Emerging in the 1970s, the rap genre has been instrumental in bringing together people globally. Artists such as 2Pac, NWA, and the Wu-Tang Clan ushered the genre into the mainstream in the 90s, conceptualizing nonpareil melodies that incorporated complex narratives and tackled issues such as recidivism, gang culture, and police brutality. Their significance and the importance of socio-political commentary within the rap genre is not new, yet it is rarely discussed.
The revolutionary aesthetic of rap was not only intended to entertain the general population but act as a safe space for artists to comment on issues and ideals close to them, in turn influencing listeners to pay attention and become socially conscious. However, as the genre has progressed over the years, more and more artists are turning to this subgenre.
Let’s take a look at two socially-conscious Black artists that incorporate this narrative into their discography:
Childish Gambino (Donald Glover)
An actor, musician, producer, comedian amongst a plethora of other roles, Glover rose to fame in the early 00s as an actor. His alter ego, Childish Gambino, originated as a rapper, focusing on satire with sophomore album Because the Internet identifying the pros and cons of the internet era, seemingly outlandish yet in hindsight is a mockery of the conceited and flawless facades prevalent all over the internet.
Gambino evolved into a progressive artist, moving completely into R&B with his third album Awaken, My Love! The album, both an homage and imitation of the pre-rap 70s that manages to capture the passion and whimsical idiosyncrasies of the era while incorporating bouts of activism through auditory visuals highlighting the detriment of societal pressures and the need to “stay woke.”
Arguably, Gambino’s most prevalent release is the visual and auditory masterpiece “This is America.”
The auditory aspect focuses on the idea of a negligent society that thrives on ignorance and disregards suffering and oppression while fixating on superficial ideals. The visual aspect is instrumental in highlighting these key themes. An example of this is less than a minute into the music video, Gambino posed as a fictional Jim Crow archetype perhaps highlighting the threat of violence against black people as being synonymous with entertainment. The video is filled with cryptic symbolism waiting to be picked apart by the viewer, forcing them to pay attention to what is really going on around them.
Self-proclaimed greatest rapper alive, Kendrick Lamar’s path to fame is noteworthy – starting at sixteen and over the next fifteen years releasing four albums, 55 singles, and numerous mixtapes, Kendrick Lamar’s significant contribution to the genre of rap is incredible.
His first studio album, good kid, m.A.Ad city takes the cinematic narrative with each track acting as a critical puzzle in piecing together Lamar’s experiences and life in Compton. The album, full of nuance, explores values of faith, community, and peer pressure while describing the reality, hopes, and dangers associated with growing up in Compton.
Lamar’s third album, To pimp a butterfly, is where the commentary gets more critical. Featuring rap, funk, and soul, this album exceeded far beyond the confines of hip-hop. Although life in Compton is a key tenet in which he explores the line between adversity and tragedy, Lamar tackles Black on Black violence, hood politics (featuring the Democrips and Rebloodicans), and white guilt.
Potentially his most socially-conscious song, “Complexion (a Zulu Love)” from To Pimp a Butterfly tackles the prominent issue of colorism and internalized racism present that BIPOC bust deal with daily. Lamar emphasizes how little skin color has to do with the character of the man. He addresses issues such as rape and slavery within the lyrics. Interestingly, Lamar incorporates the story of the Zulu tribe who embraced a white man into the narrative, questioning whether that same love exists in Western society and where it could be found. While the track is filled with cryptic references to numerous key issues important to the artist, a noteworthy aspect is a reference to race separated into two groups- midnight hour and morning sun. Lamar reinforced the idea that labels do not in any way contribute to the likes and intelligence of individuals.
Creating an auditory journey through the use of metaphors and virtuosic descriptions of key issues, both Childish Gambino and Kendrick Lamar continue to be key figures in mainstream music. While Gambinos’ discography creates vibrant imagery using visual components, Lamar incorporates that very imagery through lyrics, depicting the versatility of the genre. However, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino are two names in a major movement dedicated to raising their voices- and are bound to continue for many years to come.