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Black History Month and Hip-Hop: 20 Bars That Embody Black Excellence

By Alec Banks

Hip-Hop lyrics can be put under varying degrees of magnification. Since the advent of the genre, people have debating not only who is the master wordsmith, but also what exactly makes a killer bar? As Hip-Hop graduated from party records to more personal stories with universally relatable themes, the lyrics remain the glue between the past and the present. As a result, songs could be enjoyed both as forms of entertainment, and as commentary.

In honor of Black History Month, we've scoured songs and albums in search of the lyrics we think best embody the spirit of Black excellence.

 

Goodie Mob "Fighting"

"We don't even know who we are, but the answer ain't far/
Matter of fact its right up under our nose/
But the system taught us to keep that book closed/
See the reason why he gotta lie and deceive is so/
That we won't act accordingly/
To get the blessings we suppose to receive/
Yeah it's true, Uncle Sam wants you to be a devil too/
See, he's jealous because his skin is a curse but what's worse/
Is if I put it in a verse y'all listen to some bullshit first/
We ain't natural born killas, we are a spiritual people/
God's chosen few/
Think about the slave trade when they had boats with
Thousands of us on board/
And we still was praising the Lord"

Cee-Lo closes Goodie Mob's epic "Fighting" with this a capella verse that scorches with rage and power. One of his finest moments on wax.

 

Big Daddy Kane "Word to the Mother (Land)"

“Martin Luther was a tutor; many were pupils/Those who fell victim were those without scruples"

Big Daddy Kane was among the very first MC's giving Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. his rightful praise on wax.

 

Large Professor featuring Nas "Stay Chisel"

"Knuckle game, it's like Rubin Hurricane/Dance to the music for the brain/Y'all dudes will never see me down/Reading everything, books and body language/Du Bois, Baldwin, and Chavis/ Assata, John Hope Franklin, Angela Davis"

Nas' verse on "Stay Chisel" provides an entry level course for anyone wanting to go deeper on Black figures ranging from the sports world to academia.

 

Public Enemy "By the Time I Get to Arizona"

“Talkin' MLK/Gonna find a way/Make the state pay/I'm lookin' for the day/Hard as it seems/This ain't no damn dream.”

On November 6, 1990, the people of Arizona voted down a proposal to create a state holiday for Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. by a margin of 17,000 votes. The vote came two years after then-Governor Evan Mecham cancelled MLK Day, saying, “I guess King did a lot for the colored people, but I don’t think he deserves a national holiday.”

When reflecting on PE's response record, Chuck D said, “I’m a firm believer that Hip-Hop can change the world and make statements like Bob Marley.”

 

KRS-One "Ah Yeah"

"I came as Harriet Tubman, I put the truth to Sojourner/Other times, I had to come as Nat Turner/They tried to burn me, lynch me and starve me/So I had to come back as Marcus Garvey, Bob Marley/ They tried to harm me, I used to be Malcolm X/Now I'm on the planet as the one called KRS//Kickin' the metaphysical, spiritual, tryin' to like/Get with you, showin' you, you are invincible/The Black Panther is the black answer for real/In my spiritual form, I turn into Bobby Seale/On the wheels of steel, my spirit flies away/ And enters into Kwame Ture"

On this classic from his 1995 eponymous album, "The Teacha" reminded us all that there wasn't a one-size-fits-all when it came to fighting for equality. 

 

Isis "Rebel Soul"

"Rebel soul/Profess, Professor X, the key is the goal/The Black turns bold/Let the aggression come again/ Attitude's the lesson I intend to send/I create a movement/For what it's worth? Please listen/ My fist bears room but in the upright position/The scribe I come/The Blackwatch, the distance/The moon, the sun"

She was the unapologetic X-Clan affiliate known as Isis when she dropped this anthem for empowerment. She would eventually re-emerge as Lin Que, but it's clear she had a strong perspective from Day One.

 

Boogie Down Productions "You Must Learn"

"Cause you don't know that you ain't just a janitor No one told you about Benjamin Banneker/ A brilliant Black man that invented the almanac/ Can't you see where KRS is coming at/ With Eli Whitney, Haile Selassie/ Granville Woods made the walkie-talkie/ Lewis Latimer improved on Edison/ Charles Drew did a lot for medicine/ Garrett Morgan made the traffic lights/ Harriet Tubman freed the slaves at night"

"The Teacha" embodied his moniker on this classic track from the BDP posse. Referencing the broken American education system, KRS-One mentions a few notables in Black history as he bemoans the fact that school doesn't teach Black students Black pride.

