Photo by David Brendan Hall
Only three weeks into Donald Trump’s war on the media, Sean Spicer’s baseless claims, and Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” and people are already losing faith in who they should listen to and who they can trust. Donald Trump is convinced that the entirety of the press is a melting pot of lies, leaving unbiased journalists with nothing but fact-checking to publish and an audience that’s unsure of what to believe.
This isn’t an issue of liberalism or conservatism; facts are facts, and the Trump administration doesn’t have them.
We’re now faced with a question when choosing a preferred news outlet: If plugging into mainstream media or even a presidential press briefing means a lack of transparency, does unplugging mean seeking alternative mediums to find the truth?
As we watch the credibility of mainstream political discourse crumble into comedic commentary, we’re in search of something tangible, seeking catharsis in any capacity that communicates the life and times of America’s pain. Society has been craving a political medium that accurately speaks for its people, a craving so strong that it has shifted traditional political commentary to today’s most politically aware music genre: hip-hop.
Since the birth of the beat, hip-hop has been a voice for the voiceless, overlapping the spheres of politics and music within it. Whether or not the lyrics are inherently political, hip-hop has always been a political discourse, pumping the reality of America through its veins. Now, more than ever, the genre is being recognized as the powerful force of human expression that it always has been, one that has mastered the craft of shedding light upon ground-level issues that standard politics refuses to address.
Artists such as Kendrick Lamar, A Tribe Called Quest, J. Cole, Jamila Woods, Joey Bada$$, Anderson .Paak, and so many others have released tracks and albums that are challenging the way society thinks and discusses America’s current state of politics. These artists are gaining more credibility than our nation’s press secretary, because they are creating a direct language that depicts the good, the bad, and the ugly of living the American experience, a unifying discourse among those directly affected and not, exposing a long history of suppressed truth behind the reality of marginalized communities.
“There is a divide-and-conquer method in music and throughout the country right now. In times of fear, when people become insecure and lose faith in institutions, people become tribalistic and go into their groups, because they think: ‘Hey, we gotta band together because these people are going to make life worse for us,’” says Kareem Muhammad, a professor at Allen University. “We still live in a very segregated society. You might not have very many friends or relationships across certain cultures. It’s a lot better with millennials and the younger generation, but we’re still very separate. In many ways, the music allows us to be exposed to new perspectives and new ways of looking at each other. Hip-hop in society has always made you think in some way or form.”
But the intersection of hip-hop and politics is hardly black and white, because what we deem political is subjective, viewed through the lens of our own oppressed (or not) individual identities.
“Music, in a political sense, is to reinforce and consolidate people’s shared identity,” said Dick Flacks, professor, author, and radio host of The Culture of Protest. “A lot of songs are not designed to persuade people of a new point of view, but to reinforce and validate this shared identity, and that’s very empowering.”
Take Frank Ocean, the poster child for creating solidarity within a minority subculture — a black male with an uncategorized sexuality. Right around the time he released Channel Orange in 2012, he published a self-description that rejected binary constructs. He challenged his audience and industry to accept him as a sexually ambiguous hip-hop and R&B artist.
Four years after Channel Orange, Ocean released two back-to-back albums in mid-2016 — Endless followed by Blonde one day later — both responsive odes to his America. He spoke to queerness, racial tensions, police brutality with specific mention of Trayvon Martin, and an overall saturation of politics that expressed the tugging factions within his individual identity and living in a country where that identity can be dangerously unaccepted. Ocean’s albums, and the vulnerable foundation of those records, have transformed into a pipeline of empowering discourse for real, ground-level issues, helping to create an understanding that unifies different communities.
Hip-hop is also addressing a new wave of intersectional feminism, using it as a weapon to fight back against the discrimination and over-sexualization of women and those who identify as female. It’s been a musical megaphone for demanding recognition of the feminist message, an empowerment for all women with different identities of sexuality, nationality, radicalization, and economic status. Artists such as Syd, Noname, Mykki Blanco, Beyoncé, and Kamaiyah have all recently released music that was written from the perspective of the female experience, a powerful affirmation to every woman that has recently lost faith for the future of her reproductive rights and access to basic services.
