Movements for social change do not just happen in a vacuum. The historical and contemporary contexts of all effective movements for change have to be understood to make a proper analysis of the movement’s lasting impact. The history of racism and racial oppression against Africans for more than 700 years reached its zenith during the transatlantic slave trade from the middle of the 15th to the 19th century. No legitimate effort to understand either the 60 years of the Civil Rights Movement or 30 years of Hip-Hop can be presented without first acknowledging the inextricable link between the history of slavery and the oppression of people of African descent with the centuries-long struggle for freedom, justice and equality.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), among others, have confirmed that transatlantic slave trade was tragically unique and unprecedented in the entire history of humanity for three key reasons: “its duration – four centuries; those victimized: Black African men, women and children; and the intellectual legitimization attempted on its behalf – the development of an anti-black ideology and its legal organization, the notorious Code noir.”
Consequently, the songs and the poetry that have emerged out of the centuries-long freedom struggles and evolution of the consciousness of “liberated” and “freedom-fighting” minds in Africa, America, the Caribbean and throughout the world set the stage for the advances of the Civil Rights Movement in the courts, streets, clubs, churches, organizations and communities by those who were determined and destined to be free by all means necessary.
Accordingly, Hip-Hop’s emergence out of the crucibles of entrenched urban poverty and racial inequity gave rise to the proclivity of music artists and lyrical rappers to push the societal envelope for racial justice. When looked at together, we can begin to better appreciated the relationship between the Civil Rights Movement and Hip-Hop.
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said, “The ultimate measure of a man is not where he stands in moments of comfort and convenience, but where he stands at times of challenge and controversy.” Chuck D, founder of the outstanding group Public Enemy, stated: “Rappers should just be able to perform what they create and satisfy the people that like and love them.” Chuck D, like Dr. King, was relentless in standing up for what he believed in. Both men made people move out of a state of lethargy and become active participants in movements for social change.
Russell Simmons, the Godfather of Hip-Hop, emphasized, “I want to fight poverty and ignorance and give opportunity to those people who are locked out.” Similarly, one of Dr. King‘s most trusted co-workers in the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Ambassador Andrew Young, affirmed, “Civil rights leaders are involved in helping poor people. That’s what I’ve been doing all my life.”
As you can see, economic justice issues and economic development public policy concerns are essential themes in both Hip-Hop culture and the Civil Rights Movement. Many ask: What about the unconscious rapper?
There is no such thing as an unconscious rapper. Artists are just conscious about different things. Yet, leading Hip-Hop rappers such as Nas have focused their skill and talents not only in America, but in Africa and the Caribbean. Nas said, “Africa has been going through so much for so many years; it’s time that it stands up the way other nations are standing up.”
Another wrapper, Jay-Z, is at the top of his game. He explained, “I’m hungry for knowledge. The whole thing is to learn every day, to get brighter and brighter. That’s what this world is about. You look at someone like Gandhi, and he glowed. Martin Luther King glowed. Muhammad Ali glows. I think that’s from being bright all the time, and trying to be brighter.”
Yes, Jay-Z and a whole generation of young rapping-entrepreneurs are making a big positive difference in their respective communities.
Coretta Scott King noted, “Freedom and justice cannot be parceled out in pieces to suit political convenience. I don’t believe you can stand for freedom for one group of people and deny it to others.” Indeed, Mrs. King for many years after Dr. King’s assassination in 1968 epitomized the elegant dignity and integrity of the Civil Rights Movement with courage and a forthright spirit.
Rihanna is admired throughout the world for being courageous and at times, bodacious about equal justice for all. Rihanna said, “I don’t do things for the response or for the controversy. I just live my life.”
Hip-Hot artists are living their lives. And they are not unlike our traditional Civil Rights heroes.
Benjamin F. Chavis Jr. is president of Education Online Services Corporation and the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network and can be reached for lectures and other consultations at: