KRS-One has rapped about racism and police abuse for more than 25 years. It was a time when artists like Public Enemy and N.W. A. were using music to air grievances about racism and police brutality. Despite the positive goal of the project, Stop the Violence faced its share of obstacles. “There was immense criticism as well as a lack of support from everywhere,” said the rapper, whose born name is Lawrence Parker. The project spawned a hit single, “Self Destruction,” which propelled the idea of self-reliance and responsibility into the hip-hop consciousness. But to the next generation of artists in the 1990s, those ideas were seen as a small part of a bigger issue. “We saw the problem was more systemic,” rapper and activist Talib Kweli told the Daily News. “The movement evolved. In the 1960s, they were struggling for the right to vote and be respected as human beings. Then, a lot of things that hip hop did were very brave, especially the efforts of KRS-One,” he said. “It was needed, just like the civil rights movement was needed.
Talib Kweli has dedicated a large portion of his career to exposing injustice, including police brutality. "I don’t think ‘mainstream’ America is finally beginning to listen," he said in an email. "I think because of the amount of cameras in society, ‘mainstream’ America is being challenged to respond. On a global level, it’s just plain embarrassing." Jeffries sees a clear reason why, decades after hip-hop began screaming about these issues, it still needs to be pointed out that black lives matter. “The methods of policing and punishing poor people of color haven't changed,” said Jeffries. “It has to increase your level of appreciation for the courage of people who were speaking out when it was unpopular. KRS-One and his peers were loudly condemned, but they kept doing it,” he said.
#Blacklives have mattered to hip-hop for decades
Dec. 15, 2015
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Long before there was Eric Garner or Michael Brown, there was Eleanor Bumpers, Amadou Diallo and several others. And long before people spoke out against injustice on social media, joining their voices with the hashtag #Blacklivesmatter, there was hip-hop. “Hip-hop was telling powerful and unpopular truths,” said Dr. Michael Jeffries, professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and the author of “Thug Life: Race, Gender and the Meaning of Hip Hop.” “It was speaking truth to power when there wasn’t another outlet to do so in the African-American community.”
Speaking the truth — and publicizing injustice — is what the Black Lives Matter movement aimed to do when it started in 2013. It’s also what motivated many hip-hop artists in the 1980s and 1990s. "For years, rap artists have cried out against police misconduct and corruption," pioneering rapper and activist KRS-One told the Daily News. "The beatings, the rapes, the bribery, the false imprisonments, the theft perpetrated against African-Americans have been revealed and brought out in our songs...for years."
In 1989, KRS-One — one of the most respected voices in the history of the genre — organized “Stop the Violence,” a collaboration of some of hip-hop’s biggest artists that sought to eradicate violence in the black community.
In 2000, Kweli and fellow artist Mos Def organized “Hip Hop for Respect,” a collaboration that sought to expose police abuse in the black community following the 1999 shooting of Diallo by NYPD officers. Kweli said he didn’t experience the same resistance and criticism that KRS-One did with “Stop the Violence.” In fact, he encountered something unexpected. “We didn’t get backlash as much as disinterest,” said Kweli. “Back then, people didn’t care enough about the issue to have the backlash.” Hip Hop for Respect, whose lineup included Pharoahe Monch and Kool G Rap, released one EP in 2000. Despite the lukewarm public interest in the project, Kweli continued to make socially-conscious music and raise the issue of police brutality.
Thirteen years later, seeing the grievances the project raised as largely unchanged, he got involved with Black Lives Matter. “Black Lives Matter thrust the conversation we’ve been trying to have for decades to the forefront,” said Kweli. “The term is absolutely tragic that it needs to be stated, but it does because this society treats us like our lives are worth less than people with lighter skin.” However, according to KRS-One, the reason for the attention police brutality is getting has little to do with American society suddenly realizing there is a problem.
“No one with equivalent political power is condemning Kendrick Lamar. The resistance those artists faced in the '80s and '90s was of a different measure,” Jeffries added. After two decades as one of the most outspoken members of the hip-hop community, Kweli said it's obvious why hip-hop has been leading the struggle for equality for almost 30 years."Hip-hop is really folk music. It speaks the same language that people on the street are speaking,” Kweli said. “It's music that comes from oppressed people about the lives of oppressed people and their struggles. If you’re not dealing with the struggle, then it’s not hip-hop.”