All throughout American history, music has been used as a vehicle for protest. From the civil rights movement, to Me Too, to Black Lives Matter, music and its artists have played an important role in aiding the social conscious through periods of change.
One genre in particular has famously voiced the plight, the ongoing mistreatment, of black people. From N.W.A, to Nas, to Kendrick Lamar, rappers often speak and create from the frontlines of the black experience. Now, with towns and cities across the nation protesting the police killings of unarmed black people, there are a few voices who come to mind, voices we want to hear from in this moment.
Here are 10 Rappers We Want to Hear from Right Now, artists who’ve expressed testimony, verses of empathy, activism, and solidarity with the BLM movement in the past. To hear several new singles written as protest and in response to police brutality, check out our running list of new hits: The Music You (Almost) Missed.
Compton native Kendrick Lamar, whose song “Alright” continues to be an anthemic reprieve of joy for those protesting the ongoing violence against black people, was among a large crowd protesting earlier this month at the Compton Peace Walk. From the picture below, it appears that Lamar aimed to disguise himself without obscuring the truth. He wanted to appear like any other black man, removing the fame and glory of being Kendrick Lamar in order to stand with his people. His city.
Though there isn’t word of Kendrick Lamar releasing new music any time soon, we’re hoping he’s been steadfast in the studio. Every Kendrick Lamar album deals and dialogues issues of race, sounding his observations of Compton and beyond. But each LP has deepened the conversation, raising the bar for protest music. DAMN, his latest, earned him the Pulitzer Prize—a high mark denoting Lamar’s continued dedication to his music being embedded in us, reflections of the political and therefore the personal. It’s only a matter of time before the return of Kendrick Lamar, a rosetta stone for these times.
In December of 2014, as New Yorkers blanketed the streets to protest the killing of Eric Garner, Nas stood among the unrest. He spoke to GQ Magazine just months later about his decision to protest: “We’re already activists. I’m looking at what’s happening to the world, and I’m waiting for people to stop being scared. Mainly whites in power and in government, to not be scared of the race issue. Not be scared to say, “This is wrong, and this has to change.” Not be scared to do what’s right.
Three years later, in 2018, Nas dropped the song “Cops Shot The Kid” on his Kanye-produced 7-track album NASIR. The song’s music video featured a small cameo from Slick Rick (who provides”The cops shot the kid” hook). There is something tangibly powerful about watching two rappers shake hands and influence across generations of the movement, its violent backdrop persisting. We think Nas is prime to return, to comment on these times and use the observational skill which forced us to listen back with 1994’s Illmatic.
In 2018, following his release from state custody, Meek Mill quickly became a leading voice and activist for criminal justice reform in the U.S. Shortly, REFORM Alliance Foundation was created in alliance with fellow rapper Jay-Z.
2018’s Championships was a strong return to the scene and potentially Meek Mill’s best work to date. Considering he is due for a new record release, in conjunction with his activist history, we think this moment is perfectly primed for Meek Mill to make a statement.
This past Juneteenth, Erykah Badu was one of several prominent R&B artists to be featured on Teyana Taylor’s The Album. Earlier the same month, Erykah Badu and Jill Scott performed in the first women’s Verzuz rap battle on Instagram Live. The Verzuz series, produced by Timbaland and Swizz Beats, is an ongoing production created to help fans stay entertained through quarantine. Erykah Badu’s Verzuz appearance was just one of many performances the spiritual soul singer has delivered since we’ve all been asked to stay at home.
The Neo-soul songstress hosted two concerts from her home in the “Quarantine Concert Series,” revitalizing her fanbase with her funky prowess and the intimacy generated by taking fans from room to room. Though Erykah Badu’s music isn’t typically considered in the conversation of protest art, we could use her natural sophistication and grace in this moment. Much like the beauty of Billie Holiday, Erykah Badu’s art could act as a mitigator of power and peace in these times.
“We’re in this war. Well, there’s always a constant spiritual war, but there’s a battle for the souls of black folk, and just folks in general, and the music has a lot to do with it,” Ms. Lauryn Hill tells Rolling Stone in 1999. Since the young age of 13, when she would first find herself performing at the famous Apollo Theatre, Lauryn Hill has recognized her ability as a musician to raise awareness and affect the social consciousness. Her lyrics, derived from her own experiences of life and love, directly confront the expectations and assumptions placed upon her. With truth and power, Ms. Lauryn Hill’s universe has never failed to reflect our own.
