Hip-hop as a recorded art form is over 30 years old, and for much of it’s lifespan it has been disjointedly debated for things as far-ranging as being the wellspring of urban black creativity, to the source of many of the pathologies that plague urban communities. Throughout this debate, critics have portrayed hip-hop as a two sided musical form with commercially successful do anything for money rappers on one side, and “conscious” rappers on the other. In some ways this stratification is informed by Malcolm X’s now famous “house slave” / “field slave” slave construct: the house slave is willing to do anything to curry favor with the master, while the field slave constantly looked for ways to subvert the master’s authority.
Yet just as Malcolm’s construct was incomplete because in its rage at the system it failed to acknowledge the existence of the “workshop slave”—the slaves who asserted their humanity and through personal skill and acumen were able to buy their families’ freedom—a reading of hip-hop as being driven by the forces of commerce and consciousness ignores another aspect of hip-hop creativity: prophetic hip-hop. By prophetic I don’t mean predicting the future. Instead, I mean prophetic in the context established by the black church in America as best illustrated by the Negro Spiritual, “There Is a Balm in Gilead”.
The spiritual was a response to the verse in the Bible’s book of Jeremiah that asks, “Is there no balm in Gilead? / Is there no physician?” The song answers this question, “There is a balm in Gilead to make the wounded whole / There is a balm in Gilead to heal the sin-sick soul”. This pithy, cogent lyric summarizes the prophetic tradition of the black church: the bearing of witness to the suffering, and the justice, love, hope and liberation needed to make the wounded whole and heal the sin-sick soul.
In my findings of the prophetic in hip-hop, below, some readers will notice that contemporary hip-hop artists like Immortal Technique, Truth Universal, Uno the Prophet, and the ever reliable veteran rapper Paris are missing. They are not mentioned in a prophetic sense here, because there is a difference between conscious hip-hop which the aforementioned artists represent, and prophetic hip-hop, on which I am elaborating. Conscious hip-hop is more politically and culturally motivated than prophetic hip-hop, and focuses on drawing the listener to a particular way of thinking.
Similarly, though my conception of the prophetic in hip-hop comes from the black church, I also deliberately omit Christian rappers. Though there are excellent Christian rappers such as Lecrae and Curvine, their message is concerned more with proselytizing and directing people to Christ than speaking to the secular conditions that impact peoples’ souls daily.
That is the qualitative difference between the conscious and the Christian versus the prophetic: while conscious hip-hop takes more of a propagandized, abstract approach and Christian hip-hop is concerned first and foremost with Christ, prophetic hip-hop bears witness to the human condition in graphic, uncompromising terms. The songs that I describe below speak cogently to one or more of the themes of suffering, justice, love, hope, and liberation in a personal way. Though some of these songs are viewed as “positive” many are not, and none have a religious or political agenda in the way that Christian or conscious hip-hop does.
In thinking about hip-hop songs that depict suffering, I didn’t want to go with just the obvious choices like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” or Geto Boys’ “Minds Playing Tricks on Me”. Both songs do a good job describing the mental anguish associated with aspects of life in the inner city, but I felt that there were songs that were darker and more challenging in their depictions of suffering. Mobb Deep’s “Shook Ones Part II”, and NYOil’s “Y’all Should All Get Lynched” fit the bill for different reasons. On its surface, “Shook Ones Part II” appears to glamorize violence. In fact from its very first lyric:
Word up son, word
Yeah, to all the killers and a hundred dollar billas
(Yo I got the phone thing, knowmsayin’, keep your eyes open)
For real niggas who ain’t got no feelins
The song’s purpose seems to “big up” a criminal lifestyle in the ghetto, and as the song goes on, it attempts to portray this lifestyle as superior to any other in the ghetto. Yet at the root of its misplaced bravado is a sense of desperation and hopelessness, as evidenced by the acknowledgment of “real niggas who ain’t got no feelins”. That lyric references a spiritual numbness that is the worst form of suffering, because it makes it that much easier to spread suffering and dysfunction.
