Frank Ocean with a portrait of Trayvon Martin

“This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years…it’s sending the wrong message-” exclaimed Geraldo Rivera of FOX News as he criticizes Los Angeles rapper Kendrick Lamar on his performance at the 2015 BET Awards. Hip-hop music in popular culture has an attached stigma with crime, gang violence and its’ riotous portrayal by the media exposed the underlying racism in the black dominated genre. With the popularity of new artists such as Kendrick Lamar who addresses social issues that plagues America, or pioneers in the industry who yearns for change, the genre formed into something much more than an outlet of artistic expression, but also a platform of speech, awareness, and a voice for the voiceless.

Hip-hop diving into social issues has been prominent ever since the 90’s, Tupac Shakur gave light to the world with his hit classic “Changes” as the song encompasses a change of perception in others during a time of hate, war, poverty and racial tensions, “It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes. Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live and let’s change the way we treat each other. You see the old way wasn’t workin’ so it’s on us to do what we gotta do to survive.” 2pac further touches on police brutality as the song was written during the time of the LA Riots and the beating of Rodney King. “Cops give a damn about a negro,pull the trigger, kill a nigga, he’s a hero.” These lyrics still ring true today with the alarming rate of police officers shooting unarmed black men sparked countless protests and the fairly recent Ferguson Riots. With the hateful tension that divides cops and African-Americans alike in the past several years, Shakur’s yearning of change still leaves an impact in the modern era.

Modern hip-hop does not stray afar in commonalities with 2pac’s music. Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed album To Pimp A Butterfly dabbles in common themes of social awareness, but Lamar further exemplifies the progress of racial equality in America through poetic lyricism between songs. More specifically the track Alright, provides assurance for peace amid racial turmoil and was used as a chant for Black Lives Matter activists across the nation. The song serves as a morale through unity within blacks, despite the fear that incites when it comes to coming in contact with a police officer. Alright reassures the listener that “we gon’ be alright.” Despite its’ optimistic themes of power and solidarity, the media fails to see the deeper meaning through the art and blindly criticizes Lamar’s performance in the BET Awards. During a TMZ interview, the rapper directly responds to the FOX News backlash- “… the senseless acts of killings of these young boys out there … This is reality, this is my world, this is what I talk about in my music. You can’t delude that. Me being on a cop car, that’s a performance piece after these senseless acts … Hip-hop is not the problem. Our reality is the problem of the situation. This is our music. This is us expressing ourselves.”  

Kendrick Lamar performing Alright

Outside racial issues, awareness in suicide and mental health were put on the spotlight with the help of new hip-hop artists in the recent years. Maryland rapper Logic, performed his hit single “1-800-273-8255” at MTV’s VMA Awards in 2017, which sparked a 27% increase of suicide prevention hotline calls, according to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline themselves. Philadelphia rapper Lil Uzi Vert, sang thoughts of suicide on his platinum track “XO Tour Llife” that boasts a little under a billion plays on Spotify. Grammy-nominated album, ‘Swimming’ by Mac Miller is a reflection of his life experience after a failed relationship with a former ex girlfriend. Hip-hop not only brings awareness, but an outlet where artists can open up with their personal struggles and provide a hand to those who can relate. Considering that the genre is the most popular in the world, addressing mental health in rap is a big step forward for an ever-growing community. To say that the genre is destroying the youth is blasphemy as hip-hop artists literally saved lives through their art and their own experience. Music therapy is not exclusive to rap, but to various amounts of genres as well.

         Today’s youth faces a problem within taking part politically failing to flex their rights as American citizens and often does not take voting in the elections as their priority. R&B songwriter and rapper, Frank Ocean broke through his enigmatic persona and provided merch to fans who voted during the U.S. midterm elections. Ocean posted a flyer on his personal Tumblr account that urges a staggering 42% non-voters of the democratic party to come out and take initiative. The flyer sports a hue of blue that supports democratic candidates of different states: “Stacey Abrams in Georgia, who if elected would be America’s first black female governor, Andrew Gillum in Florida, who would become the states first black governor and Beto O’Rourke who would be the first Democratic Senator in Texas in 24 years.” Regardless of his political bias leaning more to the left, Ocean brings the non-voting populace to a decrease with the use of his platform, given that his music-deprived fanbase is always watching his every move and would pay hundreds of dollars to get their hands on a shirt. The non-voting populace is a far more serious issue than the differences of our political views and no matter which side you are on, both sides can agree that non-voters especially within the youth, is a harrowing problem.

Generally speaking, music always leaves some kind of impression to each individual, we dance to it, cry to it, get inspired by it- music has established a significant footprint embedded on our culture. Hip-hop has long been and an ever-evolving genre that defines more than just the enjoyment of musical tunes, or it’s stereotypical thuggish portrayal by the media, but also an outlet of self-expression and a platform of social opinions. All for these reasons why, Geraldo Rivera and his other co-hosts of FOX News, completely misses the point.  We need to see deeper than what is on the surface, empathize with those who are affected and understand the message these artists are conveying. The reality behind Black Lives Matter activists and people living in fear are real yet a black man performing on top of a cop car is deemed as “sending the wrong message.” Is hip-hop the problem? Or black people’s reality a problem?

Works Cited

Armstrong, Megan. “Logic Tweets National Suicide Prevention Lifeline Statistics Since His ‘1-800’ Release.” Billboard, Billboard, 16 Nov. 2017, http://www.billboard.com/articles/columns/hip-hop/8039094/logic-1-800-273-8255-national-suicide-prevention-lifeline-statistics-tweet.

Steele, Lesley. “How Logic, Lil Uzi Vert, And XXXTENTACION Put Mental Health Center Stage in Hip-Hop.” Genius, Genius Media Group Inc., 17 Sept. 2017, http://www.genius.com/a/how-logic-lil-uzi-vert-and-xxxtentacion-put-mental-health-center-stage-in-hip-hop.

Yoo, Noah. “Frank Ocean Giving Away Free Merch to Voters.” Pitchfork, Pitchfork, 6 Nov. 2018, pitchfork.com/news/frank-ocean-giving-away-free-merch-to-voters/.

Shakur, Tupac. “Changes.” Greatest Hits, Death Row Records & Interscope Records, 1998, track 17. Genius, genius.com/2pac-changes-lyrics

Lamar, Kendrick. “Alright.” To Pimp A Butterfly” Top Dawg Entertainment, 2015, track 7. Genius, genius.com/Kendrick-lamar-alright-lyrics