For better or worse, we’re all in this together.
Married to the Music is a weekly section borrowing the ridiculous and enjoyable tradition brides endure before getting married. Each week we feature 4 selected songs:
Something Old: A song that is at least 20 years old.
Something New: A song that is less than 3 months old.
Something Borrowed: A cover song.
Something Blue: A song that is melancholy, dark, depressing, or just plain sad.
Beyoncé’s Super Bowl performance of “Formation” a few weeks ago riled a lot of white feathers which lead to the declaration of anti-Bey rallies and the Miami Police Union planning to protest her concert as they believed she “used this year’s Super Bowl to divide Americans by promoting the Black Panthers and her anti-police message shows how she does not support law enforcement.” Grammy winner Lauryn Hill was noticeably absent from the Grammy’s despite her being scheduled to perform with The Weeknd (who went full MJ in his solo performance) but we would’ve loved to see a duet of “Everything is Everything,” her song about the injustice and struggles of inner city youths. Kendrick Lamar picked up the slack with the performance of the night with songs about Black American struggle and fighting for hope against despair. This week we take a look at a few of hip hop’s most powerful voices for social change and revolution.
2Pac | “I Wonder If Heaven Got A Ghetto”
Rap legend Tupac Amaru Shakur died twenty years ago this year but his songs and influence have permeated the culture so deeply that artists continue to be inspired by his legacy. Born to a pair of Black Panthers in 1971, Shakur always had very strong ties to the revolutionary movements of black America and his magnetic personality was just as vital for his eventual entertainment career as it was to get his messages of social injustice heard. “I Wonder If Heaven Gotta Ghetto” is a classic example of Shakur’s ability to merge his two worlds of activism and music and several verses were lifted to help create his posthumous classic “Changes”:
And though it seems heaven-sent
We ain’t ready, to have a black President, huh
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks
I wake up in the morning and I ask myself
Is life worth living should I blast myself
I’m tired of being poor and even worse I’m black
My stomach hurts so I’m looking for a purse to snatch
Shakur’s entire output all came by the young age of 25 when he was tragically murdered in a drive-by shooting but not before influencing an entire generation of rappers and solidifying his beatification as a saint in the rap world.
Kendrick Lamar – “Untitled 3”
Grammy performances are always a crapshoot and the award show has never acknowledged rap music with the respect and admiration it truly deserves. No wonder Kendrick Lamar, despite being nominated and winning a slew of the awards that night, decided to use his performance to match the intensity and fervor of his beautifully heartbreaking album To Pimp A Butterfly. The title itself was originally going to be To Pimp A Caterpillar, which was a homage to Tupac (the acronym being Tu-P-A-C). Kendrick told MTV why he decided to rename it:
Me changing it to Butterfly, I just really wanted to show the brightness of life and the word ‘pimp’ has so much aggression and that represents several things. For me, it represents using my celebrity for good. Another reason is, not being pimped by the industry through my celebrity.
His performance at the Grammy’s this year was something to behold. It began in a jail cell set with “Blacker The Berry” then moved its way to Africa for the album’s most hopeful track “Alright.” Finally, Kendrick ended the performance with a new untitled song (as he has been known to do for television performances) that stuck to the themes of police brutality with implied references to Travon Martin and Jordan Davis.
I got to prove, on February 26 I lost my life too.
It’s like I’m here in a dark dream, nightmare, hearing screams recorded.
Saying they sound distorted but I know who it was.
That was me yelling for help when he drowned in his blood…
And for our community do you know what this does?
Add to a trail of hatred,
2012 was taken,
for the world to see,
set us back another 400 years,
this is modern-day slavery
Kendrick has said he has a “a chamber of material from the album” that did not make the cut whether due to samples not being cleared, deadlines, or the sequencing not fitting right. Let’s hope we hear every last bar.
Yasiin Bey | “Niggas in Poorest” (Jay Z & Kanye West revision)
Yasiin Bey (formerly known as Mos Def) has been living in South Africa for the last few years. In January he was ordered to leave South Africa and not return for five years, having outstayed a tourist visa granted in May 2013. A few weeks later he was charged with using an “unrecognized” World Passport and having lived illegally in South Africa since 2014. The latter issue was documented in real time with his freestyle and declaration of impending retirement from rap on Kanye West’s website.
In 2012 he released “Niggas in Poorest,” his response to Jay Z & Kanye West’s mega-hit about materialist success and conspicuous consumption “Niggas in Paris.” Bey’s version is has a play on each line of Jay & Ye’s verses:
Poor so hard, my clean clothes look grimy, pretty women don’t mind me
So what’s fifty grand to a young nigga like me? More than my annual salary
Poor so hard, this shit crazy, walk outside the whole world hate me
Nervous stares at the thoroughfare, surveillance cameras, police tracing
Mos Def also re-imagined Jay Z’s Yeezy-produced classic “The Takeover” changing the name to “The Rape Over” as he replaced verses dissing Nas with themes of social injustice, racism, and corporate greed. These underground revisions are a dark reminder that hip hop lost its way and, to quote The Roots’ drummer and band leader Questlove, failed Black America.
The Roots | “Welcome To Heartbreak” (feat. Amiri Baraka)
The Roots’ 2002 album Phrenology is one of their finest and their track with controversial poet Amiri Baraka is one of the clear standouts. Baraka’s speaks plainly and clearly about social inequality while The Roots back him up with a jazzy instrumental.
Me talking across people into the houses
And not seeing the beings crowding around me with ice picks
You could see them
But they looked like important Negroes on the way to your funeral
Looked like important jiggaboos on the way to your auction
And let them chant the number and use an ivory pointer to count your teeth
Remember Steppen Fetchit
Remember Steppen Fetchit how we laughed
An all your Sunday school images giving flesh and giggling
With the ice pick high off his head
Made ya laugh anyway
The inflections of his voice bounce up and down as he reflects on a town where things just don’t fit right. They aren’t right. They’re hard to name exactly, and not because we don’t know what they are but because it’s hard to say. These truths are ominous and unsavory and the sights and sounds of a world full of hate and buried beauty is a terrifying reality but the sooner we call it by its name the sooner we can work together to fix it.