Rhymes with a Message: A History of Protest Music (Part 2)

As originally posted on Clarion Content: http://clarioncontentmedia.com/2015/04/rhymes-with-a-message-a-history-of-protest-music-part-2/

In the last segment of this protest music series, we traveled through time to explore the roots of modern day protest music. Now it’s time to check out some of the branches.


Funk and soul of the 70s picked up where the music of the Civil Rights Movement left off, with black revolutionary undertones present in several songs. The super obvious one isGil Scott-Heron’s The Revolution Will Not Be Televised. Departing from the tradition of previous protest songs that embedded coded messages for protestors but presented innocently as apolitical, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised is unapologetically political with a straightforward message to protestors: get out from behind the television and be a part of the revolution:

You will not be able to stay home, brother
You will not be able to plug in, turn on and cop out.

In a similar spoken word style, The Last Poets wrote When the Revolution Comes andBlack Is, laying the groundwork for the politically charged Hip-Hop of the coming decades.¹ In fact, Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets are often cited as the “grandfathers” of Hip-Hop.

The Revolution Will Not Be Televised

This era also focused on the Vietnam War, police struggle, and the environment. Four Tops member, Obie Benson, wrote the song What’s Going On and had Marvin Gaye work his magic after seeing protesters being beat up by police in San Francisco and thinking about all of the people being sent overseas to fight in the Vietnam War. On that same album, Gaye wrote a song about the deteriorating state of the environment entitledMercy Mercy Me. ²

For a much more comprehensive list of 70s funk and soul artists, check out Tracy Clayton and Heben Nigatu’s epic Black History Month Soundtrack on Buzzfeed.


In the early 80s, the first wave of political Hip-Hop sprouted out of the funk and soul of the 70s. Grandmaster Flash came out with The Message, six minutes of brilliant social commentary on what it’s like to be born into poverty and the resulting lifelong hustle to survive in a broken racist, classist system. Heralded as one of the most influential rap songs of all time, The Message followed the lead of Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets with a very direct political message. Sadly and ironically, I’ve witnessed several wedding reception dancefloors full of (mainly white, mainly middle/upper class) people blissfully getting down to this song while tuning out the original message.

Similarly, Run-DMC’s 1983 hit It’s Like That details the problems people living in the recession during the Reagan-era faced. Selling drugs became the more viable way to make a living for many Hip-Hop artists at the time, and the stories of their hustle, the resulting police encounters, and violence rose to prominence in Hip-Hop lyricism. While there were plenty of White drug addicts smoking crack in the mid-80s, mainstream media focused almost exclusively on Black neighborhoods when sensationalizing the “crack epidemic.” By the late 80s, Reagan’s racist War on Drugs was in full effect, the number of Black men incarcerated had skyrocketed, and Black rap artists were rightfully angry (for more on how the War on Drugs redesigned racism, see Michelle Alexander’sThe New Jim Crow).

The War on Drugs and resulting police harassment inspired two of the most hard-hitting and profound protest songs of the late 1980s: N.W.A.’s Fuck Da Police and Public Enemy’s Fight the Power. Fuck Da Police specifically focuses on police brutality against young Black men. N.W.A. takes the LAPD to court and then explicitly details the shit Black and Brown men have to put up with from the police on the daily. This track is currently being revisited by both listeners and musicians alike due to its continued relevance. Several DJs I know (including myself) have a remix of this track that they play on the regular in an effort to send a not-so subliminal politicized message to folks on the dance floor.

While Fight the Power is less lyrically specific than “Fuck Da Police,” “Fight the Power” places an interesting emphasis on music as a tool for revolution. This is protest music about the power of protest music. From the first verse:

1989 the number another summer (get down)
Sound of the funky drummer
Music hittin’ your heart cause I know you got soul
(Brothers and sisters, hey)
Listen if you’re missin’ y’all
Swingin’ while I’m singin’
Givin’ whatcha gettin’
Knowin’ what I know
While the Black bands sweatin’
And the rhythm rhymes rollin’
Got to give us what we want
Gotta give us what we need
Our freedom of speech is freedom or death
We got to fight the powers that be
Lemme hear you say
Fight the power

This verse in particular shows how intertwined activism and music can be – both cut deep into the soul.

While the aforementioned rappers were often lumped under the “gangsta rap” category (which the Guardian recently declared “dead”), these artists can also be considered “conscious Hip-Hop.” Alongside lyrics bragging about violent crime, gangsta rappers acknowledge and critique the system that forced them into hustling for survival in ways far more brilliant than an academic philosopher perched on the top of an ivory tower.KRS-One, often referred to as “The Teacha,” is one of the most politically outspoken hip-hop artists of all time. KRS-One founded Boogie Down Productions, but that project was brought to a halt after his DJ, partner, and BDP co-founder Scott La Rock was fatally shot as the result of gang violence. After this event, KRS-One’s rhymes became more and more politically charged. In the early 90s, he came out with Sound of Da Police, where he draws a striking parallel between police and the slave overseers of the antebellum South:

Officer, Officer, Officer, Officer!
Yeah, officer from overseer
You need a little clarity?
Check the similarity!
The overseer rode around the plantation
The officer is off patrolling all the nation
The overseer could stop you what you’re doing
The officer will pull you over just when he’s pursuing
The overseer had the right to get ill
And if you fought back, the overseer had the right to kill
The officer has the right to arrest
And if you fight back they put a hole in your chest!
(Woop!) They both ride horses
After 400 years, I’ve got no choices!

