"No More White Lies, My President is Black". Has American Political Rap Changed with Obama?

Bachelor Thesis 2010 69 Pages

Communications - Media and Politics, Politic Communications




2.1 Media Background of Rap
2.2 New York in the 1970s
2.3 Hip Hop as a Counter Reaction to the Conditions in the Ghetto

3.1 Radical Political Ideas before Rap
3.2 Radical Political Ideas in Rap

4.1 Gangsta Rap and Black Nationalist Ideas
4.2. Conscious Rap

5.1 9/11 - The War on Terrorism
5.2 Elections 2004: Vote or Die
5.3 Katrina Klap 2005

6.1 Obama and race
6.2 Obama and Rap


Web Sources
Articles, Interviews and Blogs
Lyrics and Speeches
Picture and Logos
Further Reading

Malcolm X on House and Field Negroes
Mr. Lif - Home of the Brave
Immortal Technique feat. Mos Def - Bin Laden
Nas - Black Presidents
Young Jeezy - My President is Black feat. Nas
Young Jeezy feat. Jay Z - My President is Black Remix
KRS One to Obama: Which Side are you on?

statement of plagiarism

1. Introduction

"everybody act according to season that they're born in/ some in the night, some in the morning"

-mos def[1]

Since the first African slaves were brought to Jamestown, USA in 1619, blacks have existed either in complete bondage as bondsman and slaves or in a particular state of semifreedom. The legitimacy of bondage was undermined by the Civil War, but the black presence remained, and blacks continued to be victims of the ruthless oppression and exploitation of the white society (Morris 3).

Nearly 400 years later, on January 20th, 2009, a man whose father came from Kenya and whose mother was from Kansas became the 44th President of the United States of America: Barack Hussein Obama. Nearly 400 years after slavery in the United States (US) begun an African American, actually a man of half African and half American descent, has probably changed the United States forever, just by having been elected.

During his election campaign, he promised hope and change. His words inspired millions all over the world, not only in the US. Just by campaigning Obama changed the world’s views on the United States. Moreover, and this will form the thesis of this paper, Obama has changed Hip Hop[2] as well. Since “[m]usic cannot be separated from [the] social, political or cultural context from which it develops” (Ogbar 2007 144) rap music has changed with Obama appearing on the national and international scope. Hip Hop as an African American subculture has always referred to the African American roots within the US and has always been founded on distrust against a society and a system that did “not care about black people” (Kanye West on a NBC telethon after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Obgar 2006 71). The political idol has always been rather Malcolm X than Martin Luther King, rather the radical than the pacifist. Rappers have hardly, if at all, supported the system and its representatives until now.

Throughout the three decades of Hip Hop’s existence, rap music, when politically motivated, has mostly been motivated by disaffection against politics. But this is nothing new when we see rap as heritage of an African American musical tradition that has started long before Africans were shipped to America and enslaved there. African music which supported and stressed a way of life and a cultural identity was forced to encounter a European worldview that did not recognize Africans as humans (Craddock-Willis, 32).

With every step taken in African American history, considering being brought to America as the first and Obama being elected president the most recent one, African American music has changed. Until Obama appeared the changes have mostly been stylistically, afterwards it mostly changed content-wise.

The first chapter of this paper will deal with the first 300 years of African American music in the US and will present an overview of the developments in African American music that lead to Hip Hop as we know it. The second chapter will be about the first decade of Hip Hop, the 1970s. I will show that from the early beginnings “relationships between black cultural practice, social and economic conditions, [...] and racial politics, and the institutional policing of the popular terrain are complex and in motion” in rap (Rose XV). I will describe the circumstances, politically and economically, that led to and accompanied the evolution of Hip Hop, with a special focus on Hip Hop’s birthplace, New York City. Chapter three will deal with the rebellious and radical era of political rap in the 1980s, coined by rap groups such as Public Enemy and Boogy Down Productions. Both of them refer to the Nation of Islam in general or Malcolm X in specific, but both from a different perspective. Nevertheless, they share sympathy for Black Nationalism and therefore have a skeptical opinion of the American institutional system. Since Public Enemy and Boogie Down Productions are still considered icons and idols, I will solely refer to them as representatives of this era. They represent the zeitgeist and its music best and most pointedly. Because they have to this day a bigger cultural influence, the Nation of Islam and Malcolm X are mentioned and explained more explicitly than other leaders and movements that have worked for African American civil rights. In chapter four I will discuss the 1990s and its so-called political nihilism. Gangsta[3] rap was harshly criticized by those outside the ghettocentric world in which it took place. Gangsta rap was and is generally seen as nihilistic and nonpolitical. But, having a closer look at it I will show that this subgenre of rap music and its artists also reflected the political circumstances around them, and therefore following the traditions of African American music of the preceding decades to criticize those who vice versa criticized them. In addition to the commercially successful gangsta rap, I will also discuss so-called conscious rap of the 1990s and its more reflective attitude towards the African American history, especially concerning the Civil Rights movements and Black Nationalism.

