Justin Hall's personal site growing & breaking down since 1994

watch overshare: the story contact me : vita : swat :

"black man,
you gotta make a decision"

Justin Hall
May 10, 1995
Literature of Social Change

rap lyrics:
voices of liberation and social change

In novels, semi-autobiographical narrative is used to explain progress of struggle, and the human interactions involved.

Rap music is a vehicle for expressing anger and defining struggle. The lyricists frequently describe themselves within an oppressed context, and speak to others so bound.

Today, there is not a more powerful, direct text of popular African-American liberation than rap music. Often, the graphic nature of the lyrics and stories incite cries of sensationalism. That rap artists portray a bleak world, or even an offensive one, should come as no surprise to anyone who has been to Compton, or America's other blighted urban districts. The feeling the music imparts is an telling reflection of the neighborhood - vulgar, dirty, "obscene," with a sort of underlying funk to it all - in both the positive and negative senses of the word.

Since sex and violence sell records, there can be no doubt that the artists are conscious of their paths to success, and it can not be denied that there are pretenders who grasp the trappings of rap without delivering any message or vision. On the other hand, those who dismiss rap as sensationalist and offensive deny the voice of a segment of society that may very well be offensive, in that they themselves feel offended.

those who dismiss rap as sensationalist and offensive deny the voice of a segment of society that may very well be offensive, in that they themselves feel offended.

In other words, the repugnance that many feel in reaction to rap is nothing more than the adequate conveyance of the feeling of being black and poor in America.

I wish to express my gratitude to Nick's Hip Hop Lyrics server, in the UK,

It was wonderful to be able to dip into a vast resource of rap lyrics, without having to leave my desk. Indeed, I doubt whether such an uptodate and thorough compendium exists in print.


A major theme in contemporary rap lyrics is the role of police as oppressors. The rap artists I examined seem to share the same feelings about police as Richard Rive, in Emergency Continued. Frustration and helplessness, as the police enter into situations where they have no role to play other than exacerbation. The police come from outside the community, and have agendas other than servitude and protection.

The violence that Dreyer witnesses under apartheid and the brutality that rappers witness here in America is less different than we tend to think. If there is one single theme to draw from rap lyrics, it would the emphatic resistance to police brutality, through consciousness, unity, and even violent resistance. America is at war with itself, and rap artists bring this to the forefront.

Here, KRS-One talks about police officers and plantation owners:

Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity?
Check the similarity!
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you're doing 
The officer will pull you over just when he's pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!
- Sound of da police

Ice Cube shares a similar sentiment towards police in all of his lyrics. For him, there is no greater foe of the young black man - but only insofar as the police are the power arm of the larger white American power structure.

For Ice Cube, rebellion against that power structure begins with violent resistance to police forces. While he resists overt threats on his albums, non-violence is clearly not his answer to the problem. He justifies himself by depicting police misconduct.

How the fuck do you figure
That I can say peace and the gunshots won't cease
Every cop killin' goes ignored
They just send another nigga to the morgue
My boys gone - they can't give a fuck about us
They rather catch us with guns and white powder
If I was home, they'd probably be front of me
Since I'm young, they consider me the enemy
They'll kill ten of me to get the job correct
To serve, protect, and break a nigga's neck
- Endangered Species (Tales From the Dark Side)

While Michael Franti, of Spearhead, in "piece o' peace," watches cops in his neighborhood, he emerges with a more positive message.

Five-O was outside waitin' with their vans
hopin' that shit would get outta hand
so dat they could test their weapons
on innocent civilians,
the high tech shit costin' millions and millions
money should've spent on somethin' for community
but that's OK 'cause we got the unity.
- piece o' peace


In Emergency Continued, religion is for Dreyer's wife Mabel a means of ignoring one's surroundings. After their house is vandalized, "Mabel went to a church service and came back recharged and replenished. If only this could happen to me. If only I could pray my problems away."

This seems to be a problem particular to Christianity, since it is largely divorced from African American consciousness. Christianity and the Christian God are frequently identified with oppression. In Things Fall Apart the arrival of missionaries signals the advent of white colonialism. That members of the Ibo tribe, including Okonkwo's son, join up worsens the pain and confusion.

KRS-One, in "a Higher Level,"

You wanna know how we screwed up from the beginning?
We accepted our oppressor's religion
So in the case of slavery it ain't hard
Because it's right in the eyes of THEIR God
Where is our God, the God that represents us?
The God that looks like me, the God that I can trust?
- a Higher Level

So too with "When I get to Heaven", by Ice Cube - "the Devil made you slave and he gave you a Bible." Here his agenda is not anti-religion, per se, but rather to push Islam, which he views as a more Afro-affirming religion. Mentioning rich preacher-men, allied with the same southern Christians that populated the KKK, he admonishes, "is that your religion? black man, you got make a decision."


