This article was originally published for the Brown Daily Herald and can be found here.
On June 15, Jay-Z became the first rapper inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. In the induction ceremony, former President Barack Obama recorded a video tribute as an introduction to Jay-Z’s acceptance speech. During the tribute, Obama said, “So, I’m pretty sure I’m still the only president (that listened) to Jay Z’s music in the Oval Office.” Obama went on to compare himself to the rapper, joking about how both of their wives are “significantly more popular” than they are and how “nobody who met (them) as younger men would have expected (them) to be where (they) are today.” Given their longstanding friendship, it is no coincidence that Jay-Z dropped his new album, “4:44,” at the height of the political unrest unsettling the nation.
For a start, “4:44” phonetically reads as “for 44,” leading many to believe that it was in homage to the 44th president. This seems especially convincing given the timing of the album’s release: It dropped just as Obama’s successor was actively working to dismantle his eight-year legacy and jettison the core values and norms that have historically embodied the presidency. With lyrics such as, “Y’all stuck in La La Land/Even when we win we gon’ lose,” which blatantly point to broader cultural debates, it is clear that Jay-Z wanted to make an overt political statement — and he is not alone.
In the last year, songs by black artists such as Jay-Z, Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole and Beyoncé offer resistance to the racism that is spreading across the country. Their lyrics focus on black liberation, colorism, financial stability and broader ideas that impact communities of color — and indeed, Brown students (pun intended). Songs like “Alright,” “How much a dolla’ cost,” “Kill Jay-Z,” “Freedom” and countless others act as a mouthpiece for black America, especially during these uncertain times under the Trump administration. These prominent artists are using their platforms politically, and it has proven to be a powerful way to start conversations about social equity and civil rights. With stark language and confrontational delivery, their music transcends the careful and diplomatic molds in which politicians are expected to act. In a spectrum defined by cautiously political conversations on the one side, and passionate emotions and lived experiences on the other, this music offers a raw, unfiltered alternative that reaches a different audience.
For example, contrast Obama’s farewell speech with recent music from any one of these artists. As president, Obama’s speech was addressed to the American people as a whole. He aimed to highlight the importance of every occupation, gender and citizenship status by acknowledging that “democracy won’t work without a sense that everyone has economic opportunity.” This idea is well-liked among listeners from across the political spectrum — but it doesn’t get to the heart of the overlooked systems of oppression halting social and economic mobility for minorities.
After all, if your great-great-grandmother was lynched for attempting to read, earning a high school diploma might as well be the Congressional Medal of Honor. If your neighborhood is plagued with all of the county’s incinerators and landfills, it’s easy for environmental disparities — contaminated water or poor air quality — to stunt the growth of youth and impact standards of living. More often than not, these situations and others like it disproportionately affect black and brown bodies to the extent that political cliches such as “economic opportunity” for everyone don’t seem very equitable.
And it is at this point that black artists’ rhythmic phrases claim their power. Instead of speaking to the country as a whole, artists are able to tailor their lyrics to certain groups. Artists such as Kendrick and Beyoncé are able to speak to an assortment of groups because they belong to multiple identities — black, male or female, single or married, southern or from other regions in America. Their art is important because it’s usually more digestible than political speeches. They can also shed light on microaggressions and racial injustices without having to hide behind carefully-chosen platitudes. They can make music about issues facing their communities with unapologetic lyrics that influence their fans. That isn’t to say that everything associated with these artists has to be about blackness, rather their ability to make art about whatever they want and black issues is a step in the right direction for the entire community.
Artists — and frankly, all public figures — are leading acts of resistance through their platforms in a way that politicians cannot. There is an ever-moving line between art and activism, where beats and politics cannot be separated. For walking this line, the work of black artists to start these conversations should be recognized, celebrated and supported.