The years under the George W. Bush administration will be the topic of the fifth chapter. Bush’s inner and foreign policies, 9/11 and the disaster of Hurricane Katrina led to a whole new focus of political rap. It motivated a whole new and previously nonpolitical generation of rappers to publicly and artistically decry politics. The final chapter will deal with Obama and Hip Hop’s reaction towards him as a person, as a political figure and his politics. Due to the short period of time that passed since his inauguration, and the effect that his mere candidacy and election had, I will focus on the time before, within and shortly after his campaign for presidency. I will show that the majority of rap artists, and therefore of the Hip Hop community, has changed its approach to politics. Rap has let its skepticism behind, in order to publicly endorse and support a presidential candidate. Vice versa, Obama represents a new political style towards Hip Hop.

In this paper, I will not discuss rap music as a whole. I will focus on rap music, as long as the context can be classified political. Thus this work will be focused on rap music referring to historical and present politics. However, I will not analyze political actions and historical facts. If needed, I will refer to certain historical or political events, but in general I will focus what HipHop artists with a political attitude had and have to say. I will not evaluate whether what was said is true, but only note that an artist commented on a historical or present political action or comment. The same goes for references to an artist’s own life and history. Since my thesis discusses Hip Hop and Hip Hop artists, it is important to consider the artist’s subjectivity significant. It is not about right and wrong based on facts, but about an opinion given by Hip Hop artists towards political topics.

2. Hip Hop and Rap: Children of the 1970s

2.1 Media Background of Rap

Hip Hop and rap music, although originated in New York in the 1970s, have a history long before the beginning of the 20th century. Hip Hop can be seen as the current form of an African musical tradition that was forced to meet and mix with elements of the European culture in the 17th century. In contrast to European music, African (American) music is created with and for a profound purpose. African music is more than a ritual or celebration [...]. It is essentially a way of life, a stylized modus vivendi with an ability to communicate in all forms and on all occasions. It is used for meditation, contention, recreation, devotion, operation and celebration. [...] The music is created therefore to express a worldview [...] When Africans were brought to American shores as slaves, their worldview was put in combat with the European one (Craddock-Willis 32).

The outcome of this encounter was the first step of the development of African American music. Craddock-Willis calls it “music as expression of Negroes in bondage” (Craddock-Willis 32). What actually emerged out of the “synthesis of slavery and freedom, White and Black, Christianity and African faith practices”, which includes mostly some understanding of Islam (ibid.), were spirituals and blues. The slaves made music based on superficial forms taken from Christian ceremonies and hymns and mixed them with their own lyrics, rhythms and harmonies known from their African homelands. Since dancing or producing sculptures was strictly forbidden, the slaves had to make music to express themselves and their desperation. Religion and its music were essential for the slaves to survive, and furthermore reflected their strength facing the horrible circumstances and conditions under which the slaves suffered for over 200 years. Not only was this music coined by African slaves maintaining their cultural heritage, but also reflected this music an All American experience. The slave music was not separable from life in the US in general.

[Spirituals] did reflect life on the plantation and the effects of political bondage; but they were also a profound and universally moving expression of Protestant Christianity, interwoven with New England Puritanism, and frontier elements, American aspirations in general [...] (Murray 147).