Later in the song, KRS-One addresses Black cops and traces policing back to slavery once again:

Black people still slaves up til today
But the Black police officer nah see it that way
Him want a salary
Him want it
So he put on a badge and kill people for it
My grandfather had to deal with the cops
My great-grandfather dealt with the cops
My GREAT grandfather had to deal with the cops
And then my great, great, great, great… when it’s gonna stop?!

KRS-One’s great, great, great, great grandfather very well may have sung some of theearly slave spirituals where protest music finds its roots.

After departing from N.W.A., Ice Cube came out with the album AmeriKKKa’s Most Wanted, a great example of gangsta rap/conscious Hip-Hop hybridity. On one hand, the album provides a thorough critique of racism and poverty, calling out racist institutions left and right. However, Ice Cube’s lyrics on this album are also appallingly misogynistic, which was unfortunately the norm with mainstream gangsta rap at the time.


The lack of female rappers in 80s and 90s mainstream Hip-Hop is painfully obvious. Part of the problem is that major labels were not signing female Hip-Hop artists at nearly the same rate as their male counterparts (and still aren’t!). The gatekeepers with power in the world of Hip-Hop production and marketing were mostly men. But perhaps a larger problem, as I’ve eluded to with Ice Cube, was the sexism and misogyny present in mainstream, male-dominated Hip-Hop scene at the time. Male rappers mainly portrayed women as objects of desire exclusively for the male gaze. Early female Hip-Hop pioneers successfully navigated this sexism and misogyny by spitting a feminist message back at their male counterparts and in support of each other.

When I hear the words “feminist hip hop,” I immediately think of Queen Latifah. Her hit “U.N.I.T.Y.” contains one of the first feminist messages I remember really taking in as a 12 year old in 1993. You ain’t a bitch or a ho, Queen Latifah tells other Black women in “U.N.I.T.Y.” and then goes on to tell them what happens to men who fuck with her (I punched him dead in his eye and said ‘Who you calling a bitch?). Queen Latifah doesn’t take shit from men, and she wants other women to know they don’t have to either.

MC Lyte is the OG Hip-Hop feminist, and the first solo female rapper to be signed to a major label. She challenges patriarchal power dynamics in her rhymes, and has opened the door for Queen Latifah and others to do the same. She also founded the Hip Hop Sisters Foundation.

(FYI – She will be speaking at Duke on April 17th and I could not be more excited!!)

Another artist who regularly protests misogyny, especially when it comes to the female body, is the one and only Missy Elliott. Her songs are chock full of body positive lyrics such as:

Love my guts, so fuck a tummy tuck
Whatchu know about that / so cute and fat
Jiggle jiggle jangle, watch how my gluteus dangle.

(Click here for some more of Missy’s feminist wisdom).

The Crunk Feminist Collective has created Hip-Hop Generation Feminism: A Manifesto, a living document highlighting the issues Hip-Hop feminists growing up in the 90s have had to deal with – including a “systematic rollback of the gains of the Civil Rights era with regard to Affirmative Action policies, reproductive justice policies, the massive deindustrialization of urban areas, the rise and ravages of the drug economy within urban, semi-urban, and rural communities of color, and the full-scale assault on women’s lives through the AIDS epidemic.” They go on to describe the shared journey of this generation of Hip-Hop feminists, giving shoutouts to influential women such as Queen Latifah and M.C. Lyte who broke ground in the “decade of the female emcee.” You can read the entire manifesto here:


If you’re more of a visual learner, here’s a great documentary about women and Hip-Hop featuring M.C. Lyte, Roxanne Shanté, Rah Digga and more:


Also, check out this Tumblr page entirely devoted to Hip-Hop feminism: http://hiphopfeminism.tumblr.com/


KRS-One created the Stop the Violence Movement after Scott La Rock was fatally shot. They put out a single, Self Destruction, and donated all of the profit to the National Urban League. Self Destruction features some of the biggest Hip-Hop artists at that time, including MC Lyte, Kool Moe Dee, Doug E. Fresh, and Public Enemy.

KRS-One also took part in the H.E.A.L. Movement, or Human Education Against Lies, recording a posse cut with MC Lyte, Queen Latifah, Run DMC/Jam Master Jay, Big Daddy Kane and more. You can read more about the H.E.A.L. Movement here.

George Clinton’s Paint the White House Black collaboration features Ice Cube, Dr. Dre, Public Enemy, Red Hot Chilli Peppers and more.

Um, do yourself a favor and watch this video.

For more posse cuts, Amoeba Records wrote a great article that you can access here.

While we can trace the lineage of current political Hip-Hop artists like Kendrick Lamar to gangsta rap and early Hip-Hop, which trace back to the revolutionary funk and soul of the 60s and 70s (and then trace back even further), other branches of protest music stem from different roots altogether. Stay tuned for the next installment, which will feature protest themes in Chicano rock, punk and riot grrrrl music.

As always, if you appreciate the radical work of these artists, show them some support either by purchasing their music or sharing their message. If you’re an influencer on social media, post one of their music videos on your page. If you’re a DJ, drop some of their tunes at your next dance party. If you’re a writer, consider writing an article on one or more of these artists.

Editor’s Notes:

¹ Other 70’s funk and soul focusing on race includes Donny Hathaway’s beautiful “Someday We’ll All Be Free,” his duet with Roberta Flack, “Be Real Black for Me,” Curtis Mayfield’s funky “If There’s a Hell Below,” and Stevie Wonder’s “Black Man.”

² Other great songs include The Isley Brothers’ “Fight The Power,” The Chi-Lites’ “Give More Power to the People” and Jimi Hendrix’s 12-minute long riff protesting the Vietnam war, “Machine Gun.”

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