Rap music may have a bad reputation outside of music due to some of the subject matter, but it’s a lot deeper than meets the eye for those that aren’t actually listening to the messages. Over the years, there have been a lot of rappers who have discussed social issues through their songs and got involved in social movements.
From participating in rallies to giving speeches, there are plenty of hip-hop acts who were or are socially aware. Here’s a look at five of those acts and how they’ve discussed society in their music.
Kendrick Lamar is known for his incredible rap career. One that displays his fight for social justice and his activist nature in his many hit songs. Lamar even earned himself the Pulitzer Prize for Music in 2018 for his socially conscious and influential tracks on DAMN, the rapper’s fourth studio album.
Featured on the album are tracks like DNA, with lyrics that focus on the struggles the African American community goes through and how they’re viewed from Lamar’s personal point of view and separately by society. Songs like “Determined”, “Ignorance is Bliss”, and “Average Joe” highlight Lamar’s feelings on social situations.
Common is one of the original socially conscious rappers, a product of a time when self-aware and socially conscious hip hop wasn’t widely known. However, his first album “Can I Borrow a Dollar” was not exactly a shining example of that.
After his debut album bombed, Common studied religion, reflected on his purpose, and took the time to mentally and emotionally mature and grow as a human being before releasing his next album “Resurrection” two years later. The album put him on the map and shone a light on the socially conscious rapper whose lyrics were wise and purposeful. “The truth of the matter is, you don’t have to be that big-name person to have a really supreme impact,” Common said.
Once an opening act for D’Angelo during the early 1990s, Erykah Badu became a big name in R&B while also serving as an artist that wasn’t afraid to speak about social issues away from the music studio.
When talking about the Black Lives Matter movement during the mid-2010s, Badu said that “I felt it coming on,” adding that “I was really feeling a strong affinity toward writing about what was going on around me. And I actually wrote about what’s happening right now…so I don’t feel the need to write it now, because I got it out.” Badu then went on to say that “Can we organize to stop black-on-black crime or poor-on-poor crime? Because, you know, poor is the new black. You don’t have to be black now.”
Mos Def is another socially conscious rapper that helped to popularize the genre, getting his solo start in 1999 after spending some time in a group with his siblings and releasing an album with Talib Kweli. After his release of “Black on Both Sides,” he released three more albums throughout the next 10 years.
His powerful lyrics regarding his stance on political events, the injustice to the African American and Muslim community, and police brutality set him up to be one of the most influential socially and spiritually aware rappers of our time. “America is a very challenging place for me,” the rapper said upon his move to South Africa. “I needed to take some time to put myself in environments where I felt good…my country is called Earth. This whole thing belongs to everyone that’s on it.”
Tupac Shakur is considered by many to be the greatest rapper to ever live, and many felt that he was also one of the most socially aware. While he had hit songs like “California Love” and “Hit Em Up”, Shakur also had a lot of social commentary songs that included “Changes” and “Dear Mama”. In the former, he talks about police brutality, drug use among the African-American community, racism, and more.
There were also songs including “White Man’z World” that included lyrics including “So tell the babies how I love them, precious boys and girls, born black in this white man’s world.” Sadly, Shakur was shot to death at just 25 years old in 1996 while in Las Vegas, left unable to spread his message in today’s world.