Too Bad We Didn’t Listen When Foreknowing Rappers Warned Us
“We’re not against rap. We’re not against rappers. But we are against those thugs.”
~Rev. Calvin O. Butts
On August 13, 2016 Sylville Smith, a 23-year-old African American man, was killed by a Milwaukee police officer during a traffic stop. In response, frustrated citizens protested and rioted. The following day, Milwaukee County Sheriff David Clarke used a press conference to describe the “ingredients for a riot”:
Milwaukee has inescapable poverty, we’re like the sixth poorest city in America. They have failing public schools. The K-12 public school system here—there’s only two school systems that are worse, Cleveland and Detroit. You have massive Black unemployment, I think the Black unemployment rate in Milwaukee is 32 percent. You have dysfunctional families, you have father-absent homes, you have questionable lifestyle choices. Those are the ingredients for a riot.
Undoubtedly, Sheriff Clarke’s “ingredients” played a role in Sylville Smith’s death and the citizen response. Yet his “ingredients for a riot” are also symptoms and repercussions of injustices that have plagued communities like Milwaukee since the 1980s and 1990s. Injustices rap artists from all regions of the United States spoke about nearly 30 years ago.
Hip Hop historians have labeled the years 1987 to 1993 as Hip Hop’s Golden Age. During this time, rappers often used art as a form of social protest, with lyrical topics including Black Nationalism, the state of the American economy, and crime and violence. The claims made by Golden Age rap artists about injustice and militarized attacks on Black communities were largely ignored and even denied by many. The most influential body of deniers being “the Black church” and Black pastors.
Organically birthed during the late 18th century, the institution known as “the Black church” was a psychological and spiritual refuge for enslaved Africans and Free Blacks that also worked with Underground Railroad conductors. During Reconstruction, Black pastors viewed education and economic growth as forms of activism and encouraged both among their congregations. The mid-20th century civil rights movement saw Black pastors emerge as the primary leadership, and the Black church an important backer. Yet in the 1980s and 1990s, a shift occurred. Black pastors walked away from the fight for justice, while simultaneously vilifying rappers like Public Enemy, 2Pac, and NWA, who were at the helm of Black Americas next generation.
As this new generation of leaders gave voice to oppressive post-civil rights legislation and practices, the Black church often worked in opposition to the messengers, missing an opportunity to stand for justice at the end of the 20th century. Here are three social justice issues Golden Age rappers pitched, and Black pastors missed on the minds of many this Summer ’16:
Police Brutality and Militarization
“A young n—- got it bad cause I’m brown/And not the other color so police think/They have the authority to kill a minority.” ~F*** the Police by NWA (1988)
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Mike Brown was shot to death by a Ferguson, MO police officer August 9, 2014; 26 years to the day NWA released “F*** the Police.” Since then, we have seen consistent reminders that increasingly militarized U.S. police departments really do kill citizens, at times for unjustifiable reasons.