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New American Songbook

Hip Hop Protest | New American Songbook


I didn’t grow up with hip hop—I came to it late from punk rock, when punk had turned bubblegum and hip hop was in yet another of its golden ages in the mid-90’s.

The shift from one movement to another made sense: punk had always been pragmatic music, articulating what were, to me, very reasonable desires and observations. The bridge between the two had been set up by the Beastie Boys and Rage Against the Machine, but the land beyond was endless and varied, and provided a politics far more revolutionary than anything I had heard in punk.

This was, again, the mid-90’s. Hip hop had been singing the updated refrains of protest music since the late 70’s. Punk rock was only a few years older, depending on your count. The civil rights movement was at both its zenith and nadir in 1968, when Dr. King was assassinated. Just three years earlier Malcolm X fell to the same end.

Thirty years after the Civil Rights Act was passed, hip hop described to me a world nearly adjacent to the world before 1964, and in many respects getting worse for wear. In 2014, fifty years after the Civil Rights Act, Michael Brown was killed by a police officer in Ferguson, Missouri—a horrifyingly banal act in a country where police killing more than a thousand people a year is becoming a baseline.

I don’t know what to do about this except to tell you that we have to do better. There is a worldwide culture that for forty years has been describing in heartbreaking detail the living conditions of our citizens, our neighbors. I enthusiastically await the day when hip hop has something else to sing about, but unless we listen, that day will continue to be in the future.