Hip-hop began in the early 1970s as an alternative to gang activity. Before the music was recorded, founding fathers like DJ Afrika Bambaataa – whose slogan was “peace, love, unity and having fun” – would play Malcolm X’s voice over instrumental break beats.
“Not only did it sound funky but it helped raise our consciousness,” hip-hop historian Davey D wrote on his website.
Davey attended many early rap concerts at Harlem’s Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm was assassinated. As the music gained steam, X was constantly honored on wax. KRS-One duplicated Malcolm’s gun-in-the-window pose on the cover of his 1988 classic album, “By Any Means Necessary.” In 1991, Tupac rhymed on “Words of Wisdom”: “No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / Cause he tried to educate and liberate all Blacks.”Malcolm’s voice and image appeared on so many records and videos, “many would remark that he was an emcee,” Davey wrote.
Tubman also is a longtime rap staple, mentioned by everyone from Ice Cube (“She helped me run like Harriet Tubman”) to Pharoahe Monch (“A railroad to underground like Harriet Tubman”). Till, too, has been mentioned in songs such as Kanye’s breakthrough 2003 single “Through The Wire.”
But today’s rappers reflect our money-obsessed society, said Bakari Kitwana, whose Rap Sessions organization just moderated a series of community dialogues between the civil rights and hip-hop generations.
“We see a lot of things going on with our young people, and we don’t feel like we are teaching them values that can compete with the way the value of money is ingrained in our culture,” Kitwana said. “Everything is just focused on money. If you can get money, whatever else you’re doing doesn’t matter.”
“It’s reached a crisis point,” he said. “I came up in the ’70s and ’80s, and greed has always been present, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen it like it is now.”
He was echoed by Paradise Gray, who performed in the 1980s with the Afrocentric rap group X Clan.
“Mainstream rap music has lost its reverence for anything besides money,” Gray said.
Today’s rappers threaten to kill people who disrespect them, “but they sit back and let you disrespect our legacy, our culture, our history,” he said.
“What,” Gray asked, “will the disrespect of your humanity and your Blackness cost you?”