After the slaves were liberated, blues evolved out of the spirituals through a new instrumentation to a slightly more sophisticated version, classic blues (Craddock-Willis 33). Later classic blues would be categorized as jazz. Jazz emerged out of the era of de jure oppression, the “separate but equal” epoch that lasted from the 1890s until the 1940s. It was the most prominent expression of African American people in the time span from the Civil War to World War II (Craddock-Willis 33f.). “As Blacks engaged in their new found 'freedom' a new found hope emerged” (ibid.). This hope could be discovered in jazz, which expressed the desire for success, for acquiring the “basic needs for survival - food, shelter and clothing, the avoidance of racist violence and policies, and a struggle to affirm one’s humanity against the odds” (ibid.). Later jazz even provided a way for African Americans to enter the middle class. Artists such as Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were symbols for what could be achieved and for the possibility of a “transhistorical triumph” (West 4).

After WWII, in the era of factual dehumanization (Craddock-Willis, 35), crossover music called black rhythm and blues emerged and was dominant from the late 1940s to the mid- 1970s. African Americans then were influenced by the radio which dominantly played white artists who thereby influenced African American music. Additionally African Americans were not allowed to visit ‘Whites Only’-facilities in which the music from the radio was played live. “For black people, most of this 'new music' expressed new types of marginalization - jim crowism” (ibid.). In the 1950s, black rhythm and blues was labeled rock-n-roll by the white record companies, who made the most money with it. Elvis Presley became the most famous singer of rock-n-roll by 1954 (ibid.). Still African Americans put hope into their music. This can be seen by the names the black rhythm and blues groups gave themselves such as the Miracles, the Temptations and the Supremes. These names strongly contrast the names of white groups of that era such as the Zombies or the Grateful Dead (ibid.).

Industrialization and commodification of music into a consumer culture prepared the ground for the evolution of rap in the mid-1970s as an “expression of the complexities of postmodern African American life” (ibid.). Rap music embodies these complexities because, first of all, rap “depicts the conditions African Americans live in (in itself a critique and rejection of society) of trying to come to terms with the tragic in light of being subordinated” (ibid.) and, secondly, rap music is a way out of those miserable circumstances and to gain wealth by blending in into a system and an industry that is generally criticized. “Rap music's desire to respond to social issues that pertain to black life in America is part of a long­standing tradition in black culture to refashion dominant transcripts that do sufficiently address racial slights and insults” (Rose 123). Ever since Hip Hop and rap have appeared “in the twilight of America's short-lived federal commitment to black civil rights and during the predawn of the Reagan-Bush era” (Rose 22), rap expresses the confusing and contradicting relationship between African Americans and the American society: on the one hand, African Americans “have been trying to gain justice and equality, but yet these ideals have not been met”, and on the other hand, were some black people able to gain access to the middle class, but still rebelled against their own status (Craddock-Willis 35). Rap music, caught between its cultural roots and the postmodernity, is based on soul, funk, and jazz music which is the source for the samples used to build a (break-) beat.

African American music has always existed under and has expressed contradictory circumstances, it was shaped by and reacted to them; from a clash of cultures, when slaves were forced to live in a strange environment and culture, to the contradictions of a culture that could make you wealthy but still would not accept you.

2.2 New York in the 1970s

The City of New York, more specifically the South Bronx, is commonly seen as the birthplace of Hip Hop. Before and parallel to when Hip Hop emerged, New York and other urban centers had suffered a severe crisis due to, in short, globalization and deindustrialization. Those “postindustrial conditions [...] reflect a complex set of global forces that continue to shape the contemporary urban metropolis” (Rose 27). Especially African American and Hispanic communities were affected in the 1960s and 1970s: the inhabitants of the South Bronx, [...] the 'home of hip hop culture', [...] [suffered from] a brutal process of community destruction [...]” (Rose, 30).

