By Bailey Meyers
We know that Black history is an essential element of history. It’s not alternative; it adds nuance to the dominant narrative. A lot of the conversation about Black history, however, does not continue to the present, with many preferring to stick to the tried and true stories of the Civil Rights Movement. In the past several years, amid a slew of tragedies, legal cases, and community initiatives, it has been made clear that Black history is in the making.
Artists are the mouthpieces of their generation. They distill the struggles, hopes, pains, and inside jokes of their communities into palatable, albeit incomplete, representations. Painting, music, dance, and sculpture are windows into the inner worlds of their creator. During Black History Month, we honor these creators and trace their lives by reading their poems, visiting museums which feature their work, and listening to their spoken words.
Music is unique in that it allows artists to directly state their thoughts in lyrics while also creating a soundscape imbued with emotion to accompany their words. This wholeness and accord between sound and speech is what makes music so special as a storytelling form.
In the past year, several Black musicians have dominated the music scene while keeping poignant issues of race and class in the spotlight, writing history in the present. They’re rappers, and rap’s legacy as Black resistance art is uniquely American.
Rap developed in Philadelphia and New York among hyperlocal communities vying for a voice. DJing, breakdancing, and graffiti writing had brought together groups of restless city kids, and, along with rap, formed the four historic pillars of hip hop. All four pillars are creative outlets for self expression, and all four include resistance rhetoric. Although illegal, hip hop allowed predominantly Black localized communities to express themselves and earn a place in the wider discourse of a city. While the buzz around breakdancing and graffiti has waned since their heyday in the 90s, rap has continued to explode in popularity.
In 2022, there were several Black rappers who dominated the music scene, writing Black history as it happened. Kendrick Lamar’s Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers debuted at number one on Billboard, won album of the year from XXL and BET, and it, along with its singles, were recently nominated for eight Grammys before taking home the trophies for Best Rap Performance, Best Rap Song, and Best Rap Album. Although Kendrick has surely secured his place as a modern legend of the rap game, his artistic content cannot be overlooked.
Kendrick Lamar’s rendition of the current American moment is uncanny and fraught with intersectional issues. On Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers, we see the artist engage intimately with a mixture of personal and societal issues including grief, shame, infidelity, fame, the COVID pandemic, masculinity, family trauma, religion, LGBTQ issues, and, of course, the trials of being Black in America today.
Kendrick’s album is brash and honest, peeling back the bandages and presenting the tracks more as meditations than fodder for the charts. In the music video for The Heart Part 5, the rapper is seen singing the lyrics, looking just past the side of the camera. Then, his face morphs into deepfakes singing the song: OJ Simpson, Kobe Bryant, Will Smith, and Kanye West, among several others. It’s a foray into the complexity of being a Black man, controversy, and the pressures of the Black community itself. He raps, “Said your lil' nephew was shot down, the culture's involved /… / Get out and get his brains blown out, lookin' to buy some weed / Car wash is played out, new GoFundMe accounts'll proceed.” By complicating issues of blackness with controversial figures, Kendrick makes his meditations real and poignant, diving past the surface and demanding nuanced thought from the listener. The album blends jazz, funk, and spoken word with hip hop, and is a keystone in socially-conscious rap (another expectation Kendrick wrestles with: “Like it when they pro-black, but I’m more Kodak Black”) of the early 2020s.
Little Simz is a rapper from London. In her recent album, NO THANK YOU, which was released just in December, the 28-year-old rapper, whose real name is Simbiatu Abisola Abiola Ajikawo, sends searing indictments against the music industry and the dominant culture of England, fraught with racism. Simz gained critical acclaim with her prior albums, and has spent the past several years among the hoity toity London crowds at award shows and conferences. She opens the album with pushback and a question on “Angel,” grappling with who she comes to represent: “Never cared ‘bout bein’ immortalized / How can I stand with the opps and not with the tribe?” On the same track, she likens labels to slave ships and on her third verse again poses a hypothetical on resistance, “How you go against the same system you were colonized by? / Brother, your whole ting compromised.”
NO THANK YOU brings the listener through beats influenced by the legacies of gospel, jazz and soul, while also including trumpeting fanfares and orchestral strings which show Simz asserting her own place as part of the royalty of British rap. While her previous album, Sometimes I Might Be Introvert was a thematic opus that was primed for and received the coveted Mercury Prize, NO THANK YOU is Simz turning back against the industry, the politeness of small talk with white executives who profit from her work, and silencing any claims that her label is to credit for her ascent. Aside from her disenchantment, Simz continually returns to issues of blatant racism in England, rapping, “Bein' stuck up in the matrix, it's a rat race / Givin' 'em our truth and they gave us blackface / Why you wanna make a mockery of my pain? / Way too long we been carryin' the shame,” on the track “No Merci,” a double entendre for “no mercy” and the french for “no thank you.” The album is a must-listen for anyone who wants to understand the Black British experience in London today; our unfurling history.
