Singing for social justice — who’s listening?

Aug. 13, 2020, 12:32 a.m.

Over 50 million. It’s the current population of Colombia, the amount of money Conor McGregor made in 2020, and it’s the number of Spotify streams that “The Bigger Picture,” Lil Baby’s anthem for social justice, has amassed since its release just two months ago. “The Bigger Picture,” though, is just the latest viral installment of music centered around social justice, a genre which has blossomed significantly since the beginning of the 2010s.

Following the death of Trayvon Martin in 2013 and the deaths of Eric Garner and Michael Brown in 2014 (and the subsequent acquittals of their killers), a deluge of rap music thematically rooted in espousing social justice for Black Americans — and explicating the demographic disparities thereof — saturated American airwaves. Among these were “Don’t Shoot” by The Game, “Glory” by Common and “Be Free” by J. Cole.

Yet little changed. 

Throughout the ensuing years, these problems remained ablaze. For example, Alton Sterling’s death in 2016 compelled Drake to pen a poignant — albeit short — letter of reflection about the relationship between police and Black Americans, breaking his relative silence on the topic. Childish Gambino released “This is America” in 2018; over 700 million YouTube views later, the track remains culturally significant, characterizing the Black experience in America through myriad lenses. In 2017, Joyner Lucas released a visceral, brutally raw track (currently netting over 140 million YouTube views) called “I’m Not Racist,” juxtaposing the flawed assumptions Black people and white people have of each other, and those misguided presumptions’ pervasiveness in political discourse — all to kindle productive (and simultaneously uncomfortable) interracial conversations. It feels misplaced that 2020 seems to be their genuine beginning. 

While the impetus for recent songs — the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd — is frustratingly similar to past causation events, the ripple effect is different. It is not that the illustriousness of rappers championing the Black Lives Matter movement has spurred the apparent amalgamation of pleas for social justice with widespread buy-in, but actually something much more ironic: it seems people, particularly white youth, are doing a better job of listening.

“Since at least the early nineties, both a significant proportion of the key movers and shakers within the rap Music Industry (with the obvious exception of rappers themselves) and rap’s predominant consumer base have been white,” wrote Anthony Kwame Harrison, a professor in the Department of Sociology at Virginia Tech University, in his book “Hip Hop Underground,” referencing the notion posited by journalist David Samuels that rap’s primary audience is “white and lives in the suburbs.” As a white 17-year-old living in the suburbs of St. Louis, Missouri, I’m not sure of the claim’s veracity applied generally — but my personal experiences corroborate it.

I know that my suburbanized, privileged upbringing has precluded me from truly being able to understand the themes of recent protest songs: fearing police interactions, watching someone get murdered and wondering whether I’ll be next. I don’t know what it’s like being Black. 

“We grow up and see so many images of Blackness, and we don’t actually know people of color in our real lives. We sort of commodify understanding of Black culture, of Black struggle, of Black people, and it just leads to a lot of cultural complications,” Tessa Brown, a lecturer in Stanford’s Program of Writing and Rhetoric, said in an interview with The Daily. “I think that differentiating between the music and the organizing — which I think is important for white young people, too — is that we have to make an effort to desegregate our own lives.”

“We have to seek out people of color, we have to be in community with them, we have to take classes in their departments, we need to go to marches that they’re leading and we need to meet people and support them,” Brown added.

Internalizing allyship is critical for me and other young, white people to undertake, and it is critical in addressing the problems communicated by Black rappers for decades. Artists have made a seemingly concerted effort to physically engage in this nascent wave of protests: J. Cole, Nick Cannon and Lil Tjay marched in protests in North Carolina, Minnesota and California, respectively; Noname used her book club to stimulate and nurture conversations about race in America; Bun B and Russ redirected their voices to addressing voter suppression and encouraging the populace, particularly Black Americans, to vote. This coalescence of tangible activism with the production of music emanating sociocultural acuity has provided more resources for rap consumers and followers to digest — making this movement more impactful, and likely more enduring, than its predecessors. 

Escaping the rebarbative confines of social media echo chambers — in other words, searching to find new stories from new artists seeking to tell them — is a keystone phase in utilizing the burgeoning market of socially cognizant music. Rap, after all, was born from storytelling.

“When you think about hip-hop starting in the Bronx in the ’70s, it’s all about the story that you tell,” said Harriett Jernigan, a lecturer in Stanford’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric, in an interview with The Daily. “When you move into gangsta rap in the 1980s and the 1990s, we’re still telling stories. When we move into the 2000s, the stories begin to change — but there’s always a story.”

The prevailing fusion between hip-hop and promoting social justice, however, is not solely capable of inspiring the sort of changes that lyricists may laud. Individuals have the personal responsibility to canvas and integrate information from diverse perspectives into their lives. 

“[Even though] we are storytellers by nature [and] you can have all the access to music in the world that you want, if you’re not politically inclined or not interested in BLM or anything that is even remotely political, then you’re not going to look for those things anyway,” Jernigan continued. “It’s not going to be on your feed.”

I’m proud that artists have been unprecedentedly vocal and socially active; that communities of rap consumers have embraced the messages of their favorite artists; that I have begun to learn about people’s differences in opportunity. Activism — both physical and artistic — by rap artists has dehazed these disparities and experiences for their young and non-Black consumers. There is still ample work to be done in providing for the populous to reach a genuinely comprehensive understanding of the lived experiences of Black Americans — yet it seems as though we’re finally seeing the bigger picture.

Contact Tom Mueller at mueller26tigers ‘at’

Tom Mueller is a high schooler writing as part of The Stanford Daily's Summer Journalism Workshop.

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