Are middle-aged rap icons the new ambassadors for our social issues, or just political pawns?

(October 26, 2020).  In the age before commercialized hip-hop existed (i.e. pre-1979), there was a bevy of civil rights leaders who were well known throughout modern history and who – in many cases – shed blood or lost their lives fighting for racial justice and equality in America. 

Many of these leaders were clergy, scholars or educators who – though they approached the issue of Black freedom from different perspectives – had a common burning platform: the longstanding oppression of people of African descent in America had to stop.

Above (from left): Marcus Garvey, W.E.B. DuBois and Booker T. Washington

For instance, Marcus Garvey, an African-Jamaican man who in the early 20th century called for the reunification of African people with their diaspora throughout the world, supported a “back-to-Africa” movement.  He envisioned a unified state governed by himself (initially) which would support laws by and for Black African people.  Garvey’s misguided alignment with the Ku Klux Klan in furthering his separatist movement led to much criticism throughout his activist life and still taints his legacy a century later.

W.E.B. DuBois, founder of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People – or NAACP – focused more on gains for Black people while remaining here in America, which he believed could only happen with improved education and representation.  He was against discrimination in all its 19th- and 20th-century forms (lynching, voter suppression, Jim Crow laws, etc.) and held that a “Talented Tenth” of Black intellectual elite would be the key to leading us out of educational and economic disparity. 

This was in contrast to Booker T. Washington, founder of Tuskegee University (formerly Institute) and a DuBois contemporary whose “Atlanta Compromise” was once seen as a concession to white supremacy in exchange for access to education and entrepreneurship for Blacks.  Today, history paints Washington in a more positive light than it did in the 20th century. 

The differences in approaches by these men – as well as the well-known distinctions in the methods of later icons Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Malcolm X – further illustrate that there is perhaps no one right way to deal with the continuing problem of racism in America.  

But those leaders are all gone now, and the recent deaths of fellow icons like Representative John Lewis, The Reverend Dr. C.T. Vivian, and Lewis’ doppelgänger Rep. Elijah Cummings are reminders that a new generation of leaders will have to pick up the baton, especially given that there is still much work to do in the pursuit of socioeconomic equality and racial justice for Blacks in this country.

U.S. Representative John Lewis (left) and Rev. Cordy Tindell Vivian both died on July 17, 2020.

So who are today’s civil rights activists?  In addition to the continued omnipresence of old school names like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, there is indeed a new generation of leaders who’ve picked up where others left off.  These new leaders are still organizing, advocating for and educating our folks about the history and the needs of Black people in this country, reminding us that, though we’ve come a long way, we still have a long way to go.   

Newer names like Alicia Garza, Patrice Cullors, and Opel Tometi – who started the Black Lives Matter movement several years ago – have long been advocating for equal justice.  Charlene Carruthers founded the Black Youth Project 100 – or BYP 100 – specifically to empower emerging Black activists across the country.  D’atra Jackson, National Director of BYP 100, has been active in the Black liberation movement since the murder of Trayvon Martin nearly a decade ago (yeah it’s been almost nine years, folks).  Through her BYP 100 work, she advocates for restructuring the police and investing in minority communities.

Charlene Carruthers founded the Black Youth Project-100

Other young names include Rachel Cargle, creator of “The Great Unlearn,” an online learning platform designed to help folks unlearn white supremacist ideas while forming a clearer understanding of history and the larger diverse society; and Lee Merritt, one of the foremost civil rights lawyers in the U.S. who has represented the families of Ahmaud Arbery, Attiana Jefferson and countless others in their quests for criminal justice after the losses of their loved ones at the hands of police or lawless vigilantes.

But few, if any, of those people are household names.  They come up in Google searches but they hardly roll off the tongue.  Sadly, if you ask 100 people who these folks are, you’ll likely get fewer than ten accurate responses, and that’s being generous.

The same cannot be said for another increasingly vocal group of role players who’ve been household names for decades: hip-hop artists.  Specifically, there’s a handful of iconic MCs who’ve been in the hip-hop game for decades and who’ve emerged as mainstream and social media’s go-to voices on Black community topics ranging in everything from police brutality to economic and social justice to voting rights.

The rappers who’ve made the loudest splashes into the political action pool in recent years include P. Diddy, Kanye West, Ice Cube, Jay-Z, and, to a lesser but still notable extent, 50 Cent.

Political players (clockwise from left): Ice Cube, Kanye West, P. Diddy, 50 Cent and Jay-Z

And unlike today’s young civil rights activists such as those named earlier, these rappers are people whose sociopolitical views or voting preferences instantly become headline news (as well as meme-worthy moments) as soon as they’re uttered.  And they carry with them a potential influence on constituents that should not be ignored.  

