Bars for a Purpose: Activism’s Role in Rap

By Max Kulchinsky

Since its breakthrough in the 1980s, hip hop music has served as a medium for conscious discussion of socioeconomic and political inequality. Rap can truly serve as a form of activism because it allows disenfranchised people to both express and educate themselves about deep rooted issues. It is an art form that speaks to people of both urban cities and the suburbs. Being a predominantly black genre, rap oftentimes comes under fire and is generalized for some of its shortcomings. It is a vast genre of music, ranging from the highly intellectual to the incredibly ignorant–and this is entirely subjective. It can vary on a song to song basis, even by the same artist. Artists like Talib Kweli and Mos Def are identified as socially conscious artists or “backpack rappers,” while Future and Lil Wayne are referred to as trap rappers– rapping about drug dealing and abuse, casual sex and violence. But even on an album called Dirty Sprite 2 (whose title itself glorifies drinking cough syrup recreationally), which is filled with club anthems, Future raps about losing his best friends to jail and gunfire, while reflecting on his rough upbringing on “Kno the Meaning.” This dichotomy within the genre, in a way, institutes a learning curve and an entry point for people at both ends of the spectrum to venture out and learn something new. So, how could a person who rhymes over breakbeats spark a social revolution and cultural movement? And how could a genre which oftentimes celebrates materialism, sexism and violence create such a powerful dialogue? By focusing on the more sophisticated, socially conscious works of rap, and discussing these works’ implications in culture, one can begin to understand the power of this music. Works such as Kanye West’s “New Slaves,” A Tribe Called Quest’s “We The People,” and Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” are modern responses to the current political climate and turmoil within the African American community.

One of the most important issues commonly rapped about is the marginalization of people of color. The institution of slavery still casts a dark cloud over the possibility of equality in America. Prior to the release of his 2013 album Yeezus, Kanye West explored this idea of lingering slavery in American society by projecting his stern face on buildings at 66 locations across the world. On the record, West does not discuss the ongoing worldwide issue of slavery and human trafficking, but instead discusses the implications of consumerism, and specifically white-controlled corporations. West’s focus of slavery in terms of capitalism is mostly motivated by his foray into the fashion world. He initially struggled securing funding for his brands, despite his invaluable cultural relevance. Though at first glance this may seem self absorbed, West does a great job of relating his observations of fashion and capitalism to the institution of American slavery. He states at the beginning of his first verse that the fashion houses were not “satisfied unless I picked the cotton myself.” This is a great use of sarcasm and allusion to American slavery. He differentiates that there is both “broke n**ga racism” and “rich n**ga racism.” Poor black people are looked down upon by the upper class, while wealthy black people are encouraged to participate in the very consumerism that is detrimental to their race. In reference to Nina Simone’s “Strange Fruit,” West “see[s] the blood on the leaves.” This is a metaphor for blood money, which was also a result of southern slavery. At the end of the song, West raises his most valuable point: “Meanwhile the DEA / Teamed up with the CCA / They tryna lock n**gas up / They tryna make new slaves/See that’s that privately owned prison.” There are more African Americans in prison now than there were at the peak of slavery in America, and clearly there is something wrong about all of these people being locked up by a for-profit corporation. When one looks even deeper beyond the surface, CCA is the second largest private prison company in the US, which houses over 66,000 inmates and makes nearly $2 billion per year. Their largest shareholder is The Vanguard Group, the second largest money management firm (Jones). Vanguard also heavily invests in media conglomerates like Viacom and Time Warner (“VIAB Major Holders,” “Time Warner Inc.”). Thus the very corporations responsible for propelling the careers of artists like West are also responsible for locking up the people he grew up with in Chicago’s southside. Exposing these facts are both ironic and hypocritical, but West’s main goal is described in the concluding lyrics: “I’m bout to air s*it out / Now what the f*ck they gon’ say now?” For someone who is typically described by the media as crazy, West brings to light a lot of the horrors of American capitalism and the cloud it casts over people of color and the lower class.