From the 1930s to the 1960s, city planner Robert Moses reshaped the structure of New York City by building parks, highways and housing projects. Moses’ most significant enterprise was the Cross-Bronx Expressway, planed in 1959. Because he refused to revise his plans some 60.000 Bronx homes and hundreds of commercial building were razed. Entitling working-class and lower-middle-class areas as ‘slums’, he initiated a ‘slum clearance program’ in order to relocate 170.000 people, which were mostly African Americans and Hispanics (Rose 31). “The newly 'relocated' African American and Hispanic residents in the South Bronx were left with few city resources, fragmented leadership and limited political power” (Rose 33). Furthermore, the replacement of industrial factories, the loss of federal funding for social services, the rising interest in luxury housing and thus rising prices left the “working-class residents with limited affordable housing, a shrinking job market, and diminishing social services” (Rose 27). New York hit rock bottom: “60.000 city employees went off the payroll, and social and public services suffered drastic cuts “(Rose 28), from which especially the poor and working-class, in other words the African American and Hispanic population, had to suffer. New York became divided into a “white-collar group managing the financial and commercial life of an international city and an unemployed and underemployed service sector which is substantially Black and Hispanic” (Walkowitz, as quoted by Rose 29). The spiral of poverty led especially those down who already had literary nothing since community-based community-aid becomes less and less effective when people who support that service become the ones who need it (Rose 30). “[The Bronx,] to be stuck here was to be lost. Yet [...] the youngest generation of South Bronx exiles were building creative and aggressive outlet for expression and identification” (Rose 33).

2.3 Hip Hop as a Counter Reaction to the Conditions in the Ghetto

As a reaction to the marginalization that the African American poor and working-class members experienced, especially the youth started to search for acceptance, for a system of their own values in which they could become respected and held in high regard. “Hip hop culture emerged as a source for youth of alternative identity formation and social status in a community whose older local support institutions had been demolished along with large sectors of its build environment” (Rose 34). When in the beginning, in the early 1970s, the four columns of Hip Hop, as there are namely breakdancing, graffiti, DJing and rapping, came together, Hip Hop gave voice to a voiceless generation of colored people, especially “young African American working-class urban males” (Ogbar 2007 39). Through Hip Hop they could reclaim a city that had been taken away by city planners, the white-collar managing group and the government. By dancing in the streets they made them their dance floors, by writing their names on walls and trains they made them their canvases and advertising spaces, by making music in parks and on school yards they made them their homes, or even their discos and clubs. A young generation marked their territory through public creativity and thus gained their self-confidence back. In the words of Tricia Rose: “Hiphop gives voice to the tensions and contradictions in the public urban landscape during a period of substantial transformation [...] and attempts to seize the shifting urban terrain, to make it work on behalf of the dispossessed” (22).

The early developments of Hip Hop can be seen as a substitute for the waning Civil Rights and Black Power movements. The oppositional character of Hip Hop “remains the cornerstone of [this culture]” (Ogbar 2007 38). In this, young African Americans have tried and still try to find their own identity within a society that avoids them and their progress.

3. Rebellion in Rap: The 1980s

3.1 Radical Political Ideas before Rap

Malcolm X was an American Civil Rights activist born in 1925 and shot in 1965. From 1952 until 1964 he was a member of the Nation of Islam (NOI) (Scharenberg 111). The NOI supported and still supports the idea of Black Nationalism. “Black Nationalism [...] represents a cluster of related ideas” such as a historically justified distrust against white people and their actions and institutions, further an Afrocentric point of view regarding politics and the reference to the common African roots and the enslavement (Scharenberg 46).

Soon after Malcolm Little, as Malcolm X’s family name was, officially joined the NOI in 1952 (Scharenberg 80) he was promoted and became the most important speaker of the NOI. The speeches Malcolm X held in the name of the NOI were dominated by his historical references to slavery and suppression. Malcolm established connections between the past and the present situation, claiming that discrimination against black people has not yet ended. He agitated against the separation of classes within the black community and in favor of black self-defense and separation from white society in order to stop the dehumanization of African Americans (Scharenberg 90).

After the assassination of Martin Luther King (MLK) in 1968, MLK as a symbolic figure was collected and exploited by the government. Therefore he lost his potential status as an identification figure for the African American working-class community (Zips/Kampfer 287) and later on especially for the Hip Hop community. Even in the days of Malcolm X and MLK, the African American community was divided, not only into Christians and Muslims, pacifists and radicals, but also by their economic status.

