It’s Not Too Late: 10 of Hip-Hop’s Best Protest Songs
By Alec Banks
Hip-Hop music has inspired generations of people to no longer accept inequalities and injustices centered on race, religion, sexual orientation, and gender. Although songs and albums certainly have healing qualities, we’ve continued to see how the same issues that plagued generations before, continue to play out like real nightmares across the press and social media.
When the system is broken, it’s easy to pass the responsibility to the next man or woman. But the reality of what’s happened — with Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and Eric Garner — and more recently with Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd, makes it abundantly clear that we need to all stick together in this moment.
With a history steeped in protest songs, there are the joints to inspire you to make a difference right now.
“Fuck Tha Police”
"N.W.A.'s "Fuck Tha Police" spoke passionately to the issues of police brutality that continues to plague this country to this day. Ice Cube, MC Ren, Eazy-E, and Dr. Dre sounded like Hip-Hop war correspondents reporting live about the exploits of crooked LAPD officers continually abusing their power. The song remains a sonic reminder that the thin blue line is dangerous for many young American men and women.
“Fight the Power”
When Spike Lee enlisted Public Enemy to record an anthem for Do the Right Thing, the original idea was to have the group do a Hip-Hop version of “Lift Every Voice and Sing.” Luckily, The Bomb Squad’s Hank Shocklee pushed for something much more aggressive sounding. Written on an airplane headed to Europe — surrounded by Hip-Hop luminaries Run-DMC — Chuck D gave us all wisdom like, “Our freedom of speech is freedom of death.”
The chorus for Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” has become the rallying cry at many Black Lives Matters protests throughout the country. Standout lyrics from the 2015 record include “Wouldn't you know, we been hurt, been down before, When our pride was low, Looking at the world like "Where do we go?” and "And we hate po-po, Wanna kill us dead in the streets for sure, I’m at the preacher's door, My knees getting weak, and my gun might blow, But we gon' be alright.”
While speaking with Rick Rubin about the record, Lamar stated, “Four hundred years ago, as slaves, we prayed and sung joyful songs to keep our heads level-headed with what was going on. Four hundred years later, we still need that music to heal. And I think that 'Alright' is definitely one of those records that makes you feel good no matter what the times are."
LL COOL J
No one likes getting pulled over by the police. It’s unnerving — even if you’re a law abiding citizen. LL COOL J chronicles this experience perfectly on “Illegal Search.” For him, he was simply going about his day. For the police, he was simply incapable of having anything nice. He was surely a drug dealer up to no good. With “Karen Culture — an internet catchall for white women calling the police on black men — at an all time high, LL’s song about being unfairly targeted feels especially relevant right now.
Dead Prez has never been afraid to use their platform to discuss socially relevant issues. In “Police State” they touch on unfair surveillance practices, the school to prison pipeline, over-policing, incarceration, and the distribution of wealth to black communities. The lyric, “And the people don't never get justice,” seems like it was written today instead of in 2000.
2Pac’s “Changes” explores many of the issues that the aforementioned artists spoke about like police brutality, class, and politics. But unlike the others, Pac offered up a solution; if everything that young, black men and women were doing was “wrong” in the eyes of the powers that be, then it stood to reason that major change had to stem from within. “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.”
“The Point of No Return”
Scarface wasted little time driving his point home: “What if I learn to work your beat/ And fuck with you in the ways that you fuck with me?” Between he and Willie D, they touched on police violence, conspiracies involving black leaders like Malcolm X, Martin Luther King Jr, and Fred Hampton, and the need for prison reform.
“A Song for Assata”
"A Song for Assata" is a retelling of the trial of activist and Black Panther member Assata Shakur who is believed to have been framed for the murder of a police officer on the New Jersey Turnpike as part of the FBI's COINTELPRO program directed against Black Power movement. She successfully escaped from prison and sought political asylum in Cuba.
“Sound of da Police”
While KRS-One certainly delivers on the title of the song, the BDP member took it a step further to illustrate that police injustices in the States were compounded by the fact that the very nature of this country derives from stolen land.
Queen Latifah used her platform to shine a light on an era of Hip-Hop that was decidedly misogynistic. The song was strong commentary on domestic violence, sexual harassment, and the idea that women in Hip-Hop were simply props.
* Banner Image: The Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur and Redman / Photo by Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images