This spreading of suffering is evidenced in “Y’all Should All Get Lynched”. NYOil’s take on the criminal persona present in “Shook Ones Part II” is to annihilate it, and in a most pernicious way—through a lynching. Some may look at NYOil’s response as a form of justice, and perhaps this is the case, but I see it from the perspective of cold calculated murder, which requires the very same spiritual numbness depicted in “Shook Ones”. So rather than being a plea for justice, “Y’all Should All Get Lynched” is a plea for a release from the suffering induced by the spiritual numbness that has taken up residence in so many black urban communities.
I’ve selected three songs that speak to justice on different layers. Though violence is a recurring motif of each song, each song’s relationship to justice is from the point of view of the victimized. Unlike NYOil’s “Y’all Should All Get Lynched”, which as I said spoke more to mental suffering via frustration and was more about exorcising “demons” than actual justice, De La Soul’s “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” is about a male high school social worker beloved by the school’s male students, but unknown to them, is also sexually and physically abusive to a female student at the school—his daughter.
When the girl tells the male students about the abuse, they don’t believe her, and she takes justice into her own hands and shoots him as he plays Santa Claus at Macy’s. In the case of “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa”, De La Soul asks and answers the question, What is a young girl supposed to do when somebody who is supposed to take care of her, in this case her father, instead abuses her?
Much of hip-hop music comes from a place where artists believe the “system” is against them. In that regard, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” represents not only the very real victims of sexual abuse, but also the victimized and the voiceless in black society, who feel their backs are against the wall and take retribution into their own hands. Retributive justice is also tackled by Eric B and Rakim’s “Casualties of War”, but in a more complex way. (Written in 1992, the song seems to anticipate the events of 26 February 1993 and 11 September 2001.) Rakim’s rap describes a black Muslim-American fighting in the Gulf War, overcome by ambivalence about the war on two levels: the first level is that as a black man, he’s not sure who or what he’s fighting for, and when he realizes he’s fighting against fellow Muslims, he decides to shoot the general but makes it look like the “enemy” did it.
Though this brand of “justice” is difficult to stomach and not sympathetic in the way that Millie’s was, “Casualties of War” is not merely a song about an individual questioning the validity of a war he is fighting. In depicting the emotions swirling around in the mind of a Muslim-American involved in a war against fellow Muslims, it raised a much larger question about the consequences of such a war in the following lyrics:
Cause it ain’t no way I’m going back to war
When I don’t know who or what I’m fighting for
So I wait for terrorists to attack
Every time a truck backfires I fire back
I look for shelter when a plane is over me
Remember Pearl Harbor? New York could be over, G
Kamikaze, strapped with bombs
No peace in the east, they want revenge for Saddam
By depicting instances where a person takes matters into their own hands, “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “Casualties of War” are ultimately about “an eye for an eye” type of retribution. Yet ironically, the most vilified and controversial of the justice songs is the one least concerned with retributive justice. NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police” has often been characterized as a song that simply advocates violence against the police. Yet from it’s opening line, “Fuck Tha Police” is a song about young black men having their day in court with the police department. The overly aggressive lyrics are done in the form of testimony, and though much of the talk “on stand” is about violent retribution against police officers, this violence is never actually executed. Instead, the song ends with the police department being found guilty of being racist and oppressive (though the language is a bit more raw), and the officers in question crying out that the verdict is a lie and that they too “want justice”.
In admitting violent testimony, “Fuck Tha Police” acknowledges the violent “solutions” portrayed in “Millie Pulled a Pistol on Santa” and “Casualties of War” as valid, but by ending the song in a guilty verdict instead of a murder, it merely hints at retribution, and in fact speaks to a longing for restorative justice—the ideal form of justice to ensure a harmonious society. That notwithstanding, each of these three songs show the complexities of getting justice as posited by those who believe themselves to be the victims of an unjust system.