Over the past few weeks, we’ve seen the hip-hop community react to the grand jury decisions not to indict the police officers in the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Rappers like J. Cole, Nas and Macklemore have joined in peaceful protests from New York City to Seattle. And because race is an inextricable element of hip-hop, many artists have taken to social media to express their derision, disbelief or straight up disgust.
One reaction from the Roots' Questlove -- an avid and insightful commentator on race politics -- was a call for action from the hip-hop community. “I urge and challenge musicians and artists alike to push themselves to be a voice of the times that we live in,” he said in a lengthy Instagram post. I don't mean breathless race to the finish on who makes the more banging ‘F--- Tha Police’ sequel. I mean real stories. Real narratives. Songs with spirit in them. Songs with solutions. Songs with questions. Protest songs don't have to be boring or non danceable or ready made for the next Olympics. They just have to speak truth."
Fueled by #ICantBreathe hashtags -- the last words Garner yelled before his death -- Questlove’s pleas raise inquiry about how hip-hop artists today decide to use their power and influence. And while N.W.A. dealt with different scenarios that inspired their content, race politics and police brutality are still points of contention.
Some rappers have taken to the studio and recorded their own protest songs. We’re still waiting on the others. In the meantime, here’s 10 Hip-Hop Songs in Response to Questlove's Call for Protest Music -- some new and others are classics that speak unvarnished truth.
'I Can't Breathe'Kxng Crooked
A direct response to Eric Garner’s death and the grand jury’s decision not to indict his killer in a badge, Kxng Crooked voices his frustration over the police’s inability to let a man breathe. “Respect the value of my life, too,” he says on the tribute track, which compares the cops to a “modern day lynch mob." He discusses not only Garner’s passing, but the havoc it caused to an entire community.
Over a heady Timbaland beat and haunting vocals, 19-year-old rapper-singer Tink warns children of color of the struggle they will inevitably endure, despite the efforts of the Civil Rights Movement half a decade ago. Her sentiment invokes images of a community in Ferguson that continues to suffer an unfathomable loss -- both of a human life and perhaps the last shred of trust for their officials. “A badge is a pass to do whatever,” she says, “So now we livin’ in fear of the people here to protect us.”
In an official tribute to Michael Brown, J. Cole supplements emotive pleas to break chains of oppression with a firsthand account from Dorian Johnson, a witness to Brown’s death. In a departure from Cole’s more lighthearted content, he channels the intentions of a spiritual, testifying while promising resilience: “There ain’t no gun they make that can kill my soul.”
'God Bless Amerika'Lil Wayne
On this heavy-hearted track, Lil Wayne paints the American dream as a delusion, a mirage in a desert of crooked cops and the criminalization of the black body. “Mama said take what you want / I took heed,” he says, expressing the injustice of his status as a constant target, a criminal regardless of his choices. He paints a picture of robbed innocence in a society where necessity turns boys into men too early.
'A Better Tomorrow'Wu-Tang Clan
While it took six years to release their new album, 'A Better Tomorrow,' Wu-Tang Clan jumped into action with this tribute to Mike Brown and Eric Garner. Inspektah Deck, U God, RZA, Masta Killa and Method Man spit poignant points of injustice. Meth offers a biblical allusion that summons images of human betrayal: “No longer we brothers, we unstable / Like Kane when he slew Abel, killing each other.” The empowering part of this song is its call for action, an assertion that the very people feeling targeted are the catalysts for change. The montage of protest clips, as well as sections of Obama’s address serve as a fitting video.
On an electrifying track from his hungry 'Section.80' days, Kendrick Lamar discusses the flaws in the system that plague him most. “Get up off that slave ship / build your own pyramids, write your own hieroglyphs,” he rhymes. The ground is rigged with landmines, he says, and the only way to survive is to claim and reclaim power. While his lyrics express dark truths, Lamar urges change that starts at home in whatever form it takes.
For those who feel slighted, Nas is with you. He laments the country’s embrace of black culture juxtaposed with its apparent disregard for black people. “Woven into the fabric, they can’t stand us / Even in white tees, blue jeans and red bandanas,” he raps. The dichotomy of the flag’s colors and the uniform that alerts cops to a criminal is jarring. A wake-up call to those who haven’t evolved since Jim Crow, the track -- and the loss of Brown and Garner -- asks, “how are we really from third world savagery?”
'Why'Jadakiss Feat. Anthony Hamilton
In a throwback that resonates, Jadakiss asks for the reasoning behind racial, political and social injustice that affects all Americans, not just black Americans. A part of the music video shows two cops chasing a young man selling CDs illegally on the street, exposing the deep chasms in the prison system designed to break down spirits and communities of color. It also hits a chord, drawing similarities to why Garner was apprehended. While comical at times, the song pushes peaceful protest through a series of questions, some of which beg for answers. Anthony Hamilton’s croon -- a distinct wail of the beauty that comes from oppression and necessity -- adds an element of familiarity.
Over the artful loop of Nina Simone’s 'Sinnerman' (courtesy of Kanye West) rests an eternal message of the force it takes to move forward through adversity. Talib Kweli’s call and response takes it to church, mourning nightmarish conditions while seeking the strength to push on. “Even when the condition is critical, when the living is miserable / Your position is pivotal, I ain’t bulls---tin’ you,” he testifies. A contemporary march song at its essence, Kweli calls for strength in situations that feel helpless.
The classic diatribe on the militarization of the police force and its suffocating effect on the masses, this raw track by dead prez holds no punches. The lyrics bring attention not just to race but how class affects the justice system, and how the image of a black man implies danger. “For me change might never come because I can’t change into a white dude,” he says. Nuance-free, the song gives voice to the ones who are tired of waiting for progress.