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Rap music as a political message

Rap music as a political message

Rap music which is mostly considered as a scandalous art can be the subject of curiosity. Actually, by nature rap constitutes a tool for contestation and can carry out a political message. 

Origin and characteristics of rap

Rap music can be defined as a cultural movement born in the seventies in American black and Latino ghettos. It is rooted in the Hip hop movement and has been influenced by various music such as reggae, blues, or rock. This music incorporates rhyme, rhythmic speech, and street vernacular and it is composed of content (what is being said), flow (rhythm, rhyme), and delivery (cadence, tone). Etymologically, the word “rap” comes from the verb to rap” which means to “to strike, especially with a quick, smart, or light blow” and is also slang for “to talk or discuss, especially freely, openly, or volubly; chat”. 

A political DNA

In the field of music, rap holds an original place. It is considering as the first musicwithout professional musician”. Rap music is intrinsically politics. Rap’s politicization can be explained by the fact that it’s a way to express the concrete effects of pauperization in ghettos and by the politicized interpretation of rap music by the media. According to Arsenik’s statement, “No one can pretend to rap without taking a position”. In the nineties, this sentence was particularly true with some groups such as the Public Group in the US or Assassin and IAM in France.

Political rap music exploded in the eighties. At this time, it has been a way to express a malaise and claims of the ghettos’ inhabitants. During this Golden Age, what we call “gangsta rap” was born; N.W.A group in California composed by Dr. Dre, Ice Cube, Eazy-E, MC Ren and DJ Yella are the standard-bearer of this style. They were inspired by their daily life with police brutalities and gang wars.

In 1988, they signed the hit “Fuck tha police”, a classic song in which they denounce police violence against young black American. Before, in 1982, the group Grandmaster Flash had written the famous song “The Message” in which they criticized power symbols, police and justice.

Rap music can be pictured as the incarnation of oppressed revolt: the representation of an anti-establishment discourse based on identity and claims of urban life’s problems. According to some sociologists, such as Boucher, rap must be studied as a movement which inform us about values conveyed in urban areas and by young people. Hence, rap music is a new political enunciation

The birth of mainstream rap

With time, rap has become one predominant aspect of world pop culture. Next to the birth of a political rap in the eighties and nineties, we can see a broadening of the genre. There was also a development of a “provocative” mainstream rap with its symbols such as luxury cars, guns or even women.          

But compared to this “non-engaged” rap, we can also see the mainstreaming of a more political rap style. Indeed, engaged rap is popular because there are representing certain youth from ghettos. As explained by the French rapper Youssoupha, the success of rappers in society is a “militant act” in itself rather than its militancy being bound to the art-form or the lyrics.

As engaged rap is spread, it carries with it a message. As an example, in the nineties, famous French rappers such as Kery James, IAM, Minister AMER, Assasin, NTM and many others used their popularity for the hit “11’30 against racists laws”. 

Also, at the international scale, we are witnessing the coming of popular engaged rappers who wake people up to listen. One of the most famous is Jay-Z who talked about racism and the black experience in America in his Grammy-nominated album, “4:44.”. We can also cite Eminem or Kendrick Lamar with his Grammy-nominated album Damn” and his 2015 album “To Pimp a Butterfly”. In this last one, we can listen featuring lyrics such as: “Donald Trump’s in office/ We lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again/ But is America honest, or do we bask in sin?”.  

Originally, rap, by tackling topics such as money, delinquency or insecurity, was born from pain and contestation. And even if today we are witnessing a mainstreaming of rap which implies the arrival of white middle-class rappers, this engaged DNA is not dead.

A style still alive: political rap during social crisis

Political rap is especially prominent while a society faces an important crisis, whether it’s a political or historical one, or one concerning identity. In France, the day following the access of the presidential election second round by Jean-Marie Le Pen had led famous rappers to gather and incite youth to block far-right accession with the song “La lutte est en marche”. The French rappers Kery James who is considered as the king of French engaged rap had made the hit “Letter to the French Republic” (“Lettre à la République”) where he tackles the demonization of Muslim people in France and inhabitants of French ghettos who comes from a France that has forgotten its colonial past and its discrimination.

We can talk about Donald Trump’s access to the White House, which has created a wave of engaged rap song. We can cite Eminem with his explosive freestyle rap which he unleashed on the President. About the same target, Childish Gambino with his brilliant and brutal music video “This is America” criticized US modern society; the video clip had more than 1 million views in less than 24 hours. With this song, he raised awareness about the fact that guns have more value than human life and the banalization of violence especially against Black American. In addition, in the United Kingdom, the rapper Stormzy with his song “Vossip Bopincluded a gem on Brexit and Boris Johnson: “Rule number 2 don’t make the promise/ If you can’t keep the deal then just be honest/ I can never die I’m Chuck Norris/ Fuck the government and fuck Boris.”

As described by the journalist Karim Madani, rap involves provocation. According to him, “politics and rap are a bad melange. We are in a censured period with the politically correct but Rap Music by its nature is inherently politically incorrect”.


by Pauline Zaragoza

Photo Credits

Eminem-04, Mika Väisänen, CC BY-SA 4.0, 

Tupac graffiti New York, JJ & Special K, CC BY-SA 2.0, 

Jay-Z concert, i am guilty, CC BY-SA 2.0, 

Festival des Vieilles Charrues 2017 – Kery James – 170, Thesupermat, CC BY-SA 4.0

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