News & Politics

8 Activist Rappers Representing Occupy Wall Street and Other Progressive Causes

A handful of awesome hip-hop artists are doing something about their values.

On Monday, the rapper Kanye West traveled down to the protests on Wall Street after shopping with Jay-Z and Beyonce in SoHo, a guest of Russell Simmons looking to check out the scene. As one of the biggest pop stars in the world, his presence was immediately derided—there was that little case of the $300,000 Maybach he and Jay dismantled in their “Otis” video, for instance—and he was generally accused of being part of the 1 percent. When cameras were thrust in his face, he said nothing, while Simmons spoke for him:

 

The divisiveness was loud—his defenders were as adamant as his detractors—but whether he was there for the right reasons wasn’t exactly the point. West’s arrival was proof that Occupy Wall Street’s noise is spreading, and that at the very least, curiosity was piquing—and isn’t the most powerful tool in this movement the ability to reach people and let them know what’s going on? (For what it’s worth, Simmons sees OWS as particularly impactful regarding race, and has tweeted that he would be “happy to pay more taxes.” To which we wonder... if Kanye were compelled to pay more taxes, would he even notice?)

That said, there have been a lot of rappers and hip-hop icons with a lot to say about Occupy Wall Street, and other causes. Between Bill O’Reilly derision and censorious senators, rappers have gotten a bad rap in the American mainstream, some with reason but most without. Without further ado, here are the top eight rappers who’ve been staunch activist role models as of late.

1. Sole

The longtime rapping ginger, who’s been posted up at his hometown’s Occupy Denver protests, gets the first spot on general principle: he wrote a protest song titled “I Think I’m Ben Bernanke,” ironically flipping Rick Ross’ oft-paraphrased “Blowin Money Fast” (“I think I’m Big Meech,” et al.) to a different beat. Says Sole:

The song itself is about the history of America's long decline, beginning with the exploitation of the natives, slavery and the post-World War 2 American dominance over the globe. Once the world was sucked dry, the entire system caved in on itself. We have been living on borrowed time since day one, with nothing left to plunder all we can do now is make radical changes or suffer the consequences.

2. Lupe Fiasco

Chicago rapper Lupe Fiasco has long been a thinker but has become more radicalized, recently making comments that he believes Obama “is the biggest terrorist.”

“I'm trying to fight the terrorism that's causing the other forms of terrorism,” he told CBS in June. “You know the root cause of terrorists is the stuff the U.S. government allows to happen. The foreign policies that we have in place in different countries that inspire people to become terrorists."

Fiasco was also the first rapper to show up at Occupy Wall Street, making an appearance on September 20 in New York as the protests were congealing. In an interview with We Are Change, he blasted what he called the controlling “New World Order” and condemned the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"We're a society based on consumerism…We blur our own lines between what we need and what we want,” he said. “There could be somebody who lives in Harlem who works [on Wall Street] and you could [tell him], 'Hey, just take a bike.' And [he would say], 'Yo my man, I can't take a bike every day. I need a car.' But when you get in that car, you have to put fuel in that car, so you're financing Exxon Mobil, you're financing Ford or whatever car company it is. You're paying the city because you have to pay for registration, you have to pay taxes [on that car]. So you're financing the system just so you can say, 'Hey, I don't want to bike to work every single day because I'm gonna be tired at the end of the day.'

"For me it's about critical thinking and being critical about everything that's going on around you."

On Friday, October 7, Fiasco made another appearance, this time at Occupy Denver, where he delivered tents, tarps, propane, and other supplies, before heading off to his show at the Fillmore Auditorium.

3. Talib Kweli

The Brooklyn rapper debuted a new song at Occupy Wall Street last week, throwing his support behind the movement in the cogent way he’s conveyed most of his politics throughout his career. He told MTV, "When I see things like Occupy Wall Street, I just try to align myself with things that make sense. Shame on me if I know something and don't spread it, you know? If I know, it becomes my responsibility to spread the information."

He was joined by Philadelphia singer Res, with whom he shares the band Idle Warship. "People are out here from all walks of life, all colors, all classes, people that have jobs, don't have jobs,” she said. "People just want to get the word out and say, 'Look, we're sick of this, we need a change, and what you guys are doing in the White House is not hitting it.'” At the end of Kweli's performance, he told the crowd, “You wanna know what the endgame is? This is the endgame.”

4. Immortal Technique

Harlem-born, Afro-Peruvian rapper Immortal Technique has been one of the most unabashedly political rappers of the last decade, not only criticizing global systems of oppression in his lyrics but working with non-profits and traveling to Afghanistan to help children orphaned because of the war. It was only a matter of time before IT showed at OWS: his speech, shot at 2am two weeks ago on a Monday night, is as passionate as any speech given over the past month. (Stay tuned to AlterNet for an extended interview with the longtime activist/rapper.)

5. Bun B

Something of a spiritual leader in hip-hop, Port Arthur, Texas’ Bun B is respected as both an underground phenom and mainstream king (that was his group, UGK, on Jay-Z’s hit “Big Pimpin,” the song on which he was introduced to most of the non-Southern world). After Katrina, Bun was outspoken about the treatment of transplants to the Houston area—the displacement, the overcrowding of schools, and FEMA’s general disregard for American citizens—and he was an Obama supporter, albeit with reservations. (Ultimately, he decided to vote for Obama because during the campaign, he came to the hood, unlike most of the other candidates.) Thus far, he’s been tweeting in support of Occupy Houston, and at midnight on Tuesday, Oct. 11, he promised @OccupyHouston that he would stop by for a rally at General Assembly time. And if you think he’s revered in hip-hop... you should see how he can rouse his hometown. Keep a close eye on this one.

6. Big Boi & 7. Killer Mike

The latter, one half of the multi-platinum, boundary-breaking rap duo OutKast; the former, a longtime ‘Kast cohort who’s widely considered one of the best Southern rappers around. Both calling Georgia home, they led the charge in mobilizing the hip-hop community in defense of Troy Davis, documenting protests and tweeting their sorrow and solidarity after SCOTUS came back with its decision not to block Davis’ execution. On September 21, the rappers held a rally for college students and members of the NAACP in Jackson, in support of Davis’ cause:

As the situation became more dire, Big Boi released a self-filmed video of the protests:

After Davis was executed, Big Boi tweeted, “Just remember we fought til the very end ... peace and Blessings... Dear Georgia, we don't know if Troy Davis killed a man. Neither do you. But we know you killed Troy Davis.”

8. Pharrell

The super-producer/singer/rapper has been particularly enamored of Japanese culture for years, having become friends with streetwear guru Nigo and a collector of artist Takashi Murakami. So his conversation with Japanese anti-nuclear activists and awareness-raising of the radiation disaster worked quite nicely in this short documentary produced by Vice.

And check out this great clip from Occupation Freedom, Ground Zero and the Global Block Collective: the "Occupy Wall Street Hip-Hop Anthem":

 

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.
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