The African continent, its legacy, challenges, and history have long served as a focal point of what many labeled conscious hip hop in the late 1980s and 1990s as evidenced by the works of artists such as X Clan, Black Star, Public Enemy, Boogie Down Productions, and dead prez. In 1989, Boogie Down Productions (BDP), released the single “You Must Learn” from their album, Ghetto Music: The Blueprint of Hip Hop, in which the group’s MC, KRS-One offered a thoughtful critique of the American school system and its failure to incorporate the vibrant history of people of African descent. The very meaning of KRS-One’s moniker (Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone) highlighted the importance of self-knowledge as both a necessary tool for personal growth and the uplift of black communities.
Other groups like Brooklyn’s X Clan brought their envisioning of Africa to life through both rhyme and fashion. Their own imaginings of Africa were conveyed in their fashion choices which included wearing African textiles, gold, silver, and beaded jewelry, which paid homage to Egyptian deities and African leaders including Patrice Lumumba and Nelson Mandela, as well as carrying carved wooden staffs adorned with Adinkra and ancient Egyptian symbols. On their album To the East, Blackwards, their rhymes celebrated a Pan-African vision which advocated black empowerment and resistance as evidenced by their use of the refrain, “This is protected by the red, the black and the green” which emphasized a vision of a global black community united under a flag signifying African solidarity.
Armed with a similar commitment to promoting black nationalism while addressing socio-economic disparities and injustices experienced by people of African descent, the hip hop duo dead prez released the album Let’s Get Free. On the track, “I’m a African,” the duo raps,
Puerto Rico, Haiti, and J.A.
New York and Cali, F-L-A
No, it ain’t ’bout where you stay, it’s bout the motherland
These lyrics are representative of the group’s desire not only to acknowledge but also to honor Africa as a vital force in the making of black people throughout the diaspora. Regardless of nationality, the members of dead prez proclaimed that their identities are intrinsically tied to the continent of their ancestors. As stic.man and M-1 rhyme, “No I wasn’t born in Ghana, but Africa is my momma.”
X Clan, BDP, and dead prez delivered rhymes which served as history lessons for those seeking connections to the larger African diaspora. Central to the messages conveyed in the songs of these artists was the desire to see both America, the land of their birth, and Africa, the land of their ancestors, as equally significant places of origin. Aesthetically and sonically, these artists presented listeners with a notion of home that was not bound by geographic borders.
The music videos which accompanied such songs provided visuals that complemented the message. In her women’s empowerment anthem, “Ladies First”, the ever-reigning female sovereign of hip hop, Queen Latifah, highlighted the role of black women in the quest for freedom and equality. The “Ladies First” video included not only performance footage but also incorporated images of black women freedom fighters and utilized footage from anti-apartheid protests in the United States and South Africa. The video concludes with Queen Latifah dressed in apparel reminiscent of a military officer’s uniform inspecting a large map of Africa smashing colonial miniatures representing the South African apartheid regime and replacing them with carved Black Power fists.
Since its inception, hip hop artists have used the art form to provide alternative narratives about the realities of black life in America. They have also used their art to deliver deliberate and provocative commentary concerning the significance of race, place, and belonging. Some have argued that over the last decade or more such hip hop, particularly hip hop which champions a Pan-African vision, has gone underground and that what remains is rap created for mass consumption, void of depth and thus lacking the social commentary that marked the works of many of the aforementioned artists.
While old hip hop heads (those hip-hop fans and artists who grew up in the 1970s and 80s) often retort that the game has changed and hip hop has been co-opted, there are in fact some contemporary artists that carry the torch of rhyming with a message. Arguably, the most prominent of note is Kendrick Lamar, hailing from Compton, California, who in 2015 released his studio album To Pimp a Butterfly to much critical and popular acclaim.
The first release “i”, a departure from tracks on his previous album Good Kid, M.A.A.D City celebrated self-love, faith, and perseverance. The refrain “I love myself” proved to be a melodic salve for listeners seeking refuge from increasingly hostile attacks on black bodies, civil liberties, and human rights.
As readily as Lamar professed the need for us to love ourselves he decidedly used the Grammy’s platform to advance this directive in a manner which honored African people and culture throughout the diaspora. In 2016, at the close of the 58th annual Grammy awards, Kendrick Lamar performed a medley of songs from the album To Pimp a Butterfly.
Within the first minute of taking the stage, Kendrick appeared alongside several other men who were similarly dressed in prison uniforms and shackled together. Kendrick moved forward on the stage as jazz horns filled the air alongside the heavy steps of the chain gang, the horns continued and Kendrick began,
I’m African-American, I’m African
I’m black as the moon, heritage of a small village
Pardon my residence
Came from the bottom of mankind
My hair is nappy, ….my nose is round and wide
You hate me, don’t you?
You hate my people; your plan is to terminate my culture
In this verse from “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick asserted his ethnic identity, claimed Africa as his ancestral homeland, celebrated the very physical features which have historically been the basis of ridicule, and addressed a legacy of bigotry. As the performance continued, Lamar transitioned to the song “Alright” and was joined by dancers who performed a myriad of African dances, including the South African Gumboot dance, made popular in the United States by the step routines performed by historically African American sororities and fraternities. As the performance reached its end, Lamar stood on a dimly lit stage, rapidly firing off verses from “Untitled 3” and as the music faded out, Kendrick was left standing on a darkened stage illuminated only by a silhouette of the African continent with the word “Compton” written across the center.
In sum, Lamar’s performance was simultaneously poised, unfiltered, provocative, and “unapologetically black.” In this single performance, Kendrick not only highlighted but shifted Africa’s position in hip hop culture from the periphery back to center. Just as earlier hip hop artists used their music to cultivate an understanding of global black solidarity, Lamar returned to the origins of hip hop which used beats and lyrics to engage with Africa as a place of significance and a source of inspiration for black America.
Consequently, this performance coupled with the current socio-political climate has resurrected conversations in hip hop about black American connections to the African continent among and between millennials and those of the supposed by gone era of Afrocentric/conscious hip hop. As such, Kendrick Lamar’s Grammy performance may serve as a watershed moment in hip hop in that while performing on an international stage when people of African descent at home and abroad were taking to the streets to proclaim that their lives mattered, Kendrick harkened back to the roots of hip hop and celebrated both Compton and Africa as home.
Erica Hill-Yates is an assistant professor of Sociology at Delaware County Community College. Her research focuses on collective memory, the Black press, motherhood, slavery, and emancipation in East Africa, and all things related to hip hop culture.