According to Akala, British hip-hop artist and self-proclaimed “black Shakespeare,” hip-hop can be etymologically linked to protest. In a TedX talk, Akala explains, “The hip in [hip-hop] comes from the Wolof word hipi” which means “to open one’s eyes and see.” Combined with the English word “hop,” Akala understands the phrase hip-hop as an “intelligent movement.” Historically, intelligent movements have sprung from protesting the establishment: for example, Protestantism from Martin Luther’s protest of the Catholic Church or the Civil Rights Act from the protest of segregation and racism in the American South. Hip-hop comes out of this latter tradition, usually with the goal of continuing the work of protesting discriminatory establishments.
Especially in America, hip-hop has most generally protested racial injustices, including mass incarceration, police brutality and other forms of institutionalized racism, even before becoming more mainstream in the 1980s. In this tradition, after the election in November, a slew of hip-hop albums were released, seemingly to add flame to the fires of protest springing out of the results. Obviously, these would have been released no matter the results, but given their timing, they all seem especially necessary. Truly, however, even if Hillary Clinton had won, these albums would have had their place, as there would still be plenty to protest and marginalized voices for whom hip-hop can provide space. The following are five of these notable albums, including some of my favorite tracks and lines.
…And the Anonymous Nobody by De la Soul
Funded by a 2015 Kickstarter campaign, De la Soul’s ninth studio album was released at the end of August. The album retains the rap group’s clever lyrics, mixing and featuring of various other artists and styles. This album is more easygoing than others on the list, with a more jazz-rap influence. However, it still hopes to inspire others to challenge systems of oppression through the act of artistic creation.
Standout tracks: “Memory of… (US)” (featuring Estelle, Pete Rock), “Here in After” (featuring Damon Albarn), “Exodus”
Choicest line: “We are an army of stars unleashed / The sky takes notes when we speak” (from “Royalty Capes”)
Black America Again by Common
Common’s latest album, released on November 4, 2016, directly engages with the idea of protest. Throughout the album, Common portrays the struggles experienced by African-Americans in the present. Common, who cites Ta-Nehisi Coates’ book, Between the World and Me, and the Broadway musical Hamilton as his primary inspiration, deals explicitly with issues of mass incarceration, sexism and media portrayal of black men. Additionally, Common references his own history, biographically with tracks like “Home” and musically with tracks like “Love Star,” which feels like a revision and re-visitation of his 2000 single, “The Light.”
Standout tracks: “Black America Again” (featuring Stevie Wonder), “The Day Women Took Over” (featuring BJ the Chicago Kid), “Letter to the Free” (featuring Bilal)
Choicest line: “The caged bird sings for freedom to ring / Black bodies being lost in the American Dream” (from “Letter to the Free” featuring Bilal)
We Got It from Here… Thank You 4 Your Service by A Tribe Called Quest
Rap group A Tribe Called Quest’s albums tend towards messages of humanism, and in what they have called their final album, this message is wholly at the forefront. The album is the group’s first in 18 years after what was previously considered their final album was released in 1998. According to the band in an article from the New York Times, they decided to do one more after performing together on the night of the Paris terrorist attacks in November 2015. Feeling that they had another message of love and unity, the group recorded this album despite the death of member Phife Dawg in March of 2016, causing it to be something of a tribute to him as well as a message to the world.
Standout tracks: “We the People…,” “Solid Wall of Sound” (featuring Busta Rhymes, Jack White, and Elton John), “Conrad Tokyo” (featuring Kendrick Lamar)
Choicest line: “These fruitful trees are rooted in bloody soil and torment / Things haven’t really changed / Or they’re dormant for the moment” (from “The Killing Season” featuring Consequence, Talib Kweli and Kanye West)
The Hamilton Mixtape
As if the world needed more reason to obsess about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Broadway musical Hamilton about the eponymous founding father, on December 2, 2016, Miranda released the first compilation album inspired by the musical. The mixtape features original songs, more traditional covers from the musical, and demos of songs which were either not in the show, like “Cabinet Battle #3” (which actually should have stayed in the musical) or removed from it before its transition to Broadway, such as “Congratulations.” Featuring a cast of hip-hop and pop idols like Wiz Khalifa, Dessa, Sia and Andra Day, this album is a necessity for any Hamilton fan.
Standout tracks: “Immigrants” by K’NAAN, Snow Tha Product, Riz MC and Residente, “Wrote My Way Out” by Nas, Dave East, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Aloe Blacc, and “Who Tells Your Story,” by The Roots, Common and Ingrid Michaelson
Choicest line: “Congress, I beg of you, justify your existence. / Are you men or just indigenous infants?” (from “Valley Forge” demo)
Run the Jewels 3 by Run the Jewels
The third in rap duo Run the Jewels’ trilogy of albums, this one feels like the culmination of what rappers El-P and Killer Mike have been doing over the course of the three albums. According to the duo, the first two albums were about the process of finding oneself and the struggles that come with that, while 3 is about self-confidence and what can be done with it, making this album their most politically active. Like the previous two albums, Run the Jewels 3 is available for free download on the duo’s website.
Standout tracks: “Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)” (featuring Tunde Adebimpe), “2100” (featuring Boots), “A Report to the Shareholders / Kill Your Masters” (featuring Zack de la Rocha)
Choicest line: “And I refuse to kill another human being / in the name of a government / ‘Cause I don’t study war no more / I don’t hate the poor no more / Getting’ more ain’t wat’s more / only thing more is the love” (from “2100” featuring Boots)