By Zach Colten
For the entirety of its relatively brief history, rap has been political. The art form, spawned in an unassuming apartment high-rise in the Bronx, became a kind of “voice for the voiceless” in American culture, a blaring voice from oppressed urban youth, who were largely black.
As hip-hop expanded from coast to coast in the 1980s and 1990s, so did the pervasion of political subtext in the lyrics and music coming from the growing rap underground.
Think “F**k tha Police” – N.W.A.’s 1988 smash record that set off a pressure cooker of racial tensions, which had long been broiling in their native Compton, California. Or Nas’ 1994 masterpiece, “Illmatic,” which unabashedly portrays the street life of a young black man growing up in Queens. On the record “N.Y. State of Mind,” for instance, the legendary emcee raps – “Beyond the walls of intelligence, life is defined / I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind.” The stark contrast of these lyrics highlights the desperation so many felt to change the negative environments they were brought up in.
While for much of its history, these songs have, in part, generated and perpetuated negative
stereotypes about black people and their communities, those stereotypes are misguided.
The true value of hip-hop is in the positive messages of community and love, which are often hidden beneath a layer of pain and raw realism.
Even further, the “realest” moments in hip-hop are bigger than the music – one of the reasons I am so in awe of its history. There is a reason the streets of Brooklyn were packed like the Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade when Biggie died – because he gave back to his community and stood for a notion of peacemaking between rival neighborhoods.
Perhaps the traumatic loss of both the iconic rap figureheads from New York and Los Angeles, Biggie and Tupac Shakur, respectively, was the moment that solidified this shift in hip-hop from simply great music, to social activism.
Over the past 20 years, there have been a handful of black influencers in hip-hop culture to elevate to a level of giving back to their communities in groundbreaking ways – Dr. Dre, Snoop Dogg, Kendrick Lamar, Diddy, Jay-Z, Beyoncé, and Chance the Rapper, to name just a few.
I want to bring attention to the work some of these artists were doing to affect their communities to demonstrate the positive potentials of hip-hop for young people, and the power of positive role models.
Let’s start with Diddy. On Oct. 23, in a short video uploaded to his Instagram, Mr. Combs announced to his 12.1 million followers the opening of his THIRD charter school – Capital Prep – in the Bronx in 2019.
Diddy’s line of schools, run by the controversial educator Steve Perry, already consists of two locations, one in Bridgeport, Connecticut, and the other in Harlem. While the schools suffer from a high attrition rate between sixth grade and senior year, 100 percent of their mostly low-income graduates have gone on to pursue college educations, according to a reason.com article.
Chance the Rapper has become increasingly prominent for his work in giving back to his hometown of Chicago. Last year, the artist donated a whopping $1 million to Chicago Public Schools, urging corporations based in Chicago to do the same.
“I’m honored to make this donation to Chicago Public Schools Foundation and help cultivate Chicago’s creative minds,” Chance told the New York Times. “I’m committed to helping Chicago’s children have quality learning experiences that include the arts.”
Snoop Dogg has long been one of my favorite rappers. Not only for his G-Funk swag and unmatchable coolness and charisma, but also for his overwhelming authenticity and good spirit. Besides countless displays of community service to Long Beach, including a turkey giveaway for Thanksgiving of 2015, Snoop also created a youth football league in 2005 to give inner-city kids a positive outlet. Funded by his tours and merchandise, Snoop is the head coach of the league and helps form tight-knit, supportive youth communities. Beyond that, several of his league alumni can now be found on various NFL rosters.
These examples are truly just the tip of the iceberg. From my perspective, it seems that for every line about gun violence, drug abuse, or misogyny that may be found in some of rap’s more raw catalog, there are 10 about real issues, hope for a brighter future, and a will to survive freely.
But again, it goes deeper than rap.
By giving back to their communities in meaningful ways, these black artists become strong positive role models for the youth growing up in similar harsh conditions. By supporting education, arts, and athletics, they help to show kids that these are cool and healthy ways to express themselves. And most importantly, they give us a glimpse at the type of success we should all strive for.
The best way to make a change is to be that change – I think I’ve heard that somewhere before – and these artists are leading by example.