I was rapping along to Travis Scott’s Astroworld the other day when a friend asked, “Do you know what ‘flying kites’ means?” My blank stare prompted his next question: What business do I, a middle-class girl from Canada, have listening to music rooted in black history and struggle? I’ve been trying to figure out the answer to this question ever since.
At the risk of sharing a hackneyed anecdote, I had my introduction to hip-hop when I picked up a hard copy of The College Dropout in 2005. Kanye West had gone viral before “going viral” was really a thing, for accusing President Bush of racism, and I wanted to support West’s rhetoric with my allowance.
Yeezy’s current political controversies aside, College Dropout was the perfect catalyst for launching me into the history and context of hip-hop: a young West drops bars about racial profiling (“Spaceship”), segregation (“Never Let Me Down”), and how race transcends class (“All Falls Down”). Travel back only three decades before West bulldozed his way onto the scene, and similar motifs don’t just lend themselves to hip-hop—they define it. DJ Kool Herc, the man credited as the “Father of Hip-Hop,” used innovative DJing and showmanship to pull youth away from gang violence, and inspire artists like Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five, who released “The Message” in 1982. With lyrics like “Rats in the front room, roaches in the back / Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat / I tried to get away but I couldn’t get far / ’Cause a man with a tow truck repossessed my car,” the track is still credited with birthing conscious rap. Emceeing is also innately accessible to communities marred with poverty. As the novelist Zadie Smith has said, “Writing, like dancing, is one of the arts available to people who have nothing.” If you have a voice and a pencil, you can rap.
Hip-hop has always been saturated with social and political commentary. Specifically, commentary that pulls black experiences—often intersecting with class—into the mainstream. Tupac, N.W.A., The Roots, Mos Def, Common, Lauryn Hill, and Jay Z all penned lyrics about the same issues Vince Staples, Saba, Kendrick Lamar, Solange, Dreezy, Mick Jenkins, and J.I.D. rap about today (e.g. gang violence, over-policing of black communities, and other forms of systemic racism).
There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that hip-hop audiences are growing rapidly. Artists like Sheck Wes, Juice WRLD, and Cardi B sit comfortably on streaming charts, while Billboard reported hip-hop made up over 70 percent of all top tens in the third quarter of 2018—up from 35 percent last year during the same time period. With the mainstreaming of the genre, questions surrounding appropriation or who can make and profit off of music originating from black culture have planted themselves in the millennial zeitgeist—but going back to my friend’s concerns, what about the consumers of hip-hop? How should relatively privileged fans engage with a genre rooted in blackness and class struggle?
It should go without saying that non-black fans need to avoid rapping along when an artist uses the n-word. Recall Kendrick Lamar, who made headlines after he brought a white woman onstage to spit “m.A.A.d city,” only to excuse her after she failed to omit the epithet. Racial slurs aside, though, I can’t help but view the consumption of hip-hop narratives by diverse crowds as inherently uniting.
With the mainstreaming of the genre, questions surrounding appropriation or who can make and profit off of music originating from black culture have planted themselves in the millennial zeitgeist.
Although I identify as mixed race, as a non-black Canadian who can’t rap, I rely on my community—online and in person—to inform how I think about issues that don’t affect me directly, like black rights in hip-hop. I got in touch with Kabwasa on Instagram after I found his music on Spotify last year; the African American college student, who doubles as an aspiring rapper, doesn’t think hip-hop heads should overthink the way they consume music.
“Listeners can enjoy the music how they want. I think if an artist wants there to be a message, it’s the artist’s responsibility to get that across,” the Watsonville native, who recently dropped his political EP, Louder for the People in the Back, tells me. Kabwasa referenced his bouncy track “Black” to illuminate his point: “[The track] is about being black and what it’s like to be black in America. I specifically titled it ‘Black’ and had feature artists focus their verses, and put in the effort to make sure everyone knew what the song is about.” Regardless, he wouldn’t want future fans to take his music so seriously that it stops inciting excitement. “If I wanted [my music] to just be you listening to the words, I wouldn’t have put beats behind it. I’d have just talked,” Kabwasa says with a laugh. “I want my music to be fun for everyone, too.”
Rapper Bobby Sessions has echoed Kabwasa’s statement. In a DJBooth interview, Sessions stated, “I also want the music to be entertaining, because if the music has a lot of substance but doesn’t make you happy, like the listening experience doesn’t make you happy, then what’s the point?” Pusha T took things a step further: In a 2017 interview with XXL, the G.O.O.D. Music artist asserted lyricism isn’t the most important building block of hip-hop anymore: “It’s the flows, the melodies. It’s the actual song structure,” he explained.
But the way prominent contemporary artists reflect on their rhymes suggests lyrics do matter. In a Genius video about “LIFE,” Saba explained how the track reveals that “by being black, you are an abomination to someone else’s utopia.” Solange’s storytelling in A Seat At The Table is so raw, it stings like citrus on an open wound. In a FADER feature, the chanteuse discussed her lyrical activism at length, and the journalist, who identified as a brown woman, expressed her hesitation to relate to songs on the project because Solange writes specifically for black women. In a nuanced response, Solange professed the uniqueness of black womanhood while expressing the need for unity across divergent racial communities. Even though her lyrics offer sharp political critique around racism and sexism, I can’t imagine Solange rejecting non-black fans because their lived experiences differ from her own. Instead, she uses her art to construct her own table, which is buzzing with meaningful conversations about race—and she invites her non-black fans to pull up a seat, listen, and ask questions.
Solange invites her non-black fans to pull up a seat, listen, and ask questions.
Bran Movay, a rapper and close friend of Kabwasa’s who is also African American, doesn’t expect listeners to look up every lyric online—but he appreciates music’s ability to educate in a positive way. When listeners engage with hip-hop, the rapper explains to me, “it’s all about attitude.” Basically, there’s a difference between saying, “Do you know what these lyrics mean?” and “You can’t listen because you don’t know what these lyrics mean.” The former builds community across cultures, while the latter creates division.
Perhaps that’s the answer: attitude.
As Kabwasa and Movay suggest, no one should dictate precisely how music lovers consume hip-hop, but I urge audiences to pay attention to the storytelling in songs—such as Kendrick’s “Alright” and Jorja Smith’s “Blue Lights,” both of which draw attention to the endemic nature of police brutality. When I listen to the genre, I try my best to remember that I’m a visitor of hip-hop culture, not a purveyor of it. I will never relate to many of the narratives dancing over my favorite trap, boom-bap, and R&B beats, but I can turn to hip-hop for rigorous education (while swinging my hips, nodding my head, and having a good time, of course). Travis Scott taught me that when people in jail send messages to one another, they “fly kites,” while Day One Kanye inspired me to tell stories about inequality (though in my case it’s through journalism, not rapping). The College Dropout wasn’t simply my entrance into hip-hop and its history; it was the start of a decade-long dive into racial injustice. FL