Hip-hop music and activism


By Maddie Samuell

A Pizza and Politics discussion was held on Wednesday, Feb. 11, 2015, during common lunch, during which students and professors deliberated on the role of hip-hop as an important platform for social awareness and social movements, particularly as it pertains to the #BlackLives Matter movement.

The #BlackLivesMatter movement began in 2012 with the fatal shooting of 17-year-old Trayvon Martin in Sanford, Fla.

The official website of the movement states, “#BlackLivesMatter is working for a world where Black lives are no longer systematically and intentionally targeted for demise.”

“We are broadening the conversation around state violence to include all of the ways in which Black people are intentionally left powerless at the hands of the state.  We are talking about the ways in which Black lives are deprived of our basic human rights and dignity.”

Associate Professor of Sociology Deidre Hill-Butler and hip-hop artist Jermaine Wells led the discussion. It was part of a series of talks that are being held on campus throughout February for Black History Month.

Hill-Butler stated, “Black history is American history,” which makes this month and the history it honors important to everyone. The room was packed with a diverse mix of students and faculty.

Recently, at the Grammy Awards, a number of artists performed and incorporated the “hands up, don’t shoot,” gesture into their routines, which is a symbol of the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

The gesture has become a powerful symbol for this movement after the shooting of Michael Brown by a police officer in Ferguson, Mo., in August.

Pharrell, Beyonce, Common and John Legend performed the gesture while onstage.

The discussion revealed that major artists support the movement and can share these issues with millions of viewers and fans. This allows the message to spread beyond the confines of the community in which the controversies took place. The message becomes relevant to a new group of people.

Artists often use their music to speak out about relevant political and social issues. Neil Young’s famous song “Ohio” was written about the shooting at Kent State in the 1970s, where four students were killed when the Ohio National Guard opened fire into a crowd of students protesting against the Cambodian Campaign during the Vietnam War. Artists like Bruce Springsteen, Bob Dylan, John Lennon and Billy Joel  have written popular anti-war songs; these songs became the anthems of the protest groups.

Hip-hop, in particular, has always been seen as a vehicle for artists to convey their struggles in life. While some modern hip-hop artists have moved away from that, it continues to be the legacy of hip-hop music, which many artists still embrace.

Wells spoke about three artists who are known for incorporating current issues into their music: Common, J. Cole and Talib Kweli. While these may not be well-known names in the industry, their music is heard across the country, allowing their messages to be spread to millions of listeners.

Common performed the “hands up, don’t shoot” gesture onstage at the Grammy Awards.

J. Cole wrote the song “Be Free” about the death of Michael Brown. He marched in New York City alongside hundreds of people after Daniel Pantaleno, an NYPD cop, was not indicted for putting Eric Garner in a fatal chokehold in July of last year.

Kweli visited Ferguson and was part of the protests last summer. He was also involved in the Occupy Wall Street movement in 2012, and he spoke at a rally in which protesters advocated for the NYPD to end their stop-and-frisk policy.

Black History Month exists to encourage everyone to think about the history of our country, our progress and our future directions.

This issue is ubiquitous, which can be seen through the recent release of the movie “Selma,” which is  about the Civil Rights movement and the 1965 voting rights march from Selma to Montgomery, Ala., as well as the #BlackLivesMatter movement that is gaining momentum.

This discussion connected a global issue to the Union community.

Hill-Butler and Wells said such discusssions may encourage students to think about hip-hop music as a means to express and spread important messages about the world around us.

Correction: Feb. 26, 2015An earlier version of this article stated that it was written by Song My Hoang. The article was, in fact, written by Maddie Samuell.


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