Although racial segregation was announced illegal in 1954 by the Supreme Court (Scharenberg 81), African Americans were still confronted with factual segregation. This affected especially the ghetto inhabitants, the African American working-class community that was Malcolm X’s target group. Martin Luther King and Malcolm X had different targets concerning their fight for civil rights. Their goals themselves implicated a class separation. While MLK fought for the enforcement of already announced laws and rights for African Americans, Malcolm X fought against factual segregation within the society. MLK therefore represented the African American middle-class community, the “Black Bourgeoisie” (Scharenberg 82), in contrast to Malcolm X who acted for the underprivileged working class communities in the ghettos (Scharenberg 85f.). Similar to jazz before, Malcolm X was rooted in the ghetto, thus he did not appeal to disco and soul music of the 1970s, which represented the hope for integration and rise into the middle class. Malcolm X's return into popular culture within the 1970s and 1980s therefore implied the destruction of those hopes and construction of a new ghetto music which was rap (Scharenberg 402f.). Not only rap, but all four elements of Hip Hop emerged during the 1970s, as a reaction to the marginalization of African Americans and their shrinking possibilities of social advancement and the rapid destruction of segregated inner cities (Scharenberg 403).

“[T]he conscious rap that ascended to popularity in the late 1980s was a direct result of the desperate conditions of black communities in the 1980s” (Ogbar 2007 144) and interfered with the reemergence of Black Nationalist ideas and the rediscovery of an African American consciousness.

The dire conditions [...] of black communities shaped by rising unemployment, declining social problems, police terror, institutionalized racism, crime, and a burgeoning drug trade fomented alarm among young African Americans. The Nation of Islam's reemergence as a national force, the anti-Apartheid movement, as well as a rising popularity in Black Nationalism precipitated militant hip-hop in ways that had never existed in American popular music (Ogbar 2007 109).

Black youths were wearing dreadlocks and shirts picturing Malcolm X, Nelson Mandela and Marcus Garvey. “Hip-hop similarly reflected this new consciousness” (Ogbar 2007 145). Further, the Hip Hop community nearly completely ignored MLK as a reference point. His peaceful Christian rhetoric lost its credibility after the violent attacks against the Civil Rights and Black Power Movement, and MLK’s and Malcolm X’s assassinations (Zips/Kampfer 316).

Rappers mostly refer to Islam, when referring to religion at all. Islam is, at least from an outer point of view, not as peaceful as Christianity is: Self-defense is an accepted behavior.[4] The perception of Malcolm X as a figure to identify with for the Hip Hop community may be seen as an expression of the disappointed political expectations of the Civil Rights movement (Zips/Kampfer 288). Rappers, as part of the generation after the Civil Rights movement, have lost their belief in peaceful protest. After the violence used against the African American movements of the 1960s, rappers tend to rather identify with Malcolm X than with MLK.

What else does a young brother got to know? X was a smooth operator from the streets with a dope rap who stood up for black folks and got shot down for doing it. That's the stuff black heroes are made of. Staying black and dying for it. [...] Malcolm ... [...] was made for [...] the hip-hop age (Tate 184).

And therefore, rappers refer to Malcolm X, but not from one common point of view. The following chapter will deal with political rap groups who have shaped Hip Hop as a whole, who are considered legends within the Hip Hop community until today and who significantly contributed to the process to integrate Black Nationalism and Malcolm X into popular culture. Still, there are differences in their approach to Malcolm X, the NOI and Black Nationalism which will be closely examined within the next pages.

3.2 Radical Political Ideas in Rap

Public Enemy (PE) is a rap group that consists of Chuck D., Flavor Flav, Professor Griff and their producers, the Bomb Squad. Their logo (Fig. 1, as shown on the right) shows a man in the crosshairs. Their logo and their name itself reflect a menacing philosophy. The logo stands for African American people in the line of fire of the American public, being harassed and considered a threat and enemy. PE was the group that brought Malcolm X to the minds of the Hip Hop youth and that became famous with it. Although most of their albums were released after 1990, they rather continued to reflect the 1980s state of mind of the black community. However, considering the fact that they started their revolution in Hip Hop in the 1980s I will solely refer to PE in this chapter about the time until 1990.

