Styles & Forms | Political Hip Hop

It has been argued that all rap is political: a genuine black street statement, giving voice to those outside the musical or social establishments in a way that connects with a similarly dispossessed audience, and so its very existence is a political act. While many will be justified in thinking this is patently nonsense, it is, actually, half right.

The essence of Afrika Bambaataa’s hip hop culture was that of rebelliousness: youngsters rebelling against disco’s homogenizing of street funk’s spikiness; the kicking against a typecast that viewed them as inherently violent; and a DIY methodology that gave the music biz the finger. It was a rebel assertion in the same vein as the first UK punks of half a decade earlier. But in his determination to organize the New York street gangs into a force for good (he was once a leader of the fearsome Black Spades) and his close ties with the Nation of Islam, Bambaataa was always far more politicized than could be gleaned from his musical output.

Spreading The Word

Although rap is a distillation of a long-standing black oral tradition, the formalizing of any narrative technique lies in the revolutionary street poetry of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets. Here, removed from the mainstream’s considerations, was the perfect opportunity to take up the baton from soul’s politically aware icons such as James Brown and Curtis Mayfield. In fact, through early 1980s singles like Grandmaster Flash’s ‘The Message’, Melle Mel’s anti-drug hymn ‘White Lines’, The Rake’s ‘Street Justice’ and Brother D’s ‘How We Gonna Make The Black Nation Rise?’, rap always had an overtly political edge to it. And it didn’t take long for a large proportion of rappers to start thinking deeper than merely rhyming ‘hands in the air’ with ‘just don’t care’.

Since the late-1980s Public Enemy have remained the market leaders in rap consciousness, as the verbal and visual dynamics of Chuck D and Flavour Flav’s relationship – the former a thundering sermonizer, the latter a counterpointing class clown – backed up with Professor Griff (the Minister Of Information) researching their subject matter and Terminator X’s explosive beats – put them out front. Albums like It Takes A Nation Of Millions To Hold Us Back and Fear Of A Black Planet may have delivered a brutal political message as a blast of barely contained rage, but the sonic mayhem that backed it was powerful enough to floor (probably literally) the most demanding rap fan.

Beyond this broad-brush black nationalism, though, is a host of tireless soldiers for the cause with more tightly focussed agendas. KRS-One raged as righteously as Public Enemy, coming down hard on black-on-black violence; likewise the softer X-Clan, who laced their lyrics with the kind of co-Egyptology the band Earth, Wind & Fire would have been proud of. Queen Latifah, Salt-N-Pepa, Roxanne Shanté and Monie Love flew the feminist flag while Poor Righteous Teachers and Brand Nubian expounded the Five Percent belief that men...

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Source: The Illustrated Encyclopedia of Music, general editor Paul Du Noyer


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