Rappers are vocal creatures – always have been.  They’ve built their careers on their gift for gab, but they also developed a level of street cred with their young audiences – at least initially – because they were often products of the very communities they were targeting with their compelling rhymes about the hardships of growing up Black in America.  

But what happens when these former purveyors of street anthems become multi-millionaires and, in several cases, approach billionaire status?  Are they now part of that elite class of people often accused of not having our best interests at heart?  Have they lost touch with some of the harsh realities that the Black communities they’ve left behind still face?

Further exacerbating this is when these rappers align themselves with a politically divisive figure like, say Donald Trump, whose tone-deafness is usually summed up in this self-assessment on his handling  of black issues: “I’ve done more for black people than any other president with the possible exception of Abraham Lincoln, and he’s a maybe.”

The five rappers I named are arguably among the most lucrative Black names in hip-hop who’ve been in the game for more than 15 years, and many of them have entered into the political fray as the 2020 election looms, with some having made their political leanings known for years. 

Recently, the legendary Ice Cube, whose rise to fame in the late 1980s with N.W.A. was premised on anti-authoritarian classics like “Fuck Tha Police” and who, in 2018, dropped a track about Trump called “Arrest the President,” came under fire for his new “Contract with Black America,” which the Trump administration – after meeting with Cube – adapted into their announced “Platinum Plan” for Black Americans – reportedly designed to pump billions of dollars into Black communities. According to Cube, whose real name is O’Shea Jackson, the plan was pitched to both Democrats and Republicans and the Republicans responded first (the president’s son-in-law Jared Kushner reportedly met with Cube for three hours, while Democrats told Cube to wait until after the election).

The legendary Ice Cube, formerly of N.W.A.

In a Twitter video praising the president’s “Platinum Plan” to invest $500 billion in Black communities, Cube said that Democrats “got every Black celebrity” on “their team,” so “they just figured tell (me) to shut the f— up and vote.”

Or perhaps more accurately, Republicans realized – with Trump consistently behind in the polls leading up to this year’s election – that aligning with a high-profile Black figure like Cube could be just the boost they need to create enough of a distraction for black voters who traditionally don’t back the president (besides, where would the $500B come from anyway?).

In another White House twist on October 26, while touting the Platinum Plan, Kushner came under fire for implying that Blacks lacked the drive to succeed, noting in a “Fox & Friends” interview (on the Fox News network) that the president can help people in the Black community “break out of the problems that they’re complaining about (emphasis added), but he can’t want them to be successful more than they want to be successful.”

Ouch, so much for all that goodwill!

Separately, the much maligned and former MAGA hat-wearing rapper Kanye West permanently linked himself to Trump when he endorsed the POTUS early in this election cycle.  West made several appearances with 45 and denounced critics by declaring our non-monolithic status, stating that not all Blacks vote straight-Democrat (nor should we be expected to).  

Yet despite 45’s many racially divisive, dog-whistling statements designed to rally his base, Kanye only recently denounced Trump before throwing his own name into the presidential race.  His stated reason for the about-face: the president’s decision to retreat to a White House bunker while protesters rallied outside in the wake of the George Floyd and Breonna Taylor murders.

Rapper Kanye West speaks during a meeting with U.S. President Donald Trump in the Oval Office at the White House in Washington, U.S., October 11, 2018. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque – RC16CAE568A0

Regardless of how people might view West’s mental state and how it affects his behavior (he’s been very public about his bipolar disorder), he still wields a considerable amount of influence in the sociopolitical arena and could conceivably alter the landscape in those states where his name appears on voter ballots. 

Another past superstar, rap entrepreneur P Diddy (formerly Sean “Puffy” Combs), recently took Democrats – and specifically Joe Biden – to task by leading a petition to have the former VP name a Black female running mate in his quest to become president, something Biden did a day later when he announced Kamala Harris as his Veep candidate.

While the timing of the letter, which was signed by Diddy and 99 other Black men, may have been fortuitous in that Biden likely had already made up his mind about his choice, it was nonetheless a scathing commentary on Biden and the traditional (old, white, male) presidential candidate.

The letter alluded to reports that Biden’s advisers had deemed Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) overly ambitious and potentially disloyal to a Biden presidency.  It blasted reports that Biden’s people held a grudge over Harris for mentioning Biden’s former opposition to desegregation busing in a debate in 2019.

Diddy and others questioned the apparent double-standard by asking, “Was Joe Biden ever labeled ‘too ambitious’ because he ran for president three times?  Should President Obama not have made him VP because he had to worry about his ‘loyalty’ when he clearly had AMBITIONS to be president himself?  Why does Senator Kamala Harris have to show remorse for questioning Biden’s previous stance on integrated busing during a Democratic primary debate?”

