Columns, Opinion

Bearing Witness: The sociological brilliance of hip-hop artists

Rapper Tupac Shakur used the phrase “thug life” as an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants F*cks Everybody.” According to his partner Mopreme, thug life represents “the poor and disenfranchised of all nationalities who are pressed by economics and power structure.” If the thug represents the oppressed, the acronym is explaining that the oppression faced by children who are born into the system is ruining the world.

In 2Pac’s famous song “Keep Ya Head Up,” he empowers his listeners. He raps “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice” in protest to society’s adverse standard of beauty — which is whiteness.

Years later, Kendrick Lamar rapped about his place in America as a black man. In “The Blacker the Berry,” Kendrick sings about the effects of institutional racism, police brutality and gang violence.

In the first stanza, Kendrick addresses the framing of black males in society:

It’s such a shame they may call me crazy

They may say I suffer from schizophrenia or somethin

America has a long history of unfairly stereotyping black males as dangerous, which has potential to create a culture of self-fulfilling prophecy. He is also touching on the fact that America has “made him,” meaning he is living the effects of institutional racism.

Next, he argues that America hates him and describes life outcomes for black men and the epidemic of mass incarceration:

“I mean, it’s evident that I’m irrelevant to society

That’s what you’re telling me, penitentiary would only hire me

Lamar’s hook in the song is “the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,” which repeats itself four times. The last line of the hook is: “The blacker the berry, the bigger I shoot.”

Once again, when 2pac said the phrase “the blacker the berry,” he was reflecting positivity and pride. But in this context, Lamar is referring to police brutality. According to an interpretation from Rap Genius, the juice refers to the blood of a black person because cops target the black community. He is expressing that the darker the black person is, the more likely he is to get profiled by the cops or shot.

Throughout the song, Kendrick starts each verse with the line “I’m the biggest hypocrite of 2015” and at the end, he demonstrates why: “So why did I weep when Trayvon Martin was in the street when gang banging make me kill a nigga blacker than me? Hypocrite!” The hypocrisy is that as a gang member, he kills black bodies all the time.

Kendrick Lamar is a sociologist — a student of life who uses his voice to tell stories for people who can’t. This is only one snippet into his brilliant storytelling experience as he covers issues like police brutality, gang violence, institutional and individual racism, oppression and social change.

For many college students, these topics are hot-button issues, and people like to know about them. The problem is that for many many Americans, these are not just topics in history books; rather, they are lived narratives.

White students have the capacity to turn their activism off, to care when they want. It’s great that people care, but it’s also important to recognize our privilege. In that, we must recognize that our music is centered around themes of oppression.

So many people say they love Kendrick Lamar, but they do not fight for or agree with the Black Lives Matter movement. People love N.W.A., but they ignore police brutality. People say J.Cole is their favorite rapper, but they fail to sympathize with his struggle. People say they love rap and hip-hop, but they don’t love or fight for black culture. Yes there is a “sick” beat, but that’s not the message.

According to Michael Dyson, an activist and professor at Georgetown, hip-hop has huge benefits. “I teach the work of these hymnodists at Georgetown so my students can hear their lessons and perhaps change their tunes of social justice,” he said.

When talking about church music, in the “Souls of Black Folk,” W.E.B. Du Bois profoundly proclaimed: “They are the music of an unhappy people, of the children of disappointment; they tell of death and suffering and unvoiced longing toward a truer world, of misty wanderings and hidden ways.”

Hip-hop is a fight for what’s right — it’s about striving for a better humanity. Most importantly, this music gives a voice to those who need it the most. Regardless, hip-hop remains at the forefront of American culture.

My own ignorance manifested as a young high school student attracted to the genre. I liked the vibe, the truth, the realness. It represented a life far from my own, opened a door to the black experience. But once I became more educated, I realized the true goal of hip-hop. Once again, with a more comprehensive history education, things could have been different.

The reality is that the market is pointing to more hip-hop. This is the music that America wants, but the irony is that racism and ethnocentrism are the largest social issues facing this country.  Therefore, we are in a unique place to move forward. As social conscious rappers continue to share their poetry, we must listen more intently and learn from their words.With the market in our favor, we all have the chance  to change our social justice tunes too.

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