Jay Z and the resurgence of socially conscious rap
To say that socially conscious rap is experiencing a resurgence would be somewhat inaccurate. Socially conscious rap – the lane of hip-hop through which artists directly and explicitly tackle and deconstruct social and political issues – is, and has always been, a relevant brand of the genre. Its mainstream popularity, however, has always wavered depending on the intensity of the problems plaguing the urban communities hip-hop generally draws inspiration from.
To say that current events in the black community have provided enough devastating ‘inspiration’ to propel socially conscious rap back into mainstream popularity, is an understatement. Whereas in previous years, social and political issues in rap music were reserved for a few bars in a song or to a few artist known for conserving conscious rap as their specialty, in light of the Black Lives Matter movement and recent police shootings, mainstream rap artists are shifting the attention given to political issues to entire songs, and even entire albums.
The severity of the issue has even inspired Jay Z to re-emerge from his pseudo-retirement and release his first single in 3 years, “Spiritual”. The song is a journey through Jay Z’s own experience as a black man in America, analyzing his position directly in response to the lives and deaths of Mike Brown, Philando Castille, and Alton Sterling.
The hook of the song:
Yeah, I am not poison, no I am not poison
Just a boy from the hood that
Got my hands in the air
In despair don’t shoot
I just wanna do good
acts as a desperate cry from Jay Z that exemplifies the internal struggle and plea of black men in the United States, for whom perception and misperception are life or death issues. In the song that references Mike Brown’s dying moment and the rallying cry of the BLM movement, Jay Z lays bare his own insecurities about growing up as a black man in America and provides a venue for others to find solace in the idea that they are not alone in their fears.
Jay Z is one of many artist to use hip-hop as a means for communicating not only the political struggles of minority communities, but also the psychological ramifications these political issues have on everyday lives. Jay Z has gone a step further, using his music streaming service Tidal as a means of forcing the public to face the human collateral accumulated through ignoring political issues. In collaboration with Usher, Nas and Bibi Bourelly, Tidal featured a music video that demands viewers look into the eyes of the victims of police brutality in order to hear the song being played – if you look away the music stops.
Through his efforts on Tidal and the rare but powerful use of his own voice, Jay Z uses his platform as a means of allowing hip-hop to be the voice of the struggle, as it always has been, but in even more widespread and impactful ways.