hop world has been accused of failing to speak up about the importance of Black Lives Matter, with some rappers like A$AP Rocky going as far as denouncing the movement altogether. But such criticisms by rappers are not only absurd, they are overwhelmingly ignorant. Politics is an innate element of hip hop, which should always be remembered by those within the community.
Hip hop was born in response to the racism, poverty and hardship faced by young black Americans, for whom rap was a way to shine a light on the issues they faced in a uniquely expressive way. Away from the dancefloors and clubs, black unemployment and poverty levels were soaring which resulted in the growing use of rap as a form of socio-political expression. This sentiment is commonly associated with groups like N.W.A and Public Enemy, who epitomised the anger of African Americans in their defiance against the inferior position of the black individual in white America. According to Chuck D in his 1997 book Fight the Power: 'The black man and woman was considered three-fifths of a human being in the Constitution of the United States. Since the Government and the general public follow the Constitution, then we must be the enemy.' The very naming of the group confronts the kind of stereotyping whereby one minority group becomes the enemy. Through a combination of self-empowerment, nationalism and defiance, groups like Public Enemy succeeded in their attempts to inject a strand of political activism into hip-hop in order to provoke change within the hearts and minds of black America.
The fear, anguish and outrage over the unnecessary deaths of African Americans has once again resulted in a growing resistance against the dehumanisation of black lives, with many calling for an end to the oppression and racial inequality consistently faced by such communities. Today, Public Enemy's legacy of militancy in hip hop has been adopted by the likes of Kendrick Lamar, Common, Killer Mike and Vince Staples who have all utilised their music for the purposes of activism and protest. Lamar's To Pimp a Butterfly in particular has become the soundtrack to the new resistance, with protesters regularly heard chanting lines from 'Alright'. Rappers that fail to understand the significance of a movement like Black Lives Matter have ultimately failed in their understanding of what hip hop really means. Likewise, fans who criticise rappers for acquiring a political stance on the matter should think again, for doing so is erasing a part of the genre's history and legacy. As Talib Kweli summarises: 'It's music that comes from oppressed people about the lives of oppressed people and their struggles. If you're not dealing with the struggle, then it's not hip hop.'