 

Nas "I Can"

"Before we came to this country/We were kings and queens, never porch monkeys/There was empires in Africa called Kush/Timbuktu, where every race came to get books/To learn from black teachers who taught Greeks and Romans/Asian Arabs and gave them gold, when/Gold was converted to money it all changed/Money then became empowerment for Europeans/The Persian military invaded/They heard about the gold, the teachings, and everything sacred/Africa was almost robbed naked/Slavery was money, so they began making slave ships/Egypt was the place that Alexander the Great went/He was so shocked at the mountains with black faces/Shot up they nose to impose what basically/Still goes on today, you see?"

Nas' entire verse is full of so many quotable it would be criminal to dissect into smaller pieces. The Queensbridge legend raps about Black empires reduced to rubble as a result of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. 

 

Killer Mike "Untitled"

"This is John Gotti painting pictures like Dali//This is Basquiat with a passion like Pac/In a body like Biggie, telling stories like Ricky"

Killer MIke's "Untitled" verse places Hip-Hop figures in context with both the notorious (Gotti) and the greats (Dali and Basquiat).

 

A Tribe Called Quest "What?"

Nada, nada, nada, not a damn thing/What's Duke Ellington without that swing?/What's Alex Haley if it doesn't have Roots?/What's a weekend if you ain't knockin' boots?/What's a black nation, without black unity?" 

Q-Tip always had a way of making poignant and strong statements under the guise of a record that was catchy and easy to rap along with. 

 

Fugees feat. John Forte, A Tribe Called Quest, Busta Rhymes "Rumble In the Jungle"

"Scribe checks, make connects True pyramid architects/Replace the last name with the 'X'/The man's got a God complex/But take the text, change the picture/Watch Muhammad play the messenger like Holy Muslim scriptures/Take orders from only God/Only war when it's Jihad/See Ali appears in Zaire to reconnect 400 years" - Lauryn Hill

In 1996, two of the 1990s most beloved rap acts came together (with a little help from their friends) on this uber-dope posse cut from the Muhammad Ali documentary When We Were Kings.

 

Brand Nubian "Concerto in X Minor"

"Now, Huey Newton was slain/And we all felt the pain of Yusef Hawkins/And they was mad but we was squakin'/They tried to show a false compassion/Yet, at the rally, they tried to bash in our brains/Further addin' to the bloodstains/I was mad at this news and so was my brothers/And I wanted to get violent but I'm a lover of black mothers/And black mothers need sons/Not children that's been killed by guns"

Brand Nubian also manage to make a strong statement about Black history and Black unity in only a few bars.

 

Jeezy featuring Nas "My President"

My president is black, my Lambo's blue/And I'll be goddamned if my rims ain't too"

Jeezy and Nas decided to flip a Black-centric statement into an actual chorus that remains as catchy as it ever was when it was first released back in 2008.

 

2Pac "Keep Ya Head Up

"Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/I say the darker the flesh, then the deeper the roots"

Pac's line on "Keep Ya Head Up" remains the gold standard for greatness.

 

Yasiin Bey "Umi Says"

"Black people unite and let's all get down/Gotta have what/Gotta have that love/Peace and understanding/One God, one light/One man, one voice, one mic"

Yasiin Bey — formally Mos Def — showcases how Hip-Hop itself can amplify themes like spirituality, unity, and love.

 

Jungle Brothers "Acknowledge Your Own History"

"All you read about is slavery/Never about the black man's bravery"

Many people think Black History Month is simply an example of people who have persevered despite the impact of systematic racism in the United States. Jungle Brothers reminds us that there is much MORE to the Black experience.

 

Brand Nubian "Black Star Line"

"It's the Black Star Line that's leavin' at nine/Here's a paid ticket so you can free your mind/Playgrounds is filled with visions of steel/Grab the black babies it's time to build"

Marucs Garvey founded the Black Star Line steam ship company through his United Negro Improvement Association in 1919. His hope was the the mighty fleet of ships would bring economic power to Black people around the world and transport many of them back to a proud and independent African nation.

 

Nas "You Can't Stop Us Now"

"Betsy Ross sewed the first American flag/Bet she had a nigga with her to help her old ass!

Nas strikes right down to the symbol of the United States of America.

 

Dead Prez "I'm a African"

"Camouflage fatigues and dashikis, somewhere/In between N.W.A. and P.E"

Dead Prez' aesthetics represented a militant — yet Afrocentric — take on what it meant to be a Black man in the 1990s.

 

Public Enemy "Revolutionary Generation"

"There's been no justice for none of my sisters/Just us been the one that's been missin' her"

Chuck D reminded us that Black women are most often the people who were — and still are — rendered voiceless.