From Ferguson to Freedom: Hip-Hop’s Role

By Talib Kweli

As the nation remains in the throes of an epidemic of police shooting deaths of young blacks, as well as the shooting deaths of nine people last week at a Charleston church by a lone gunman, it’s important to reflect on the extent to which racism is indoctrinated, institutionalized and entrenched in our economic system, in our hospitals, in our courts, in our schools, in our prisons and elsewhere.

When we ask the question of how to change America’s perception of black men, we must understand that the perception of black people in this society is based on the preservation of white supremacy — the same white supremacy that arose from the greed of the Atlantic slave trade, the same white supremacy that created Jim Crow, the same white supremacy that creates both the military industrial complex and the prison industrial complex. Just as we go around the world bombing brown people, our prison system is clearly a way to keep poor and oppressed brown and black people in their place.

To me, the prison industrial complex is the most dangerous pinnacle of racism. If we could get rid of the prison system, that would go a long way in tapping into the thought process that shapes the nation’s negative perceptions of black men.

But it’s much deeper than simply getting rid of prisons. The problem is the criminalization of a people. It’s all of the things that go into our entertainment and media industries, into the criminal justice system, into how the police treat us on the streets and into politics. All those things are meant to criminalize us and make us feel like our lives are less valued.

The devaluing of black and brown lives is a byproduct of the prison industrial complex, which is a byproduct of severe racism, which is a byproduct of white supremacy.

When I reflect on the nearly two decades I’ve been a public figure putting out consistent messages that address these issues, I think about what the impact has been, what has changed — how do we move forward and what can hip-hop do? One of the most important things artists can do to be a part of the solution is to remove the false division that exists between themselves and the community, and instead view themselves as simply members of their community, members with a large platform. When I go down to Ferguson or any of those places in struggle, I’m not going as a rapper. When I went to Tallahassee, I wasn’t going to do a show. I was going to be a member of the community.

At the same time, it’s very difficult for people who aren’t public figures to understand the weight of that responsibility. If you’re a popular artist, and you speak out once against something or for something, then you’re held responsible for your statements at a much higher level. When I take all of this into account, what does this mean for me personally? I’ve always been involved in various community issues, but certainly during the promotion of my Prisoner of Conscious album, I began to raise the bar on what I was doing in terms of activism. From that point on, I decided that when I go to a city, I can’t just go to perform. I have to go to a school, or some sort of event where I can be involved in the community somehow.

When I go down to Ferguson or any of those places in struggle, I’m not going as a rapper … I [go] to be a member.

I went to see Mumia Abu-Jamal, an internationally celebrated journalist and activist who has been incarcerated for the past 30-plus years. And then I got invited to the meeting with Harry Belafonte. He brought a group of artists together to talk about their involvement in his vision for his organization Sankofa, an effort through which he is empowering young celebrities to do what he, at 80 years old, is no longer capable of doing on the same level.

I asked Mr. Belafonte, “Who should I rock with?” He suggested either the Advancement Project or Dream Defenders, because from his vantage point, those are the people really about it right now. That was when the Dream Defenders were occupying the Florida statehouse to demand justice for Trayvon Martin. Before that, I didn’t know anything about them. Now I consider myself an honorary Dream Defender. That’s how close I feel to what they’re doing.


Beyond me personally, as I reflect on the last few decades, what has changed in terms of hip-hop music? There seems to be a niche shift in hip-hop, in which popular artists are moving away from making songs about materialism and moving towards making songs that are more introspective. It is not something that is making them necessarily more politically active and engaged. However, I do think the music has a subject matter and a content that’s becoming a bit more honest. I’m thinking about small things, like even in the hair choices that artists like Kendrick and J. Cole are making. The artists are in a different place in part because the way that people receive music is different. So they’re approaching how to make albums differently. And they’re not making decisions based on the fourth quarter, but from their heart and soul.

A lot of artists just don’t know what to do. When Young Thug makes a comment bashing hip-hop artists who speak out on social issues, I don’t think he really understands how foul and whack he’s sounding. His comments are justified in his mind because that’s how a lot of people his age feel. Some just don’t have the information. But those who know better do better.

J. Cole called me before he went to Ferguson and said, “I don’t know what I should do, but I know I have to do something.” Then he made the song “Be Free (A Tribute to Mike Brown).” When he arrived in Ferguson, he called me again and said, “I’m here, but I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do. I just know I’m supposed to be here.” There are two different perspectives going on here. But at least the Young Thugs of the world are forced to deal with the issues in their interviews. That’s a new thing.

My hope is that this shift is only the beginning. America seems to be on the verge of a great cultural upheaval. The old way of doing things when it comes to racist systems is being challenged by a growing group of young people. In this climate, much like musicians and artists during the civil rights and Black Power movements, hip-hop artists are in a unique position to help shape a new culture. Will they challenge the inner workings of the music industry? Will they change the content of their music? In this environment more than ever before, they have a chance to impact an entire generation.

talibkweli-Bio-1This essay is part of the “Shifting Perceptions: Being Black in America” series commissioned by Perception Institute in partnership with Mic.

Talib Kweli is a hip-hop artist and activist.

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