Although Afrika Bambaata, founder of the NOI-related (Ogbar 2007 17) but unidiomatic Zulu Nation, featured a speech of Malcolm X on a break beat as early as in the 1970s (Scharenberg 410), Malcolm X was not commonly used in rap music until PE appeared. Despite the support of rappers for Harold Washington’s mayoral campaign in Chicago in 1982[5] and also for Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1982 and 1986, institutional politics could not be embedded into rap and Hip Hop. That short and unsuccessful episode of ideas of integration, since Jesse Jackson was a follower of MLK, was promptly overcome by PE’s angry and aggressive sound and their radical political statements in 1987.

PE clearly refers to a history of radical African American movements. The band is partly structured similarly to the Black Panther Party (BPP). They call themselves ministers as the BPP members did. Additionally they have their own security organization comparable to the Fruit of Islam (FOI), a sub organization of the NOI, the Security of the 1st World (S1W). Chuck D. even was a member of the NOI and still mingles with them (Scharenberg 416).

By consequently and repeatedly sampling Malcolm X speeches, PE refused to support the governmental exploitation of MLK (see 3.1.2) and the historical ignorance towards Malcolm X. Thereby they made rap a political an educational tool. However, they did not ignore MLK. When the state of Arizona refused to make the birthday of MLK a holiday, they published a track called “By the time I get to Arizona” on their album Apocalypse ‘91 - The Enemy strikes Black (Def Jam/Universal, 1991). On that track, PE describes a way to force the state to recognize MLK’s birthday. This shows that they generally respect MLK and his accomplishments. Nevertheless, they do not share his peaceful approach. This is made clear by the radical way suggested to force the State of Arizona to accept that holiday: “For the man who demands respect/'Cause he was great c'mon/I'm on the one mission/To get a politician/To honor or he's a goner[6] /By the time I get to Arizona.” (www.publicenemy.com)

That they rather agree with Malcolm X’s approach, can be heard at the beginning of the song “Can’t truss it”, also taken from the Apocalypse ‘91 LP. The Voice of Malcolm X introduces the song saying: “non-, non-, be non-violent. In the face of the violence that we’ve been experiencing for the past 400 years, it’s actually doing our people a disservice. In fact, it’s a crime, it’s a crime” (Scharenberg 412). This philosophy justifies the violent lyrical phantasy of “By the time I get to Arizona”. The song and the video clip to it adopt a tone similar to that of Malcolm X who was known for drawing parallels between slavery and the current conditions of African Americans. The video clip shows alternating pictures of slaves and working-class African Americans in order to put them into one and the same context. At the same time, Chuck D.’s lyrics compare his boss to a slave ship’s captain and therefore his job to being enslaved:

Years ago he woulda been/The ship’s captain/Gettin' me bruised on a cruise/What I got to lose, lost all contact/Got me layin' on my back/Rollin' in my own leftover/When I roll over, I roll over in somebody else's/ [...]Here I am turn it over Sam/427 to the year/Do you understand/That's why it's hard/For the black to love the land (www.publicenemy.com).

Chuck D. further goes on implicating that slavery has not yet ended, which is why he and the African Americans as a whole could still not love the USA.

“Bring the Noise” from their 1988 album It takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back (Def Jam/Universal) also starts with a sampled Malcolm X quote saying, “too black, too strong”. The lyrics of this track tie in with the formerly quoted sample when Chuck D. wants us to “listen for lessons/ I’m saying inside music/ that the critics are blasting me for:/ They’ll never care for the brothers and sisters”. “They” can be seen as white Anglo-Saxon Protestants (WASP), represented by a government that does not care about African Americans. In contrast to them stands the NOI. Chuck D. downrightly praises their leader Louis Farrakhan, who is “a prophet and I think you shoulda listen to/What he can say to you/What you ought to do” (Scharenberg 416).