The letter also criticized Biden’s previous support for “tough on crime” policies such as mandatory minimum sentencing and harsher sentencing for offenses involving crack cocaine (which affected minority communities more than the lesser-penalized powder form).

Putting his money where his mouth is, just last week Diddy launched what he’s calling The Black Party, whose stated mission is to “power the Black agenda and elect bold representatives” who represent their communities and address the needs of Black people.

In his Twitter launch statement, Diddy said “I’m launching one of the boldest things I’ve ever launched.  I’m launching a Black political party with some young Black elected officials and activists.  It doesn’t matter if you are Republican or Democrat […] the NUMBER ONE priority is to get Trump out of office. HE HAS TO GO.  We can’t allow this man to continue to try and DIVIDE US.”

P. Diddy (left) is pictured with Donald Trump and Melania Trump

Despite Diddy’s previous liaisons with Trump, the new party officially endorsed Joe Biden in the 2020 election but noted that we must “hold him accountable.”  Even with that endorsement, implicit in this new party’s launch is the long-held view by many that the current two-party system in politics isn’t working for Blacks.  In his statement, Diddy, who had previously faced backlash for saying he was holding the “Black vote hostage,” added, “Things have (gotten) too serious. It would be irresponsible of me to…hold our vote hostage.  But it would also be irresponsible of me to let this moment go by and not make sure, going forward, we are doing what it takes to own our politics.”

Ownership of those politics was likely a key factor in the 2016 presidential election, where former First Lady and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton – the Democratic nominee – didn’t receive nearly the number of Black votes that former president Barack Obama had in the previous two elections. It likely cost her a win after losing key states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by narrow margins that year.

Hillary Clinton (center) is flanked by Beyoncé and Jay-Z in 2016.

Superstar rapper and near-billionaire Jay-Z – a staunch supporter of Hillary Clinton in 2016 – once offered in a January 2018 CNN interview that he saw a “silver lining” in Trump’s election and subsequent presidency.  “It forces people to have a conversation about racism in America,” he told CNN’s Van Jones.  In discussing the president’s “shithole countries” comment made about African nations the previous year, Jay-Z – real name Shawn Carter – noted that, while those statements were “disappointing and hurtful,” they served to expose the true racism that exists in our culture.  On the subject of firing Trump and others who were caught on tape making racist statements, Jay-Z added that the cancel culture that exists today doesn’t really change people’s minds or behaviors, it just forces “other closet racists” who still think and talk like that behind closed doors and “back into their holes.” He equated it to “spraying perfume on a trash can.”

Perhaps not to be taken as seriously as the others is rapper 50 Cent, real name Curtis Jackson, who most recently made headlines when he apparently endorsed Trump in an Instagram post.  In it, he cited Biden’s proposed tax plan, which would raise rates for those who make more than $400k a year.  In the post’s caption, 50 wrote, “I don’t care (if) Trump doesn’t like black people 62% are you out of ya f—ing mind.”  The post prompted conservative Fox News host Tomi Lahren to react, “welcome to the Trump Train! Amen!!!!”

But after receiving much criticism for his self-serving stance, including from ex-girlfriend and comedian Chelsea Handler on The Tonight Show, 50 offered a retraction earlier this week, with this simplified rebuke: “Fu*k Donald Trump, I never liked him…”

50 Cent posted this apparent retraction of his endorsement of Donald Trump this past weekend

The mixed reactions and approaches by these rappers to Trump and the subject of race in general is reminiscent of the differences in how political and civil rights figures addressed social issues in the past.  The fact that this group of elder hip-hop statesmen is more likely to be known for their politics than any previous generation of Black rappers and musicians is the newer element. 

And whether we take them seriously or not, they’re certainly more recognizable than the younger, non-celebrity activists I mentioned earlier (quick: name two of them again without scrolling up!).  

One thing is certain: a hip-hop community that was once very friendly to Donald Trump is now having to reckon with him.  His was a name that was synonymous with the same wealth and status these rappers aspired to achieve, especially during hip-hop’s transformative years in the 1990s when many of them were still on their come-ups and were far hungrier than they are today.  

Back then, rappers often likened themselves to Trump or the wealth he symbolized.  Young entrepreneurs like P. Diddy and Def Jam‘s Russell Simmons were often seen rubbing elbows with the business mogul at lavish events. 

Now, in a divisive year where the only issues that possibly eclipsed racial justice as a referendum on this year’s ticket were the Covid-19 pandemic and the economy – and both of those also disproportionately affect people of color –  rappers have had more incentive than ever to make their views known. 

If nothing else, just like activists of the past, they’ve shown that we as a people are definitely not monolithic in our views.

And that’s just how it should be. Nothing should be taken for granted.   


DJRob is a freelance blogger from Chicago who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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