Jose, in Black Shack Alley, learns French curriculum in his Caribbean school. Towards the end of his schooling in Martinique, he realizes the value of his roots over the imposed culture of the French. Embracing his own history instead of that of the colonizers is a critical step in affirming his hereditary identity.

KRS-One in "Blackman in Effect" harkens back to African roots, affirming African culture. But even moreso, his vision is unity through rejoicing in shared culture - insofar as we reject notions of Caucasian historical supremacy:

Near the Tigris and Euphrates Valleys in Asia
Lies the Garden of Eden
Where Adam became a father to humanity
Now don't get mad at me
But according to facts, this seems just fantasy
Because man, the most ancient man
Was found thousands of years before Adam began
And where he was found, again they can't laugh at ya
It's right, dead, smack in Africa
But due to religious and political power
We must be denied the facts every hour
We run to school, tryin' to get straight A's
Let's take a trip way back in the days
To the first civilization on Earth, the Egyptians
Giving birth to science, mathematics and music
Religion, the list goes on, you choose it
Egypt was the land of spiritual blessing
Egypt was the land of facts, not guessing
People from all over the world had come
To learn from Egypt, Egypt number one
So people that believe in Greek philosophy
Know your facts, Egypt was the monopoly
Greeks had learned from Egyptian masters
You might say "Prove it", well here's the answers
640 to 322 b.C. originates Greek philosophy
But in that era Greece was at war
With themselves and Persia, what's more
Any philosopher at that time was a criminal
He'd be killed very simple
This indicates that Greece had no respect
For science or intellect
So how the hell you created philosophy
When you kill philosophers constantly
The point is that we descend from kings
Science, art and beautiful things
African history is the worlds history
This is the missing link and mystery
Once we realise they all are African
White will sit down with black and laugh again
-Blackman in Effect


Like Jacobo in Weep Not Child the rap community vilifies members within that collaborate with the power structure.

Public Enemy, "Welcome to the Terrordome":

Every brother ain't a brother cause a color
Just as well could be undercover
Cause a Black hand
Squeezed on Malcom X the man
The shootin' of Huey Newton
From a hand of a Nigger who pulled the trigger
- Welcome to the Terrordome

Beyond the unspecified accusations of betrayal, much time is spent denigrating folks who date outside of the race.

Both Public Enemy and Ice Cube have devoted entire songs to this topic. The blame is located in different places however - Ice Cube's "Cave Bitch" identifies white women hungry for black men as perpetuating racist dynamics - "every time I turn on the TV / I see several brothers with she-devils / Smilin' cuz you out on a date / But sooner or later, the bitch'll yell rape."

Dreyer, in Emergency Continued, could date Ruth as a cross-cultural experience. Ice Cube sees nothing but trickery when white women are attracted to him.

"Pollywanacraka" by Public Enemy denounces strivers within the black community who see themselves as deserving partners better than themselves. This is often identified as an economic impetus: "She wants a lover right now/But not no brother/Her man gotta have a lotta money/To get under her cover" and "He says sisters wasn't good enuff/They only wanted his green stuff"

And yet it is Public Enemy that provides the transcendent vision of miscegenation, through recognition of the black foundation of humanity:

Man calm your ass down, don't get mad
I don't want your sistah
(But suppose she said she loved me)
Would you still love her
Or would you dismiss her
What is pure?  Who is pure?
Is it European state of being, I'm not sure
If the whole world was to come
Thru peace and love
Then what would we made of?

Excuse us for the news
You might not be amused
But did you know white comes from Black
No need to be confused
- Fear of Black Planet

Much of the rap vision is still focused on unity within the community, because the elements outside have betrayed themselves as oppressors. Many emphasize the need for internal healing and strength, to resist the evil hurled at them by misguided and malicious whites.

This is not, of course, a blanket vision - there are many rappers, and there are many rap songs. Even those artists who demonize whites expose open channels for communication - by virtue of the very fact that they are expressing their frustrations.

Then there are groups like Digable Planets, whose "reachin'" album prescribes unity under world funk. Their mellow, articulate, almost high-brow rhymes appeal to different listeners, and in so doing offer greater opportunity for unity.

coursework | Swat | life |

justin's links by justin hall: contact