I got fed up with music a while ago. Most songs on the radio seem to be usual bland nonsense that isn’t even about anything. Most songs are just catchy, repetitive rubbish with the odd reference to a girl or a drink/club thrown in. I thought rap music was about black guys talking about hoes and jewelry. To my complete surprise I found that some rap is deeply political. Some songs are really poetry with a beat. I never heard songs that discussed politics, history and society in such an insightful way. So I collected some of my favourites to share here.
First up is “Community Outcast” by Devlin. This is an incredible song symbolising why I love politics. It is about the voiceless and forgotten in our society and really hits the bone. He talks about the despair of the jobless unable to make ends meet and forced to sign on (go on welfare) “and the government/ says that they’re spongers”. He raps about the homeless “let down by a nation/ more interested in war and invasion” and trying to warm their hands with a lighter. The single mothers trying to raise children in an area filled with heroin needles, “they’ll never see a decent life/ but they can dream ad they’ll sleep at night/they’ve been hung out and left to dry”. He talks about the old folk “all he wants is someone to speak to”, who feels isolated and useless. I never knew music could be so powerful and meaningful.
A great British rapper is Akala and his “Fire In The Booth” is an epic rap from the get go. He begins with how he grow up in a single parent family surrounded by violence and drugs before taking you on a vast journey incorporating black leaders like Malcolm X, the wasted potential of many young people, class, war, violence, crime and racism. His lyrics aren’t lazy clichés but actually well thought, as he describes how the “dominant philosophy” is “all about getting poor people to fight with one another”. He notes how black people are particulary penalised by drug laws even though middle class kids use drugs too without ending up in prison. He takes aim at “prisons for profit” and their use of “cheap slave labour”. He invokes the memory of racism by reminding you that “it’s only been sixty years/Since they hung blacks and burned them” and this is not an excuse but the roots of why people are dysfunctional.
He has a particular insight into class and argues that “In this country the first enslaved were the working class.” They have the worst jobs and end up going to pubs and getting in fights with each other rather than “a guy in a suit and tie/who sends your kids to die in a war.” He shows that black people aren’t doomed to be inferior and once had impressive civilisations in Africa. Instead people are obessed with MTV. What’s particularly interesting about Akala is the emphasis he puts on knowledge. Instead of owning a blood diamond he owns a library. To him, “Knowledge Is Power” and ends with a call to “Read, Read, Read!”
A brilliantly powerful and effective song is “3rd World” by Immortal Technique. He raps about his Peruvian history and links it to the whole 3rd world where “700 children have died by the end of this song.” It’s a hard hitting rap about the legacy of drugs, disease, dictatorship, police brutality, war and religion. It’s where people “grow coca cause the job market doesn’t exist”. He takes aim at the Catholic Church with their “White Jesus” who helped the Spainards exploit Latin America. The lyrics contain deep meanings and show his understanding of Latin American history and society (unusually for a rapper Immortal Technique studied politics). He packs the song with the anger of the powerless coming from a place where “they murder Coca Cola union organisers.” He crititices America’s dishonourable history of “overthrowing democratic leaders/Not for the people but for the Wall Street Journal readers.” He ends with a call to revolution in the 3rd World and “nationalize it and take it over”.
Lupe Fiasco packs a huge number of references and politics into his song “Around My Way”. Don’t let the jazz beat fool you, this is serious. He opens with a litany of abuses the Native Americans suffered from Pine Ridge to the Trail Of Tears. He mentions models, drugs, land grabs, racism, religion, oil, social networks and Iraq all in the opening verse. You feel you should be taking notes just to catch up. His chorus gives “Freedom Isn’t Free” a whole new meaning (can the poor afford all the freedoms America offers?). He shows that he isn’t just using lazy clichés but actually quite intelligent by referencing “Planned Obsolescence” a complicated economic term. He points that the inequality in America and the world is forcing people to be either “Mr Burns or Mr Smithers/The tyrant or the slave/but nowhere in the middle.” Meanwhile “the Horn Of Africa is now starving to death.”
The last video I’ll link is “Stand Up” by Flobots. Not quite rap (it has a killer violin background) but very political. It hits out with anger that “We didn’t fund the damn levy” (that was broken by Hurricane Kathrina and flooded New Orleans) before linking the planes used in 9/11 to the planes used to kill in the War on Terror even though “some of them are children”. They declare that they will stand up and “won’t fight a war for fossil fuel”. The highlight how wrong it is that “the people want peace but the leaders want war.” Instead they say “Let’s speak to the enemy/Don’t let them pretend that we seek blood.”
If you like these songs then you should also check out the other songs these artists have. Akala has another great song, “Find No Enemy” which is a mellow tune discussing racism, class, war, violence and the n word. Immortal Technique has another hard hitting political song “Harlem Streets” about crime, war, poverty, struggling to make ends meet, “corporate share cropping” and how its better to be “rich and guilty than poor and innocent”. “Leaving The Past” dealing with the history of Latin America and how society is resembles “Apartheid with 10 per cent ruling the rest”. He talks about how “I hate it when they tell us how far we came to be/as if our peoples history started with slavery.” “Dance With The Devil” is a powerful and intense story about a kid who wants to be a gangster and ends up raping a woman. Lupe Fiasco unleashes a lot with “Words I Never Said” about speaking out against power. He doesn’t pull his punches or mince his words getting straight to business from the beginning. “Your child’s future was the first to go in budget cuts.” He doesn’t limit his targets but takes on a broad range of issues such as when “Gaza Strip was getting bombed/Obama didn’t say shit.”
Other great songs which deserve amention (this post turned out much longer than I has intended) include “Same Love” by Macklemore & Ryan Lewis a beautiful piano song about homosexuality (not your typical rap song), “Jesus Walks” which even as an Atheist I love for its great beat and lyrics. Not your typical bland radio nonsense, but real great deep music.