PE also takes on Malcolm X’s and NOI’s criticism of African Americans that willingly take part in the white system, the so called Uncle Toms. In the song “Nighttrain” Chuck D. denounces the self-hatred of African Americans who kill each other and sell each other drugs. He calls the Uncle Toms “trained apes” and “the master’s toy” and a disgrace to the race, whom should not be trusted. PE shows again that they agree with Malcolm X who has always criticized African Americans for the same reasons as Chuck D. does. Especially for Malcolm X as a strict Muslim, selling and taking drugs was a sign of self-hatred and weakness. PE stresses that in their song “Night of the Living Base-Heads”, introduced again by a Malcolm X sample which says: “Have you forgotten that once we were brought here we were robbed our names, robbed of our language, we lost our religion, our culture, our god. And many of us, by the way we act, we even lost our minds” (Scharenberg 413). PE makes a connection visible between drug abuse and the loss of self-esteem caused by slavery, discrimination and the governments influence on the drug market. The Wall Street and the American Justice system are explicitly shown, respectively mentioned as being involved in the drug sweep of the ghettos.

Ultimately, Chuck D. and Flavor Flav have consequently referred to Malcolm X’s speeches held and attitudes shown while he had been a member of the NOI. We can see that PE clearly represents a critical and radical Black Nationalist attitude, as Malcolm X did in the 1950s and ‘60s. Their still existing structural similarities to the NOI, the FOI and the BPP show that they have not changed that attitude, although they by now have left the NOI. Public Enemy’s claim to use music as a tool for political education, calling rap music black people’s CNN, has clearly changed rap and the way such messages are explicitly transferred.

Similar to PE who structurally alluded to Civil Rights movement groups, the crew Boogy Down Productions (BDP) that consisted of Scott La Rock and KRS One explicitly referred to Malcolm X. For their second album they modified both a famous Malcolm X phrase for the album title and a prominent picture of him as the album cover. The album was called By All Means Necessary (Jive/Novus, 1988) in relation to several quotes by Malcolm X including the words “by any means necessary”, such as, “We declare our right on this earth...to be a human being, to be respected as a human being, to be given the rights of a human being in this society, on this earth, in this day, which we intend to bring into existence by any means necessary” (www.malcolm-x.com), and, “Our objective is complete freedom, justice and equality by any means necessary” (www.malcolm-x.com), and, “The day that the black man takes an uncompromising step and realizes that he's within his rights, when his own freedom
is being jeopardized, to use any means necessary to bring about his freedom or put a halt to that injustice, I don't think he'll be by himself” (www.malcolm-x.com).

The cover of the album (right hand, below) clearly is a modification of the picture of Malcolm X (left hand, below):

Fig. 2

While the cover and the hyperbolized quote turned album title could leave a violent and militant first impression, a closer examination of the context can refute that perception. The picture that was the blueprint for the cover of the BDP album was taken after Malcolm X had left the NOI, shortly before he was killed. He had to look out for assassins (Scharenberg 417). This picture therefore does not represent a violent and aggressive attitude, but the need for self-defense and the quotes do quite the same. Thus, also BDP does not stand for a radical, violent point of view. Rapper KRS-One rather considers himself a humanist and not a Black Nationalist. In the song “Necessary” (taken from By All Means Necessary) KRS One explains what he really means when he is speaking of violence:

It's all according to your meaning of violence and how or in which way you use it/ No, it's not violent to show in movies the destruction of the human body/ But yes, of course it's violent to protect yourself at a party/ And, oh no, it's not violent when under the christmas tree is a look-alike gun/ But, yes, of course it's violent to have an album like KRS-One/ By all means necessary, it's time to end the hypocrisy/ What I call violence, I can't do, but your kind of violence is stopping me [...]/ Whether peace by war, or peace by peace, the reality of peace is scary/ But we must get there, one way or another, by all means necessary (www.ohhla.com).

