The hip-hop genre has long been an expression of the unheard, and an artform that is rooted in Black Americans’ experiences. The reverberations of these original ideas are still felt today as after nearly 40 years of hip hop’s entrance into popular music, artists remain outspoken about the enduring injustices in our society.
As long as issues of racism, class struggle and socioeconomic inequality exist in our society, so will the music that has most vociferously criticized them. Here are some of the best and most scathing attacks on larger racial issues in America --past and present-- that make for an ideal protest soundtrack.
Not all songs available on Spotify.
“Burn Hollywood Burn” by Public Enemy (1990)
The track comes from their second LP, Fear of a Black Planet, that dives into the negative racial stereotypes enforced by the media. Chuck D, Ice Cube and Big Daddy Kane launch a high-flying lyrical assault on the film and TV industry’s oft overlooked racist undertones, which has gained more prominence in the public discourse since 1990.
“I Wanna Kill Sam” by Ice Cube (1991)
The title is pretty self-explanatory. Ice Cube doesn’t like America -- more specifically, America’s racist institutions and neglect of the Black community. The deeply rooted political lyrics are so brilliantly cloaked in visual metaphors and over-the-top proclamations. It’s no wonder that Ice Cube is revered to this day for his politically-charged rhymes.
“Wake Up” by Rage Against the Machine (1992)
Yeah, yeah... technically Rage Against the Machine isn’t a hip-hop act by a purist’s definition. But Zack de la Rocha raps ferociously on top of these guitar-laden anthems, and he cuts deep into the core of American willful ignorance, the motives behind the murders of Black leaders and how liberalism fails to counter authoritarian fascism. Plus, the song was in the Matrix, so it’s automatically badass.
“The Day the N----- Took Over” by Dr. Dre (1992)
This song quite literally sounds like the soundtrack to a live riot. The multiple radio interludes and features from Snoop Dogg, RBX and Daz may cause the track to sound disjointed on first listen, but it embodies the chaos of the times. After all, the LA riots had occurred just months prior, and the Chronic still today serves as a flagship album of the West Coast in the 90s.
“The Beast” by Fugees (1996)
As the most subdued track listed so far, “The Beast” is an unremitting lyrical dissection of race, politics and the widely recognized but rarely understood concept of “things aren’t what they seem.” It’s always refreshing to revisit the cultural phenomenon of Lauryn Hill’s rapping, which was so great that she remains to this day one of the most iconic emcees to ever pick up a microphone.
“Mathematics” by Mos Def (1999)
Mos Def, known today as Yasiin Bey, takes the cake with this song as the most statistical rap song ever penned. The sheer amount of numbers packaged into four minutes is something to behold, and not a single one goes without profound insight to the institutional malfeasance of the USA.
“Reagan” by Killer Mike (2012)
There was stiff competition between this track and the one that directly follows it on Killer Mike’s R.A.P. Music, “Don’t Die” -- a song cartoonishly depicting a police encounter and Mike escaping an unlawful arrest. By contrast, the song takes a much more grave approach, and adroitly unpacks the history of violent policing in America and the jarring similarities of every president’s missions and goals. According to Mike, there’s not much difference from Reagan to Obama, and you almost have no choice but to believe him after such a convincing performance.
“Hands Up” by Vince Staples (2014)
Vince Staples was determined in *2014 to supersede his reputation as a feature artist and he really did it with a track like this. A supremely dark instrumental envelopes the chilling reality of plea bargains, for-profit prisons and three strikes laws. It cannot be emphasized enough how bleak the song is lyrically and musically. The Long Beach rapper goes into the impunity of officers who kill citizens, as well as the no-knock warrants that are now becoming outlawed, which will continue to be a theme going into the last few songs on this list.
“The Blacker the Berry” by Kendrick Lamar (2015)
Not just a remarkable protest song, Kendrick Lamar’s “The Blacker the Berry” is one of the greatest hip-hop songs of all time. The uncompromising display of not just schematic proficiency in his rhymes, but lyrical sensibility when breaking down a topic of such complexity is just breathtaking. Lamar embraces negative black stereotypes, faces down both internalized hatred and external evils and reveals himself (and others) to be a hypocrite at the very end of a song that will have you wrestling with its meaning long after you’ve heard it.
“Police Get Away wit Murder” by YG (2016)
Here is another bluntly self-explanatory title. This time, it’s from YG on the closing track of his 2016 effort, Still Brazy, an album that almost single handedly revitalized the golden era of West Coast gangsta rap. Over a fantastic beat, YG passionately petitions for the better treatment of his people, addressing the uphill battle that Black people face when seeking justice for police shootings in their neighborhoods and homes. He resents the fact that Black Americans are routinely villainized for defending their own property and lives, while police can act recklessly without fear of prosecution. The track ends on a chilling note with YG emotionally reeling off names of victims at the hands of police. It’s a sad, yet appropriate, ending to both the album and this list.