When the president considers women to be nothing more than objects, a female voice in hip-hop is a powerful, cathartic medium that can bring communal comfort in knowing that there is a public voice fighting back against the discriminatory war on gender. These artists are tackling issues of femininity, sexuality, and race head on, reminding everyone that the feminist voice is in powerful control of itself.
“Our goal is to spread peace and love through our music, but to unapologetically address all the bullshit that we see by being visible and loud and respected. Our goals are always changing, but it’s always from love and to build and to heal and to become greater versions of ourselves,” said Klevah, who is apart of the Chicago duo Mother Nature. “Our music is about being vulnerable and being okay with that and talking about these things and not being afraid that someone is going to feel a certain way. I’m sure not everyone is going to like our music, but we’re not afraid. We put our love for people before our fear. Like, this little, black girl needs to hear this, or my little brother needs to hear this, because if he doesn’t hear this, no one else is going to tell him, and we can’t leave the youth in the hands of unreliable people.”
And the tiny hands of the Trump administration is exactly where we shouldn’t leave our youth. The lack of truth and transparency and refusing to address ground-level America glaringly sets presidential press briefings apart from a hip-hop album. Our youth deserve to hear the truth, and right now it’s coming from hip-hop, because it has been constantly addressing a reality that so much of America experiences.
Take the genre of drill music — a style of rap originating in Chicago that has become a prominent part of the city’s hip-hop scene. It’s one of the most radicalized genres in the industry, with Chicago rappers Chief Keef, Lil Durk, and Fredo Santana at the forefront. These artists have been painting a very nuanced picture of what has been happening in their Chicago neighborhoods, while Trump continues to tweet that he’ll “send in the Feds” without any understanding of their reality.
Drill music has been extremely controversial within hip-hop, with critics condemning its dark and violent lyrical content as the force responsible for projecting a negative image onto the hip-hop community and city. Artists and listeners alike have questioned the goal and purpose of its musical message, which has created a divide among hip-hop artists who think drill musicians should revisit the questions of ‘what is my purpose?’ and ‘what will I do with this vocal platform?’ However, while the genre catches criticism and gets interpreted as being nonsensical and destructive, what has been failed to be understood about drill artists and their craft is that they are experts on their experience, and they want the system to understand what oppression feels like.
“You have to take it with a grain of salt when people outside of your situation are speaking on your situation. [These rappers] look at [the controversy] like ‘We’re rapping about our reality. What do you want us to do? Rap about your reality?’ How do you change the reality or the circumstances that these kids are living in? America is dealing with their problems in ways that don’t give solutions,” said Mikkey Halsted, former Ca$h Money Records artist turned producer and Chicago youth mentor. “Chief Keef and Lil Herb don’t care if you don’t like what they’re doing or if you don’t like the term Chiraq, or if Drillanoise is painting a wrong picture, because nine times out of 10, the person that [has the problem] isn’t living under those circumstances.”
This is why hip-hop is a leading force in today’s protest music — because the way that society generalizes and ignores specific music is the same way society generalizes and ignores people of color. Before we truly understood what drill music was, we dismissed it and the entire culture that it represented — a societal misunderstanding that goes much deeper than hip-hop. It’s a language of a shared identity, finding kinship in the tragedies that have unapologetically plagued these artists and their intended audience.
“There are so many intricacies to the problems here in Chicago that it’s hard to give any credence to those people that are saying that the rappers are the problem, when they are actually reflections of the problem, and those same people are not offering any solution,” Halsted said. “Everybody, to a certain extent at one or point another, is a mirror of their environment. The inner-city youth is drumming to their own beat. Period.”
Hip-hop artists have always expressed a reflection of their reality in their music, and oftentimes, it’s a reality that is rarely acknowledged. Truth is hard to come by, especially today, but America is hungry for it, and hip-hop might just be one place they start turning more to find it.