Given its worldwide ubiquity, it is easy to forget that hip hop did not always idolize the wealthy and powerful. As an expression of the dispossessed black youth, its content was explicitly political. Its origin can be traced back all the way to the 1970s, during the tragic demise of the Black Liberation Movement. But it was not until the crack epidemic and the street warfare it incited that hip hop would explode and gain its lasting character. Though there has been an evolution in its character as a outlet for the oppressed peoples it originated from, the rebellious kernel (though corrupted) that Hip Hop grew from is very much still present in today’s current artists. This progressive expression is summed up very well in the movie Straight Outta Compton, when Ice Cube (played by his own son in the film) was asked about the explicitly violent content of N.W.A’s music, he states “our art is a reflection of our reality”.
N.W.A.’s politics earned them infamy for their 1988 song “Fuck the Police”. While not being the first politically charged Hip Hop single, it was by far the one that garnered the most attention and reaction, not only the people, but from the state itself. Reactions ranged from letters from the F.B.I, to accusations that the song caused a spike in police deaths, to being intimidated by police not to perform the song live. They did it anyway, though they were interrupted by loud noises that sounded like gunshots (many believe it was undercover cops setting off firecrackers) forcing the artists fled the stage. When they returned to the hotel lobby, they were taken by police to the station where they questioned the group. The officers then confessed to wishing they had arrested them on stage in front of the audience in the hopes of making an example that no one can say “Fuck the police” without consequence. While it was a radical expression for its time, that is all it was, a radical expression. It tapped into a feeling many had, one of anger toward the state’s repressive apparatus, but nothing came out of it except for a neat song to play at protests.
The message of contempt for the police who terrorize oppressed neighborhoods is still present in the genre today (albeit without the same backlash and state repression). The radicalism of that slogan has diminished with time, and has become little more than an aesthetic to sprinkle on to a chorus where convenient—as in Kendrick Lamar’s hit single “Alright”. Though Kendrick talks about the bare reality of life in Compton where he struggles with the death of his friends, drugs, etc., he has done little to organize the masses to resist these conditions. One should also not forget that he was invited to the white house to meet with then president Obama. When he came back he returned to display how happy he is the president loved his album, that his favorite song was “How much a dollar cost”, and how he believed in Obama’s change, while many more people continued to be murdered by police. Though he continues to speak on these political issues his shortcomings stem from his lack of political ideology, he idolizes Tupac yet even Tupac spent time as a member of the Young Communist League in Baltimore. This tendency to “awaken consciousness” and “redirect hip hop” to its old political days of Nas, Public Enemy and, of course Tupac is admirable but is impossible in this developed stage of Capitalism-imperialism without an organized, ideological stance against it.
This is where the rebellious essence is packaged and sold to the consumer. What we are seeing now is how these actions, devoid of any political organizations or parties to lead their fans to, fall flat on their faces. These actions are strictly individual, and these individuals have benefited greatly from them and now continue to sell these truths to their fans. Even those artists which fundamentally believe what they say, but continue to say it as a “woke” individual are easily digested by capitalism. When Jay Z feuds with Trump, what is the result? Certainly it has not helped to flood the ranks of organizations mobilizing against him, rather, it translates into more album sales and views on Vevo. Jay Z speaks for his brand, not for the people. The same is true of Kendrick Lamar, J Cole, and Joey Bada$$ who co-opted “Amerikkka” for a clothing line, after making an album about amerikan racism and corruption. These political statements have become less about their content and more about their brand. Individualist acts create more “individuals” who think and act like their predecessors, relying more on the next wave of “woke” albums rather than on the political movements that invented these phrases before they were trademarked.
Without an organization or party to provide them with practical perspectives, political grounding and direction they are easily swept away and given a nice spot in the capitalist market. None of these artists are safe from this, not Kendrick, Jay Z, J cole, Joey Bada$$, not even Tupac. Until we see substantial actions coordinated with political organizations and/or parties among these artists, then we will continue seeing capitalism’s political digestion of the Hip Hop’s “woke” celebrities. This is not necessarily the fault of these artists however, many of them believe wholeheartedly they are making a difference or at least began with those intentions. They still they benefit from this appropriation, they without a doubt fill their pockets with their actions and, as bourgeois and petty bourgeois individuals, still have an interest in continuing to maintain their position whether they admit it or not. So like the episode “Hot Shot” in Black Mirror their contempt for the state and its functions have become but outlets for discontent, rather than agitation for revolution.