His references to Black Nationalism and violence should be considered in the context of anti-racism (Scharenberg 418). KRS One, comparable to Malcolm X, strives for a fair treatment of the African American communities and the end of hypocrisy. KRS One especially affirms the Malcolm X who had left the NOI and had attended the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca[7]. The song “Build and Destroy” from the 1992 album of BDP, Sex and Violence
(Jive/Novus), makes clear that the polarization, per se judgments and prejudices against people based on the color of their skin do not work for KRS One:

It ain't enough to study Clarence 13X[8] / The white man ain't the devil I promise/ You want to see the devil take a look at Clarence Thomas[9] / Now you're saying, "Who?" like you a owl/ Throw in the towel, the devil is Colin Powell/ You talk about being African and being black/ Colin Powell's black, but Libya he'll attack/ Libya's in Africa, but a black man/ will lead a black man, to fight against his homeland (www.ohhla.com)

Not only doubts KRS One that Black Nationalism can be a universal remedy but he also attacks Colin Powell, then Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff under the George H. W. Bush administration (www.achievement.org). KRS One finds a way to address specific problems in current politics without reducing politicians to their skin color. Even after the murder of Scott La Rock[10], KRS One addresses racism and police harassment. Songs like “Who protect us from you?” (Ghetto Music. The Blueprint of Hip Hop, Jive, 1989) and “Sound of da Police” (KRS One solo album: Return of the Boom Bap; Jive, 1993) criticize the implications of the governmental monopoly of force in a racist state apparatus (Scharenberg 418). In the latter song, KRS One speaks of “Overseers”, pronouncing them as “Officers”. He thereby implicates that there is ongoing racism in the state and that circumstances of black life in the US are still similar to slavery. By this he continues what Malcolm X had started and Chuck D. picked up and brought into Hip Hop.

KRS One, however, was and is more critical with what he was taught and what he had learned about Black Nationalism and African American history. His ambition was and still is to use music as a fusion of entertainment and education. This can also be seen in his additional self-appointed stage name “The Teacher” and in the title of the 1990 BDP album Edutainment (Jive). Still, KRS One refers strongly to Malcolm X and his message especially after the separation from the NOI, when Malcolm X lost his racist approach. Nevertheless, KRS One and BDP have a strong opinion on police harassment and discrimination against African Americans and put that in the context of the history of slavery and racism in American society.


[1] Mos Def. “History” feat. Talib Kweli. The Ecstatic. Downtown Music, 2009.

[2] Within this paper the term Hip Hop will appear in various spelling variations. When I quote somebody else’s work I will maintain the author’s spelling. I myself will keep writing Hip Hop with two capital letters. I thereby referto KRS One’s announcement of howto spell Hip Hop: http://blogs.myspace.com/index.cfm?fuseaction=blog.view&friendId=166240&blogId=57332709, accessed on January 4, 2010.

[3] Gangsta rap, although orthographically incorrect, is a common term for that subgenre of Hip Hop. Throughout this paper, I will solely refer to it as gangsta rap written with an “-a” instead of “-er”.

[4] Malcolm X about self-defense in the name of religion: “I am a Muslim, because it's a religion that teaches you an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. It teaches you to respect everybody, and treat everybody right. But it also teaches you if someone steps on your toe, chop off their foot. And I carry my religious axe with me all the time.” http://www.unix-ag.uni-kl.de/~moritz/xquotes.html, accessed February 20, 2010.

[5] Obama describes how Harold Washington was talked about by the local African American Community, see Obama 146f.

[6] Goner: “Somebody who is going to or has died” following the urban dictionary: http://www.urbandictionary.com/define.php?term=goner, accessed on January 7, 2010.

[7] After having attended the Hajj, Malcolm X said, “I am not a racist. I am against every form of racism and segregation, every form of discrimination. I believe in human beings, and that all human beings should be respected as such, regardless of their color.” http://www.unix-ag.uni- kl.de/~moritz/xquotes.html, accessed February 20, 2010.

[8] Clarence 13X was the leader of the "Five Percenters", an offshoot of the NOI. He was killed in 1969.

[9] Clarence Thomas is an African American judge who was “nominated by President Bush to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit: took oath of office, March 12, 1990 [, and who was further njominated by President Bush as Associate Justice of the United States Supreme Court: took oath of office October 23, 1991” (http://www.lawschool.cornell.edu/).

[10] Scott La Rock was shot in 1987 while trying to intermediate in a conflict.




Title: "No More White Lies, My President is Black". Has American Political Rap Changed with Obama?