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How hip-hop music affects social justice issues

November 3, 2023
Photo by Aryanna Dorsey | The State News

In the 50-year history of hip-hop, N.W.A., Tupac and Kendrick Lamar have been three of the most influential and highly recognized artists. The albums solidifying each of them as musical genuineness — “Straight Outta Compton,” “All Eyez on Me” and “To Pimp a Butterfly” — all relate back to prevalent social issues the artists were affected by at that time.

What social justice issues did these artists rap about in their songs? Did they influence each other in any way?

Let’s take a deeper look at the history of hip-hop and how N.W.A., Tupac and Lamar were able to bring to light many of the problems the Black community faces.

N.W.A. and “Straight Outta Compton”

Department of History Professor Dr. Nakia Parker said N.W.A. was deemed “west coast rap” and “gangsta rap,” and the group rapped about specific things happening in their lives.

Parker said this would often include themes of what it was like to be working class, life in Compton and being Black.

Because the group was young at the time — they were in their early 20s when they started — their music “touched on what they saw as young black men growing up in Compton,” such as attacking institutionalized racism, violence and police brutality, Parker said.

College of Music Professor Richard Desinord said "Straight Outta Compton” was extremely important for listeners because it illustrated what was going on in parts of the black community during that time. 

“It was one of the first times you saw an explicit explanation of some of the ethos of the particular light within a black community,” Desinord said. “It was a way to let people know what was happening in poverty-stricken areas, whether or not people wanted to hear it.” 

N.W.A.’s Influence

Parker said one song off the album, “Fuck Tha Police," became an “anthem." Because of its explicit and meaningful lyrics touching on police brutality and racial violence, she said, the song is "still used for protests today." 

Desinord noted the group and album, overall, influenced hip-hop because, by rapping about issues that marginalized communities faced, the genre was made more accessible.

“It definitely influenced a newer generation of hip hop artists that, for good and bad reasons, embraced the idea of being able to talk and explain things in a certain way that wasn’t the most accepted,” Desinord said. “'Gangster rap' became the brand name of rap for that time; it’s not permanent, but it definitely influenced a lot of rappers that came afterward but also the perception of the genre.”

Desinord said that Dr. Dre, a member of N.W.A and one of the most significant producers in history, was also a huge factor in hip-hop history because Dre helped produce “All Eyez on Me” and “To Pimp a Butterfly.” 

Tupac and “All Eyez on Me”

In this album, Desinord said, Tupac talks about drugs, misogyny, social issues and political consciousness.

“It was one of the first times you had someone who was uber-famous for talking about things within what you might call, the ‘hood,’” Desinord said.

Musicology Professor Marcie Ray said people "understood Tupac as a poet." That, in conjunction with the artist's prominence, primed his audience to listen to what he had to say, Ray said. 

“There was an (understanding) that his music was saying something and it was saying something social and important, and there was an audience ready to hear that beyond the stereotypes,” she said. 

Because Tupac "embrace(d) that west coast gangsta rap persona" and leaned into the lifestyle, Parker said, "everyone will point to the album" as one of the "most significant albums culturally" of all time. 

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Kendrick Lamar and “To Pimp a Butterfly”

Musicology graduate student Tori Tyler’s thesis focuses on studying black consciousness in hip-hop and understanding the cyclical nature of its music.

In hip-hop, Tyler said, you can hear that artists respect their elders and how they influence their music. Tyler focuses on Kendrick Lamar and Tupac’s relationship, as well as how “To Pimp a Butterfly” is in “communication with” Tupac. Tyler especially focused on the latter, because though Tupac's "life was so short," his "legacy lives on." 

Halfway through Lamar's song "Mortal Man," there is audio of an interview between Tupac and Lamar; however, they never actually did an interview together, Tyler said. 

“Instead, Lamar just reimagines it as a conversation that he’s having with an elder in order to better explain the music he’s making,” she said. 

Desinord said Lamar's 2015 album relates to social justice in many ways. 

The background of the album cover has the White House in it, which one could either see “as a reaction to Obama’s presidency or a reaction to post-Obama presidency, Desinord said.

"It works on multiple levels," he said. 

In fact, former President Barack Obama included songs from Lamar's album on his annual summer playlist. The president made it clear he recognizes the issues Lamar references, Desinord said.

Desinord also discussed songs off the album that addressed other social justice issues, such as “Alright” and “Complexion.”

“‘Complexion’ talks about how, even within the Black community, there’s an issue of light-skinned versus dark-skinned and how that plays a role outside of the Black community," he said.

Ray said that very much like N.W.A.’s “Fuck Tha Police,” Lamar’s “Alright” has become an anthem for protests and unites the Black community.

“Rap music, but Black music in general, ties together an important legacy,” Ray said. “They’re kind of historical documents the way they look back to older artists and build off of their work, and 'To Pimp a Butterfly' does this really well.”

A deeper look into the albums

"Straight Outta Compton," "All Eyez on Me" and "To Pimp a Butterfly" came out in 1988, 1996 and 2015, respectively, navigating separate but similar sociopolitical environments. 

“Straight Outta Compton is the Reagan Era, the War on Drugs, the escalation of the prison industrial complex, and those are the things that NWA, for the most part, are rapping about on that album,” Parker said. “For Tupac’s 'All Eyez On Me'… he’s also grappling with this newfound game and notoriety because he had become so popular. Others were attacking his music and so he’s like, ‘I don’t care. I am going to continue to make what you think is controversial music.’”

Dr. Parker said Lamar’s album came in the light of “Black Lives Matter and Trayvon Martin."

"(It creates) this beautiful album that addresses all of those kinds of issues: the nobility of Black life, police brutality but also the resiliency of Black lives," Parker said. 

Final thoughts on hip-hop and the three albums

Tyler said it's necessary to understand the importance of songs about issues affecting marginalized communities, especially if you are part of a non-marginalized group. 

“Black music, as a whole, is about community," she said. "As a marginalized group, we need all the help we can get saying that our music is important."

Parker said listening to artists rap about social justice issues is significant because there's an audience that can relate to these problems and feel heard. 

“That’s the beauty of hip-hop,” she said. “It’s essentially people talking about their lives... You feel like when you hear them rapping about their lives or what they experience, you either see yourself in that or you aspire to be that.” 

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