In a recent interview with Hip-Hop DX, a hoodie-clad Nas exhibited an understandable amount of despair at the case of African American youth Trayvon Martin, the shot dead by George Zimmerman while walking home from the shops in Florida in February.
The US hip hop artist said: “You never want to hear that kind of news. When it happens, you remember how many Trayvon incidents happen everyday all over the world...
“It doesn’t seem like the race problem will ever get solved. I like to be optimistic, but it doesn’t seem like it’ll ever get solved.”
And yet, later in the interview, speaking of the same 17-year-old high school football player gunned down for walking while Black, some of that optimism seemed to peek through.
“Maybe he thought in football he’d have a legacy,” said the widely respected rapper. “But now his legacy can become something that helps change things, hopefully.”
With that, Nas exhibited the ongoing battle between pain and promise that hip-hop, at its best, has long tapped. The killing of Martin, and the wave of outrage it’s provoked, has once again put this struggle at centre stage.
This is far from the first time that the hip-hop community has been moved to speak out on the flagrant racism of the US criminal injustice system. Incidents like Martin’s are so shamefully frequent that Chuck D’s famous quip, “rap is CNN for Black people”, seems cliche by now.
Something about this feels different, however.
Numbers of protest attendees alone don’t do justice, but they do give you an idea. Thousands in New York, 5000 in Minneapolis, 1500 in Rochester, about 2000 at three different actions in as many days in Chicago, 1000 in Denver, and countless smaller actions from Maine to San Diego.
All on top of high school walkouts across the state of Florida, and the thousands who have descended upon Sanford in several marches.
Comparisons to the 1955 murder of Emmett Till, which some consider an opening shot in the civil rights movement, have abounded. Like Till’s death, Martin’s murder has pulled the lid off a long-simmering anger at the persistent racist bile that continues to run through US society.
And as before, it’s opened the way for so many who might otherwise remain silent to stand and be counted — even MC’s not normally considered “political.”
Among those is Young Jeezy from USDA: “He looks like an innocent kid. I understand the situation as far as dude wanting to be [on] neighborhood watch, but everybody that’s black and young ain’t ‘up to no good.’”
Rapper The Game has similarly been moved to dismay in a recent interview: “For some reason, people don’t think that they need any excuse to kill us, beat us, hit us, run us over, disrespect us or anything like that.”
As always, however, the most moving responses have come from artists more in touch with hip-hop’s grassroots.
Mos Def has teamed up with hip hop duo dead prez to record a tribute track for Martin. Immortal Technique has pointed out that vigilante violence is a regular occurrence on the US-Mexico border.
RodStarz of radical Bronx duo Rebel Diaz, appearing on Davey D’s radio show, was quick to draw comparisons to Ramarley Graham, another Black teen gunned down by the New York police a few weeks before Martin’s killing.
One of the countless local artists to write tracks dedicated to Martin is Washington DC’s Slimm Goines. Though this isn’t the first political song he’s written, it seems that this murder has hit Slimm, like so many others, in a very deep place.
When I ask him why he wrote “My Hoodie Weighs a Ton,” he responds “not sure. I just needed to say something. I haven’t written anything overtly political in a while. I just felt I had to.”
Slimm points out that the hip-hop response to cases like Martin’s is, of course, nothing new: "Hip-hop has always been quick to take up cases like this. Be it Yusef Hawkins in Bensonhurst back in ’89, the beating of Rodney King, Amadou Diallo, Abner Louima, Sean Bell, the hip-hop world has always been at or near the forefront in speaking out against the senseless violence against young black men that seems to be excused in this society.
“Most hip-hop folks, being young and non-white, have intimate experience with being racially profiled, harassed, and in some cases, assaulted for being in the ‘wrong place at the wrong time'."
The sense that we’ve been here before poignantly runs through most of the tracks dedicated to Martin.
Mistah FAB, the Bay Area MC who first popped up on many fans’ radars for his track dedicated to Oscar Grant, released his song “God Don’t Love Me” on March 21.
It’s a simple, bare-bones track connecting the dots between Trayvon’s death and African America’s daily degradation at the hands of the criminal injustice system:
”The whole world wanna talk about Kony
But ain’t nobody speaking on the little homie
So many Trayvons over the years
Left so many Black minds puzzled, in tears
We kill them we’re in a cell doing life
They kill us they post some bail ‘cuz they’re white”
Pittburgh rapper Jasiri X takes a different direction. The acclaimed activist MC, who, over the years, has responded in this same manner to the cases of the Jena Six, Troy Davis and others like them, does his best to put himself in Trayvon’s shoes:
"Trayvon never gave his cousin [sic] the Skittles
Mr. All-Star Game didn’t see another dribble
And George Zimmerman wasn’t even arrested
The message is white life is only protected in America!"
Indeed. We most certainly have been here before. Far too many times. But it seems every time that the issue of race is brought up in the US, it’s brushed aside in favor of rhetoric of the “post-racial society”.
What has made hip-hop in particular both so durable and controversial over the past 30 years, however, is that it’s been one of the few bastions in popular culture where post-racialism is called out as a sham.
It’s been one of the few art forms that has dared to speak up and say that the civil rights movement of yesteryear left a lot of unfinished business in its wake.
Perhaps that might be changing. It may be painful to acknowledge that it’s taken the death of yet another young Black man to finally provoke a modern movement for Black liberation.
There’s no doubt, however, that such a movement is needed. The increased attention and mobilisation around cases similar to that of Martin in the past few weeks — Ramarley Graham, Rekia Boyd — may signify that the time has at long last arrived.
“The world is changing pretty fast,” says Slimm. “From the Arab Spring to the Occupy movement, ordinary people are standing up. We’re less willing to accept the excuses that the people in power try to offer in situations like this.
“That nonsense about ‘waiting until all the facts are in’ is no longer good enough for us. The facts on the surface were enough for most folks to say, ‘You’ve gone too far this time.’
“And, you know what? As the facts come in, we continue to be proven correct.”
That’s what it all comes down to. The countless thousands now marching for Trayvon, Ramarley and Rekia, who have hit the pavement for Sean, Oscar and Troy, the MCs who have dared to speak out from the street corners to the recording studios, were correct to do so.
They’ve known what the disdainful shills for Zimmerman and his ilk have never quite grasped: that hungry people don’t stay hungry for long.