Illustration: Moya Garrison-Msingwana
As the summer of 2020 draws to close, it’s clear the world has changed in unprecedented ways. A pandemic, its ensuing economic fallout, and a broad-based racial justice movement — not to mention the toxic, repressive administration that serves as their backdrop — have disrupted our lives in ways we scarcely could have imagined. If ever there was a moment for hip-hop to realize its promise as a political and cultural corrective, it’s this one. Throughout the week, LEVEL will be publishing stories that examine the summer of 2020 through the lens of hip-hop — from its relationship to the world at large to its own structural issues.
The idea of a “revolution” is at once an echo and a prophecy among Black folks. It’s legend foretold by our understanding of how race functions in America and where we have always headed. To be Black is to be in constant conversation with questions like “what would you have done during slavery?” or “would you have been nonviolent during the Movement?” Those conversations also become “what are you going to do when the revolution comes?” The mental exercise of these hypotheticals is one of the accoutrements of being Black in America.
After a summer of seemingly ceaseless Black death, today feels like the end of the hypotheticals. We are now faced with a reality in which we have to actually answer those questions. Will we march? Will we boycott? Will we protest? Will we feel the sting of tear gas, the rawness of wrists chafed by handcuffs?
Hip-hop, by virtue of being a Black art form, has faced the same speculation: What will the culture and its stars do when it’s time to stand up for, and with, Black folks?
When protests spread across the country in response to the police killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in 2014, rap responded in a way befitting a genre that had spent more than two decades deciding if it was a staple of corporate America or a staunchly anti-establishment art. J. Cole showed up in Ferguson, under the radar and without making any announcements. Jay-Z pumped money into the movement, posting bail for arrested protesters.
If there’s anything that this world-changing movement for Black lives has taught us, it’s that civic actions don’t need boldfaced names.
In 2016, after “Alright” became the unofficial anthem for the uprising, Kendrick Lamar put together a Grammy performance of full-on protest music — complete with him in shackles rapping about the prison-industrial complex. J. Cole gave a heart-wrenching performance in remembrance of Mike Brown on The Late Show. T.I. dropped an EP called Us or Else. Jay dropped 4:44. Killer Mike did what Killer Mike does.
All the while, Donald Trump was pursuing the presidency, and hip-hop reacted, from Meek Mill leading the charge on criminal justice reform to YG and Nipsey Hussle making their feelings known about the real estate tycoon. Rappers were positioning themselves front and center as proponents of Black activism in their own ways, and the music followed. It felt like rap was showing up and rising to the occasion in the ways the prophecies had wishfully foretold.
That “showing up” has continued in 2020, especially after the killing of George Floyd. Lil Baby’s “The Bigger Picture” was the biggest song early on, topping the Billboard Hot 100 and becoming the most streamed protest song of the year. DaBaby and Roddy Ricch released a “Rockstar” remix, the video which featured Floyd-related imagery and a new verse about police brutality. Lupe Fiasco released a tribute to Ahmaud Arbery. Noname has supplemented her book club with music amplifying Black feminism and showing that she does the reading and the work. Wale, who has been consistent in his activist leanings, has put out whole projects dedicated to the likes of Colin Kaepernick, while being one of the first to make a track about Breonna Taylor. Killer Mike is doing what Killer Mike does. And so on.
Yet the movement has changed — and with it, the expectations made (or not made) of artists. The music may be there, but the criticism still lingers that rap music isn’t doing enough in 2020.
Part of the reason is the perception that the biggest rappers in the world, the ones most likely to deliver the anthems the moment requires, have largely stayed out of the booth. Kendrick Lamar has been silent musically, appearing at one march and then returning to whatever fortress of solitude he usually finds between albums. Drake just doesn’t seem to have that type of music in him. Neither does someone like Nicki Minaj.
Out of all the megastar rappers, Cardi B is the most interesting case. She has positioned herself as a political pundit for the people, delivering deceptively profound IG rants as well as interviews with the likes of Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders. She has become one of the biggest voices in rap for the Moment — but “WAP,” despite being a defiant and empowering piece of art for Black women’s agency, isn’t really the type of song to be chanted in front of the White House. Maybe people are waiting for an A-list star to give us something like Kendrick did with “Alright,” even though that was more of an organic moment instead of him chasing the defining backdrop.
It also doesn’t help that rappers have been at the forefront of so many negative stories that they are overshadowing the great work being done. Talib Kweli has terrorized a Black woman for a month straight. Tory Lanez allegedly shot Megan Thee Stallion in the foot, and rappers like 50 Cent and Cam’ron turned it into a joke. J. Cole made a song that chastised a Black woman instead of getting into issues that actually matter. Kanye West has been used to run a sham presidential campaign to help get Donald Trump reelected — and while that’s clearly a product of some of his mental health issues, it’s no excuse for people like Chance the Rapper and DaBaby to amplify his ill-conceived crusade.
But in a larger sense, this summer’s protests have transformed the dynamics of 2014 into something completely different, and rappers find themselves contending with an unfamiliar force: cultural ambivalence. We still love hip-hop and its artists, but society isn’t looking for them to lead in any meaningful way anymore. The tenor of the movement has changed. Rappers — and celebrities in general — can either join in or get left behind. If there’s anything that this world-changing movement for Black lives has taught us, it’s that civic actions don’t need boldfaced names. We spent years wondering who would take the mantle as the next great leader; if one does come along in this age of systemic change, they likely won’t be a millionaire.
Then again, perhaps the lack of era-defining protest music is a result of rappers reading the room and seeing that tangible contribution is more valuable than a song to repeat while doing the work. What we really need is resources and action: donations, protests, shifting wealth to the people and organizations that need it the most. Jay-Z, who in retrospect was ahead of that shift the whole time, continues to pump money into the movement. Noname has used her book club to help create a common base of knowledge and bring more people into the movement. Drake gave $100,000 to Black Lives Matter organizations. Even Kanye West donated to George Floyd’s family.
The protest music is still there, under the surface for anyone who wants to use it as an uplift. This time around, though, the music is as decentralized as the movement itself has become. Maybe we won’t have an “Alright” in 2020 and beyond. But as with Pop Smoke’s “Dior,” a song that isn’t even indirectly political, there are more than enough songs in any given playlist to supply whatever energy we need these days — whether it’s to fight, work, or simply get out of bed in the midst of unrelenting chaos.