Recently, Ms. Lauryn Hill appeared on a new track from Pusha T and produced by Kanye West. The track, titled “Coming Home,” joyously encourages the Black Lives Matter movement to stay strong while expressing the continued need for it. “Black people past their due date/ Settin’ the captives free in a new way/ I’m coming home, I’m coming home, I’m coming home,” Lauryn Hill sings near the end of the track. Something tells us we have not heard the last new Lauryn Hill verse this year, as the moment is ripe for the Grammy award-winning musician to dig into her arsenal, and sing.
In 2014, J. Cole stood in a crowd of thousands protesting the police killing of Eric Garner. In 2016, after working on several levels of activism and becoming a known entity to President Obama, J. Cole was asked to perform at the Democratic National Convention. Then, months after Colin Kaepernick made national headlines for his refusal to stand during the National Anthem before NFL games, J. Cole was spotted wearing the player’s jersey while performing “A Tale of 2 Citiez.”
Over the course of his work, J. Cole’s activism has taken many forms. Most recently, J. Cole dropped a track titled “Snow On Tha Bluff.” The new track features commentary on another artist we are looking to hearing from in these times, Noname. Though J. Cole received some backlash over his criticism of the Chicago rapper, he doubled down on his lyrics while at the same time paid respect to Noname’s capacity as an artist and thinker. Was it ugly for a second? Perhaps. But it’s exciting to see the intellectual discourse take place, in real time, through rap music.
From her appearance on Chance the Rapper’s mixtape Acid Rap, to her debut Telefone, to the lyrically stunning Room 25, Noname has kept her audience captive since the moment she stepped up to the mic. Unafraid of any topic, any truth, Noname not only uses her music to talk about her darkest matters, but she does so in a way that is vulnerable and honest of what she doesn’t know. Imperfect, deeply talented, alive. Noname is here for this messy ride.
Though she recently expressed regret over her response track “Song 33,” a “madlib” she wrote after J. Cole dropped “Snow On Tha Bluff,” we’re hoping the track was Noname’s way of dipping her toes into the current and that there will be more “madlibs” to come.
Two years ago, along with several other rappers who used their music to voice objection to President Trump, Vince Staples not-so-quietly wove himself into the storied fabric of social critique in America. “As far as musicians, unless you’re talking some U2 shit, I don’t know who more confidently tries to do something or say something to change the communities more than rappers,” Vince Staples told Rolling Stone. “Whether it’s Brand Nubian, whether it’s Talib Kweli or Mos Def, whether it’s Pharcyde or it’s Tupac, whether it’s Dr. Dre who released ‘Express Yourself’ telling kids not to do drugs, because it will give them brain damage. We’re not new to this.”
From 2015’s Summertime ’06 to his 2017 single “BagBak,” Vince Staples has shown that his artistry, his gaze, will often involve some form of social critique. In “BagBak,” Staples declares: “Prison system broken, racial war commotion/Until the president get ashy, Vincent won’t be votin.” Because Vince Staples has been on the forefront of detailing and observing this kind of experience, he may feel like what has been said is done. But if we had to put money on it, we think Vince Staples will erupt, soon, and dish to us the harsh reality we are currently in.
From getting her nails done with Bernie Sanders, to urging people to vote, to seeking justice for Breonna Taylor, Cardi B continues to surprise fans and haters alike with her activism. Which is why, in addition to hits and bangers, we are hoping to see anthemic protest music or verses about the movement on the highly anticipated follow-up to Cardi B’s debut, Invasion of Privacy.
In July 2019, Cardi took to Instagram to call on “bloggers, YouTubers, and influencers” to help get the youth involved in the 2020 election. “We have the power to influence our youth to get educated when it comes to our Democratic candidates,” Cardi said. Will Cardi use her new album, one which she’s been promising for over a year, to engage with the current movement? Will she attempt to touch young people and encourage them to participate in the upcoming election? We’re definitely interested in more of what Cardi has to say.
What other rappers do you see endorsing mayoral candidates in their cities? Cities they continue to be involved in, despite their fame as rappers? Chancelor Bennett, otherwise known as Chance the Rapper, has a long shown history of activism. Not only is he behind programs such as Social Works in Chicago, but he’s delivered several political opinions and platforms in his songs.
In 2018, Chance the Rapper released the single “I Might Need Security,” a track which took shots at the now former mayor of Chicago Rahm Immanuel. Not too long after, he endorsed the candidate Amara Enyia, showing fans that he is truly invested in the city’s future. Do we think it’s possible Chance the Rapper runs for office someday? Maybe, but we think it’s even more likely that he drops something politically and socially-minded in 2020.