Socially Conscious Hip-Hop and Rap

Adam Selon

Too many young black Americans are pushed, in the face of bleak opportunities for employment and higher education, to resort to crime. While hip-hop has served as a crucial creative outlet and community-builder for black youths since the 1980s, much of hip-hop culture contains undeniable streaks of proud violence, misogyny, drug-use and general disdain for life that are civically unintelligent, to say the least.


The so-called Hip-Hop Generation was the first to grow up post-segregation, and its members have blazed new trails with few resources. Black american males have endured decades of institutional failure and systemic oppression that has created lasting damage to the black community and society as a whole. Currently young black males are given fewer opportunities than most and are at disproportionately greater risk for incarceration.(1) The narratives in hip-hop and rap music seem to either reflect this survival and then encourage personal reflection, social awareness, learning and growth for the black community or reflect this survival and then instead endorse unhealthy and unrealistic lifestyles, drug use, gang violence, and misogynistic behavior.


Socially conscious or political hip hop narratives are not new to the industry, on the contrary they were more prevalent in the early years of hip hop in the 80s. Inspired by poets and preachers of the late seventies, such as The Last Poets and Gil Scott-Heron, young black musicians rapped about what they saw in their communities and started a trend. in 1982, Grandmaster Flash and Furious Five featured one such song--”The Message”, widely regarded as the first socio-political hip hop song--on their first studio album. This song would inspire many more like it for generations to come and effectively dislodge hip hop from the house party environment and into the realm of social commentary. Paving the way for artists like NWA, Public Enemy, and Rage Against the Machine that took this a step further and made all their music socially and politically relevant. Doubtless, much of hip-hop’s dark imagery is autobiographical expression, a cathartic act that all people—and especially those from underprivileged backgrounds—have the right to. But this message has become confused or manipulated, turning a criminal lifestyle from the starting point into the goal. Rap Stars affiliation to very-real city gangs adds to the pressure for inner city youth to join gangs. that is not to say that one would join a gang simply due a rappers allegiance. Indeed most are pushed into gang membership by regional survival necessity and a lack of healthy alternatives. Kitwana, Bakari writes, “For many both in and outside of street gangs and cliques, selling drugs is one of the most viable “job” options in the face of limited meaningful employment...high imprisonment rates due to increased policing focused on drug crimes have landed nearly 1 million Black men, many of them hip-hop generation's, behind bars” (39-40). 2

Largely the public education system has failed young black americans. Today there are more young black high school dropouts in prison or jail than those with paying jobs. Black men are more likely to go to prison than to graduate with a four-year college degree or complete military service and the population of incarcerated peoples in America is in a significant majority black men. These statistics indicate a community under attack and in need of hope. Across Americas notorious history of oppression against the black community--from Slavery to the assassination of MLK and Malcolm X -- to the current overpopulation in prisons. Music and rhythm has been a community strength and vessel to carry messages of hope, solidarity, and culture. Like the spirituals that provided hope amid the ultimate despair of slavery, socially conscious hip hop and rap music that reflect current struggles within the black community can provide messages of healing and do so in a form popular among young black people. with tremendous detail and articulation.

Today socially conscious rap artists dominate mainstream hip hop charts--Kanye West, Kendrick Lamar, CNas, common, Jay-Z,-but whether the same holds true in underground circles remains to be determined. But by comparison the artists that choose to speak about the institutional failings that have and continue to negatively impact the black community seem to garner a much less attention than those that choose (or are instructed) to rap about money, “hoes” and [insert product placement]. More and more new artists are embracing these same conscious perspectives and transforming hip hop simply by being different and gaining popularity for it. Macklemore is an interesting example of new avenues being paved in hip hop music--he is white, dresses extravagantly, created a hit song about gay love and together with Ryan Lewis recorded, produced and released their album, The Heist, which debuted at #1 on itunes. But hip hop is not only becoming more racially diverse it is also having to confront deeply held prejudices such as homophobia--Frank Ocean was one of the first major artists to announce he had fallen in love with someone of the same sex, prompting many in the hip hop community to speak out in support of Ocean and the many silent fans whom his actions might inspire. following his open letter Russell Simons was widely quoted saying “Today is a big day for hip-hop. It is a day that will define who we really are. How compassionate will we be? How loving can we be? How inclusive are we?”

The following are lyrics from Canadian producer and rapper“had..In the song Brother (Watching) he raps “(Saturated with negative images and a limited range of Possibilities is strange...)And it's sad cause that naturally do/ Sort of condition your mind and over time/ That's what's attractive to you/ So young blacks don’t see themselves in/ Scholastic pursuits/ Or the more practical routes/ It's makin tracks or it's hoops/ Or God-forbid movin packs for the loot/Even with this music we so limited - it's rap or produce/ And that narrow conception of what's black isn't true/ Of course, still we feel forced to adapt to this view/ Like there's something that you're havin to prove/ Now add that to the slew/ Of justification the capitalists use/ For the new blaxploitation/...”


Since socially conscious narratives have been observable in hip hop since its inception, the question becomes; what can be done to reinvigorate this and bolster the hip hop’s standing in political and social territory? “The cloud of capitalism prevents the Hip Hop audience from seeing that, for the conscious artist, it is the record company, itself that is "ground zero" for the battle for the minds of African people. But they rap about an external enemy when the internal, major enemy of Black Liberation is sitting in the boardroom two doors down from their recording studio. In order for conscious Hip Hop and Hip Hop in general to survive, it must become what the system never really allowed it to be; a way to educate, inform and inspire Afrikan people to become involved in the betterment of their global communities.”3

Youth organizations such as, Project Hip-Hop, are a great example of what it means to bringing socially conscious hip hop into proper frame. They seek to:

– Develop artistic leadership in youth – Challenge and shift societal narratives – Unite people through common culture – Use art as a tool for campaign organizing

An example of this is their Girlz and Guyz Cyphers program in which they “bring young MCs and poets together to strengthen their skills as performers, develop their content as socially conscious artists, and engage in conversations about their lives—all within a Hip-Hop-based social justice curriculum.”4

Kitwana, Bakari, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture (2002)

2 Kitwana, Bakari, The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African-American Culture (2002)3

3 Anon. n.d. “How Conscious Hip Hop Failed Us in Davey D’s Daiy Hip Hop News Forum.” Retrieved June 5, 2013 (

4 Anon. n.d. “Project HIP-HOP » Programs.” Retrieved June 5, 2013

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