Leave it to hip-hop to speak up when no one else will.
So far, hip-hop has been the only musical genre to speak about the atrocities happening in Ferguson, Mo. First up to bat was J. Cole, who dropped “Be Free,” his excellent tribute to Mike Brown, the unarmed 18-year-old who was shot by Ferguson police for, what seemed like, no reason.
Then yesterday, The Game did his part by dropping “Don’t Shoot,” which features appearances from Rick Ross, Diddy, Yo Gotti, Swizz Beatz, and more.
Hip-hop is doing what it usually does. Speaking up.
Since Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message,” hip-hop has had a history of making iconic rap protest songs that speak about the times.
Let’s look at some of the rap protest songs that matter the most, from Public Enemy and KRS-One, to Lil Wayne and Killer Mike.
N.W.A. “Fuck Tha Police” (1988)
The 411: N.W.A. came out firing. And they were firing at the police. To this day, “Fuck Tha Police” stands as one of the most controversial songs of all time. On the song, Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Easy E and MC Ren verbally eviscerate a police force who had a history of overzealous behavior.
The song became so notorious it got the attention of the FBI, who contacted the group’s record label (adding even more gangsta-aura.) The song basically introduced the world to gangsta music. And, in the process, it showed us that gangsta music is more complicated than you might think.
Public Enemy “Fight The Power” (1988)
The 411: “Elvis was a hero to most. But he never meant shit to me. Straight up racist, the sucker was, simple and plain.” Public Enemy’s frontman Chuck D raps that line on “Fight The Power,” the most famous Public Enemy song. The song was the lead track for the Do the Right Thing soundtrack, an honor that helped boost the song’s profile (or maybe vice versa?). The content is pretty evident: it’s a track about self empowerment and fighting abuse of power.
The Stop the Violence Movement “Self-Destruction” (1989)
The 411: 1988 was a bloody year for rapper KRS-One. His partner Scott La Rock was killed in a shooting. Then, during a Public Enemy and KRS-One concert, a fan was killed in a fight. These incidents inspired KRS-One to start The Stop the Violence Movement, an East Coast-based super rap group. The group’s shining moment is the classic single “Self-Destruction,” which features tough guy rappers like Just Ice, KRS-One, Kool Moe Dee, MC Lyte, and more, rapping righteously.
Ice Cube “We Had To Tear This Mothafucka Up” (1993)
The 411: The first two Ice Cube albums — AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted and Death Certificate — were warnings: warnings that if things didn’t change for people of color in this country, there were going to be repercussions. And then March 3, 1991 happened. That was the day Rodney King was savagely beaten by the LAPD. That started a chain of events leading up to the 1992 Los Angeles riots (which occurred after the police officers were acquitted).
Those incidents are written about quite vividly on Cube’s 1993 album, The Predator. Cube’s big “told you” moment came in the form of the DJ Muggs-produced “We Had to Tear this Muthafucka Up.”
KRS-One “Sound Of Da Police” (1993)
The 411: NWA’s “Fuck Tha Police,” the ultimate anti-police anthem, was pure anger. KRS-One’s anti-police record, “Sound Of Da Police,” has a comedic tone. On the song’s chorus, he mocks a police siren (whoop! whoop!) and in the second verse, he compares current day police officers to slave overseers (say it quickly now: “Overseer, overseer, overseer, overseer, Officer, officer, officer, officer”). The song has a different tone, and yet it’s just as powerful as N.W.A.’s hip-hop classic.
Eminem “Mosh” (2004)
The 411: Released right before the 2004 presidential election, “Mosh” was a sharp and devastating takedown of the president at the time, George W. Bush. At its essence, “Mosh” is an anti-war song (this was right in the middle of the Iraq War) and in the song, he says lines like “Let the president answer on higher anarchy. Strap him with an AK-47, let him go fight his own war. Let him impress daddy that way . . . No more blood for oil.”
While “Mosh” is a fierce song, Eminem would get the Secret Service’s attention for another track. The song was “We As Americans.” And in it, Em says “Fuck dead presidents, I would rather see the president dead” – a line that forced the Secret Service to investigate the rapper.
Kanye West & Jay Z “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” (2006)
The 411: The original “Diamonds from Sierra Leone (Remix)” saw the Chicago rapper talk about the break up of Roc-a-Fella records. Then he heard Lupe Fiasco release a freestyle over the beat, called “Conflict Diamonds.” On his freestyle, Lupe spit a verse about blood diamonds in Africa. Inspired by that verse, Kanye did his own research, and remixed the song: changing the title from “Diamonds are Forever” (which is the title of an old Jay Z song) to “Diamonds from Sierra Leone.” He also changed the content of the song: spitting about the diamond conflict. Finally, he added Jay Z (who did not rap about blood diamonds in Africa on the track).
Lil Wayne “Georgia…Bush” (2006)
The 411: From Jay Z to The Game, various rappers made songs about Hurricane Katrina and President Bush’s lackluster response to the tragedy. However, “Georgia…Bush”— which was buried at the end of Dedication 2 — is the song that matters the most. Maybe it’s because the tragedy hit so close to home for the rapper (Wayne is from New Orleans); or maybe it’s because of how he flipped Field Mob’s cult classic “Georgia;” or maybe it’s because he was spitting real talk like this:
“Now it’s them dead bodies, them lost houses, the mayor say don’t worry bout it. And the children have been scarred, no ones here to care bout ‘em And fat shout, to all the rappers that helped out. Yeah, we like to thank all of y’all, but fuck President (Georgia) Bush.”
Killer Mike “Reagan” (2012)
The 411: You might think that “Reagan,” the best track off Killer Mike’s excellent R.A.P. Music album, isn’t presently relevant, considering that he’s talking about a president from the 1980s. But then you listen to the song.
On the track, Mike breaks down how Ronald Reagan’s polices from back in the day still disproportionately harm minorities in present day America (from the War on Drugs to the privatization of the prison system). He also explains how *gasp* similar Reagan and President Barack Obama might really be.
VIDEO CREDIT: YouTube