In a turbulent year, hip-hop showed up to the protest with positivity

2016 was a terrifying year for Black America, rocked by further police killings and the racist rhetoric of the country’s next president. But hip-hop didn’t give into the gloom – instead, it shook off the nihilism of recent years and showed up to the protest with a wave of defiantly optimistic rap. Tirhakah Love looks at how Chance The Rapper, YG, D.R.A.M. and more brought joy in a painful year.

You know hip-hop done gone and went political when rap beef springs out of a Nightline interview. As a generation’s purple drank saint, there’s not much Lil Wayne can do to draw ire from the youth, but denouncing the Black Lives Matter movement, as he did on the ABC News show in November, just happens to be one of those things that attracts a side eye from the skinfolk. No one seemed more ticked off by Wayne’s claim that Black Lives Matter “ain’t got nothin’ to do with me” than fellow Southern king T.I., who said he would place his friendship with Wayne on the line “in order to stand up for those who can’t do it for themselves”. The conflicting evidence in Wayne’s music – from his post-Katrina vitriol on ‘Georgia Bush’ and Outkast’s ‘Hollywood Divorce’ to his recent appearance on Solange’s proudly Black A Seat at the Table – only frustrates and mystifies us further. 2016 isn’t the year to flip-flop. There isn’t time for fair-weather supporters of the movement.

Over the years, it’s been rare to see rap artists beef over where their peers fall on the political spectrum – but here we are. 2016 saw mainstream rap finally, and legitimately, re-enter the political fray, just as election season reached fever pitch. Of course, old heads remember a time when young guns like Boogie Down Productions were verbally shitting on Reaganomics, or Reagan himself. But after 15 years of music that often read as materialistic, status-driven and aloof, it felt like rap finally came back home. Artists like T.I., Meek Mill, and YG contemplated their status as not simply gangsta rappers but political influencers, leading them to denounce aimless allusions to violence without proper context. Even if your favorite trap star didn’t reveal whether he was red or blue, this year felt like a departure from rap’s dominant mood of nihilism in favour of a clear-eyed, even joyful perspective on a potential Black future.

The shift didn’t happen all at once, of course. Back in 2014, J. Cole sang for Black freedom on Letterman. In 2015, Ferguson artist Tef Poe cancelled his world tour to participate in political protests, and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly produced ‘Alright’, the protest song of a generation. But at the same time, trap music hit its high-water mark through Future’s total dominance last year, with his 56 Nights mixtape a paean to self-destruction: “I poured up a dirty sprite again / I pop on these Percs and Vicodin.” It would be foolish to dismiss the political subtleties of the trap, of course; while on ‘56 Nights’ Future claimed he takes “56 bars all in one month, nigga, and I’m still dranking,” on ‘March Madness’ he lamented the way cops “shoot a nigga like a film movie.” Because Black existence in America is political by default, Black art is political too – even when it’s escapist.

“It’s no coincidence that rap’s youth are leading the charge toward a more humane hip-hop world”

But this year, hip-hop answered the call for self-care. The brooding bass and grim austerity of trap (and its Midwestern cousin, drill) didn’t necessarily go away, but the mood shifted. This summer, Desiigner’s ‘Panda’ dominated the charts, a song that mimicked Future’s Auto-Tuned vocals and slanted rhyme scheming so accurately that some labelled him a “Future clone”. Yet the song itself felt toothless without Future’s threat of destructive behavior; a frivolous and essentially harmless pop hit. It was also more popular than anything Future has released to date.

This year we were inundated with rappers who smiled through every bar, no matter how poignant, tragic, or alarmist. Chance the Rapper was the grinning gospel leader whose Coloring Book mixtape wrapped an intimate articulation of violence in a quilt of joy, family bonding and heavy Christian overtones. NoName’s Telefone matched Chance’s toothy grin with a more somber smile. Three-part harmonies, happy melodies and lyrical charisma make their music seem genteel, even when the subject matter is harrowing.

The year’s biggest hits were brash and bright, even goofy. Virginia singer D.R.A.M.’s resistance took the form of self-celebration on ‘Broccoli’ and ‘Cash Machine’ via his gleeful and boisterous baritone. Lil Uzi Vert’s gnarly voice contrasted with funky pop synths to breathe fearlessness and independence on ‘Do What I Want’. On a darker note, Vince Staples blurred genres on his Prima Donna EP, drawing on grunge and rock to deliver fearful narratives with a vibrancy and looseness that felt more positive than its subject matter.

“YG’s ‘F.D.T.’ was the standard-bearer for rap’s balance of politic and groove this year”

Even Rae Sremmurd’s unavoidable ‘Black Beatles’ was reimagined, through #MannequinChallenge fan videos, as a backdrop to a fleeting, precious moment where a pantomimed scene can divert us from the crumbling world beyond. It’s no coincidence that rap’s youth are leading the charge toward a more considerate and humane hip-hop world – but even Gucci Mane, fresh from jail, switched up his dead-end outlook for gratitude on Woptober.

And above all, YG’s ‘F.D.T.’ was the standard-bearer for rap’s balance of politic and groove this year. Both club banger and protest anthem, the Compton rapper’s Trump-bashing highlight weaves magnetic G-funk synths with his own brand of suave vulgarity. ‘F.D.T.’ epitomizes rap’s current struggle to be both free in expression and thoughtful about the times we’re living in and what we as an audience might need.

Today’s movement for black lives has also opened up a consumer block of fans hungry for music that centers blackness in the present, hungry to see artists engaging with what’s happening on the ground. Some rappers have taken advantage of this as a marketing tool. Meek Mill, for instance, felt inspired to reduce the references to gun violence in his music after getting to grips with the Black Lives Matter movement. His most recent album, Dreamchasers 4, does return to some of his more violent subject matter, so it’s clear he’s still sorta figuring it out. But Mill urges us to stick around until he does.

There are more dubious examples, too. Despite the political name and cover art, Ty Dolla $ign’s Campaign mixtape had hardly anything to do with politics, much less Black politics. Even Birth of a Nation, a film about Nat Turner’s slave rebellion, sought to profit from Black anger on the streets with a cynical TV trailer that spliced scenes from the movie with footage of protests from the past two years. Nate Parker, the film’s creator and leading actor, stressed how significant Turner’s story is to our historical moment – but came off as pompous and backward-hustled his way to a flop, assisted by a past rape allegation. Black folk ain’t so free they’ll just watch, listen, or participate in anything with a black name in front of it. All skinfolk ain’t kinfolk, as they say. The uptick in blackity-black characters on screen and in musical subject matter is all well and good, but the quality of the art still matters, especially if the trend is to continue.

The next four years are going to be fascinating. The election has revealed, lo and behold, that Black folks might have been telling the truth about the racism that undergirds America. The streets will keep speaking, more blood will be shed, even though the figurehead and his cronies have changed. America is still the unbridled death machine it has always been. Political questions don’t always have political answers, however.

Rap in the mainstream hasn’t always spoken out against oppression as loudly as we might like, but this year hip-hop showed up to the protest and learned a few things. Artists started to reflect not just on their own experiences, but on the ways in which love and joy can be utilised during the country’s turmoil. It seems to me that the time this generation spent straddling the “post-racial” fence has now ended. It’s time, for celebs and layfolk alike, to pick the splinters out that ass, finish the drank (or bring it with you if you’d like), and fall in line: we’ve got a future to create.

Tirhakah Love is on Twitter

Read next: Why the controversy over Desiigner’s ‘Panda’ goes deeper than you think



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