In keeping with the theme of African American marginalization, why not discuss America’s new president? The recent desire to “Make America Great Again” from the president and his supporters is moreso a call to gentrify and return to a homogenous, predominately white controlled and occupied nation than it is to actually improve the state of the nation. In response to this ideology, while recording their comeback and final record, legendary New York hip hop group A Tribe Called Quest recorded “We the People,” by far the best song they have made in nearly twenty years. In just the first verse, Q Tip comments on the trend of gentrification in urban cities like New York: “N***as in the hood living in a fishbowl / Gentrify here, now it’s not a shit hole.” This cycle of areas being settled and renovated by wealthier, whiter people has displaced vast communities of colors, with few affordable places to resettle. Even inner city staples like Harlem’s $4 chopped cheese sandwich is subject of gentrification. Gourmet restaurants and shops like Whole Foods have begun to serve their take on the deli classic sandwich for double or more the price (Bellafante). The idea of claiming neighborhoods and sandwiches is completely in line with the beliefs of emerging white supremacy in America. The song’s chorus is a direct parody and jab at the president and reintroduction of racism and hate speech in the mainstream of America: “All you Black folks, you must go / All you Mexicans, you must go / And all you poor folks, you must go / Muslims and gays, boy, we hate your ways / So all you bad folks, you must go.” The moral of this song, is that the challenges set forth by racists now will actually bring together these disenfranchised people, not drive them away. Though the future for poor minorities is bleak, they may share this experience together and perhaps rise up against the powers pushing them out of their homes.

In the spirit of bringing people together and thinking positively, Kendrick Lamar created “Alright” after initially finishing his second major album, “To Pimp a Butterfly.” Though much of his album was much more aggressive and critical of both racism and double standards in the black community, Lamar found it important to give people some hope for the future with “Alright.” This song has transcended the traditional conception of a single or album standout. While reflecting on the song, he commented, There was a lot going on — still to this day there’s a lot going on. I wanted to approach [‘Alright’] as more uplifting, but aggressive. Not playing the victim, but still having that ‘Yeah, we strong'” (Lamar qtd. in Gilbert). Instead of an aggressive anti-police song, “Alright” serves as a light at the end of the tunnel of oppression. What truly separates this song from all others with a similar message, is its chorus, which was immortalized through several peaceful protests. The refrain, “We gon’ be alright,” became a chant for rallies in support of Black Lives Matter and in opposition to Donald Trump’s campaign for president (Brown, Gordon).

Much like the songs of slaves in the fields and the underground railroads, rap songs today hold this intrinsic value to many people facing adversity today. With the different voices and perspectives of rappers, come different approaches to the issue of deep rooted racial inequality in America. These alternating approaches provide different sorts of activists with different inspiration. Those who are looking to channel their anger towards the system of oppression will turn to West and Tribe. Those looking to feel uplifted will chant the chorus of Lamar’s “Alright.” Whichever way you look at it, these are the modern voices of otherwise silenced communities. As hip hop continues to blend into mainstream music and conquer the charts, perhaps more and more empathetic white people will become more aware of the harsh realities of racial inequality in America. These voices for the black community can actually be voices of justice at large and truly spark a social revolution. After the recent presidential election, it seems there is a void for a voice of justice. Perhaps the stigmatized rapper will prove that things right now are unacceptable, but with understanding for one another and real reform, things will be alright.

Works Cited

Bellafante, Ginia. “Gentrification and Junk Food: Chopped-Cheese Edition.” The New York Times. N.p., 22 Dec. 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Brown, Harley. “Protesters at Chicago Donald Trump Rally Chant Kendrick Lamar’s ‘Alright’.” Spin. N.p., 12 Mar. 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Gilbert, Ben. “Kendrick Lamar’s Civil Rights Anthem ‘Alright’ Almost Didn’t Happen.” Business Insider. N.p., 25 Oct. 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Gordon, Jeremy. “Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Chanted by Protesters During Cleveland Police Altercation.” Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” Chanted by Protesters During Cleveland Police Altercation | Pitchfork. Conde Nast, 29 July 2015. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Jones, Mother. “The Corrections Corporation of America, by the Numbers.” Mother Jones. N.p., July 2016. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Lamar, Kendrick. Alright. Kendrick Lamar. Pharrell Williams, Sounwave, 2015. MP3.

“Time Warner Inc.” Shareholders Major TWX Time Warner Inc including Fund and Institutional. Morningstar, n.d. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

Tip, Q., and Phife Dawg. We the People… A Tribe Called Quest. Q Tip, 2016. MP3.

“VIAB Major Holders | Insider Transactions | Viacom Inc. Stock – Yahoo Finance.” Yahoo! !, 13 Feb. 2017. Web. 13 Feb. 2017. <>.

West, Kanye. New Slaves. Kanye West. Kanye West, Ben Bronfman, Mike Dean, Travis Scott, Noah Goldstein, Sham Joseph, Che Pope, 2013. MP3.

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