What do Bun B, GZA, Lupe Fiasco, and David Banner all have in common? These artists have achieved not only lyrical excellence, but they’re also distinguished intellectuals and educators.
Their roles as both rappers and educators highlight the undeniable relationship between these seemingly distinct worlds, and they’ve been able to shift conversations amongst the masses that allow for the deep talks around hip hop and academia.
But let’s take it a step further.
During the 1970s, the genesis of hip-hop culture in the United States marked a powerful cultural movement aimed at emboldening those who had been excluded and marginalized. In this same time frame, legal scholars were hard at work developing a robust theoretical framework known as critical race theory. This intellectual framework sought to dissect and explain the mechanisms by which systemic influences, encompassing policies, statutes, and the very foundations of society, spread and sustained disparities. While these two movements might at first glance appear dissimilar, they are united by a shared purpose — the pursuit of social justice and the empowerment of those in need.
During their Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion summit week, the University of Michigan hosted, “Truth Telling: The Kinship of Critical Race Theory and Hip-Hop.” The timing couldn’t have been more fitting, as 2023 commemorates the 50th anniversary of hip-hop. What better way to honor this milestone than by engaging in meaningful conversations about its origins, evolution, and profound impact with a diverse assembly of key stakeholders, including artists, scholars, and activists? The event was created with community and connection in mind.
Tabbye Chavous, Vice Provost for Equity and Inclusion and Chief Diversity Officer, explained the summit’s philosophy, saying, “Each year, our summit planning team invites and helps develop new ideas and opportunities for community engagement. A priority is inviting impactful speakers—representing diverse backgrounds and perspectives—who can share expertise and lived experiences that help educate, stimulate our thinking and reflection, and inspire action.”
The speakers for the summit included hip hop artist and activist David Banner, Grammy-nominated hip-hop artist Rapsody, and author and professor Andre Douglas Pond Cummings. The conversation was moderated by Antonio Cuyler, professor of music in entrepreneurship & leadership at U of M.
CRT challenges the idea that the law is neutral and objective, asserting that it is inherently shaped by power structures and maintains racial hierarchies. Scholars like Derrick Bell, Kimberlé Crenshaw, and Richard Delgado have been instrumental in shaping the core principles of CRT, such as intersectionality, interest convergence, and the permanence of racism.
Shared Themes and Narratives
The intersection between CRT and hip hop lies in the shared themes and narratives that both address. These include:
- Racial Injustice: Both CRT and hip hop confront the deeply rooted issues of racial injustice and discrimination. Hip hop artists, through their lyrics and messages, often describe their lived experiences in neighborhoods plagued by poverty and systemic racism. Their art serves as a platform to expose these injustices, making them visible to a broader audience.
- Intersectionality: CRT emphasizes the concept of intersectionality, highlighting the interplay of various identities (race, gender, class, etc.) in shaping an individual’s experiences of discrimination. Hip hop, similarly, allows artists to express the intersectional nature of their identities and experiences, shedding light on the complexities of their lives.
- Social Commentary: Both CRT scholars and hip-hop artists engage in critical social commentary. They offer thought-provoking insights into the racial dynamics of society, pushing the boundaries of conventional thought. Their work often challenges the status quo and invites discussions on race, power, and privilege.
One of the most significant intersections between CRT and hip hop is the power of storytelling. CRT encourages narratives that center on marginalized voices and lived experiences. Hip hop, as a narrative art form, provides a medium for individuals to share their stories, making it a vehicle for social change. Whether it’s Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” which reflects the struggles of African Americans, or Nas’ “The Message,” addressing life in the inner city, hip hop serves as a powerful tool for disseminating critical narratives about the Black experience.
Rhapsody spoke about how she felt after Trump got into office. Being a North Carolina native, she described the intense feeling that fell over her home which inspired her but also brought her a sense of clarity and purpose. She knew her music had a deeper purpose and an important audience.
Rhapsody explained, “These kids listen to us. They look up to us and I understand the responsibility that comes with it. So, we have to tell those narratives.”
The intersection between CRT and hip hop is not without its challenges and controversies. Some critics argue that hip hop can perpetuate stereotypes and misogyny, which may undermine the goals of CRT. However, many within the hip hop community use the genre as a platform to challenge these very issues, highlighting the importance of acknowledging internal debates and the dynamic nature of hip hop culture.
“What systemic value do we get from hip hop?” Banner asked. “Yes, we do influence fashion and other aspects of international culture. But has it come back to our community? When you really look at it White people control Hip Hop. When they asked what we really want from hip hop, I said ownership. If we really want systemic change for our people, we need water, land, and to control our food sources. They are doing the same thing with hip hop as they did with CRT. They are turning it on the victims. Its shouldn’t be about what hip hop can do [to solve issues]. It should be about what the state can do [about our issues].”
Hip hop has a long history with intertwining the fight to amplify issues within the black community. Songs like Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” or N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton” serve as anthems that galvanize social and political movements, bringing the voices of the marginalized to the forefront.
The intersection between Critical Race Theory and hip hop represents a unique and dynamic space where art and academia meet to address pressing issues of racial injustice. Both movements provide a lens through which society can examine, question, and challenge systemic racism and inequality. By recognizing the power of storytelling in music, we can better understand how these two realms work in tandem to raise awareness and drive positive change. The shared commitment to dismantling racism and advocating for social justice makes this intersection a compelling and thought-provoking arena for exploration and growth.
The “Truth Telling: The Kinship of Critical Race Theory and Hip-Hop” summit was an eye-opening event that celebrated not only the 50th anniversary of hip-hop but also highlighted the enduring power of storytelling as a catalyst for positive change in society. It brought together artists, scholars, and activists to explore the connections between critical race theory and hip-hop and inspire new ways to address inequality and injustice. The event also marked the University of Michigan’s ongoing commitment to diversity, equity, and inclusion, ensuring that these essential conversations continued to shape our future.
David Banner showcased the impact of the CRT and hip-hop intersection in just a few words.
“They gave us Obama like it was gon’ stop the fight. Like it was gon’ stop the cause. My folks still scrappin’ tryna find them some socks and drawers. And something to eat. The IRS is coming so I’m back on these beats,” he continued “and since we talking about throats, white folks what you know about ropes.”