Another standout rapper from the past year, less known than the previous two mentioned, is Conway the Machine. The Buffalo, New York native floats over boom-bap beats with deep, raspy vocals, and crafts an emotional and intensely personal narrative throughout his newest album, God Don’t Make Mistakes. Conway is known for speaking on issues of drug abuse and violence in Black communities and his own life, and his pieces are often aggressive in nature, but this does not discredit the underlying issues which he brings to the fore. On “Stressed,” one of the album’s more autobiographical tracks, Conway is candid: “That’s why I drink a bottle daily / For all the shit I keep bottled in lately / Do anybody care that I’m stressed? / Most of my homies died, the rest of ‘em doin’ time.” It’s powerful, and almost flippantly excuses the drinking, before Conway follows up later with, “Uh, alcoholism is a sickness / How many people gonna admit that they addicted? (nobody) / Yeah I drink ‘cause I’m stressed, I’m stressed ‘cause I’m depressed / I’m depressed ‘cause I’m just tired of this shit.” “This shit,” is the destruction of the Black community. Conway’s support, his homies, are all dead or in jail.
Further, God Don’t Make Mistakes shows Conway opening up about violence in addition to the usual threats lanced at unidentified enemies. On “Guilty,” the rapper gives an account of being shot in 2012, an event which left his face paralyzed with a perpetual sag. “Bell's Palsy from damage to my nerves / … / That’s why I chuckle at the comments that I read / about the way my face look, and shit, I could have been dead / Just focus on the lyrics, don’t focus on my appearance.” And his lyrics are expertly crafted with multisyllabic rhymes and candid lamentations. Conway may not be the Garvey of our time, but his vocals are raw and personal, and cut to the bone with their embedded trauma. He gives a picture of violence in the Black community from the inside, speaking plainly, and begging for change. On the chorus of the closing track and namesake of the album, he repeats, “Will I make it in these streets or will these streets take me?” just before a heart wrenching voicemail from his mother plays, received when he was in the hospital.
There were many, many, other albums which could have been and should have been featured on this list. Earl Sweatshirt’s Sick, Black Thought’s Cheat Codes, and EarthGang’s Ghetto Gods are just a few. These rappers all position themselves within a wider societal context while telling their personal experiences to the world. We know there is disproportionate violence in Black communities, but we hear the pain of its fallout in Conway the Machine’s music. We know the music industry is opaque and exploitative of Black bodies, but Little Simz’s declarations make it personal. Kendrick Lamar plays in a field of his own, already regarded as one of the pioneers of modern resistance. His song, “Alright,” released in 2015, has remained fixedly in the public eye as a staple of Black protest, and Mr. Morale & The Big Steppers continues his legacy. Rap is the artistic bridge between personal, hyperlocalized experiences of Black individuals living through oppression and the wider, much whiter, culture which tends to sweep these issues under the rug. Rap is more popular than pop in the United States. Let’s pay attention to what’s being said.
The Grammy Awards had a special segment this weekend, honoring 50 years of rap. The Grammys and rap have a strained relationship, to say the least. Historically, the Grammys have committed several major faux pas including refusing to give airtime to rap categories and snubbing artists of color. This time last year, The Weeknd punched back on Twitter after receiving no nominations. Drake and Quavo backed him up, along with others who had become disenchanted with the awards show.
This year, the segment focusing on fifty years of rap felt like a reactionary necessity and bid for relevance by the Grammys. There was an impressive roster of talent for the 15-minute show, which featured a slew of artists from Run-DMC to Salt-N-Pepa to Rakim to Missy Elliott to Lil Uzi Vert. 1989 was the first year rap was included as a category, for Best Rap Performance, but this was boycotted as the Grammys did not give the rappers TV time. Many boycotts by Black artists have occurred since.
It seems as though the Grammys have finally realized that rap is not a passing fad, 50 years in. It is being given the recognition that it deserves as a genre, but one can’t help feeling that this recognition has come late. The Grammys’ 50 years of rap segment seems to say, “Look, we’re sorry for being racist. Here’s your flowers.” Perhaps now, given that rap is more popular than pop and the award show viewership is in decline, the Grammys have finally acknowledged the mainstreaming and overwhelming popularity of rap and decided that it would be a good PR stunt to lift up Black artists. Though this show is a step in the right direction, honoring and celebrating Black artists, it remains to be seen if the Grammys, entrenched in a history of whiteness and showboating and closed-door deals, will be able to reach across the divide to truly embrace rappers, poets of racial and often political resistance. We should not be surprised when the Grammys are met with boycotts by those artists trying to tell their stories of hurt and oppression. The Grammys need to fold Black thought into the way they operate. This year’s show was just a step, but it seems like the Grammys may be trying to right their past wrongs.
Just as rock and punk—former beacons of resistance—were eventually folded into the mainstream by the industry, it is time to accept that rap is real music and here to stay. Real Black music.