Looking to understand the language of hip-hop by exploring common hip-hop themes of social justice, race, poverty, violence, poverty, misogyny and partying.
Tupac’s Changes and 116 Clique’s Send Me/Represent are biting social commentaries expounding on poverty, violence and racism as found in the ghetto, though, their approaches to justice could not be more divergent. While both songs encourage their respective communities to help make changes, the former appeals to a common humanity and the latter relies on the strength of the gospel. Understanding that each song comes from different worldview, our deconstruction of each song will provide insights into doing social justice.
Changes and the Brotherhood of Man Solution
Tupac grew up in an environment of social justice, since both his parents were members of the Black Panther Party. In addition, his experiences of life in the hood (as heard in the auto-biographical Dear Mamma) led him as a rapper to write songs fighting the injustices found in many African-American communities. Tupac’s Changes encapsulates his vision of social justice through the reconciliation of races, abolishing violence against “brothers” and the end of poverty. The song samples The Way It Is, a 1986 song by Bruce Hornsby providing an intertextual link to themes of social/racial justice. Though, in Changes the chorus purposely leaves out the hopeful line, “Ha, but don’t you believe them” and in the process can only profess, “That’s just the way it is.” Furthermore, the song opens with an illustration of a man devoid of hope, “I see no changes wake up in the morning and I ask myself. Is life worth living should I blast myself?” But then in the bridge Tupac exhorts his listeners:
We gotta make a change.
It’s time for us as a people to start makin’ some changes.
Let’s change the way we eat, let’s change the way we live
And let’s change the way we treat each other.
You see the old way wasn’t working so it’s on us to do
What we gotta do, to survive.
What is this “old way” that is not working anymore? Tupac covers three aspects of life in poor African-American neighborhoods, poverty, racism and violence. In regards to poverty, Tupac complains, “I’m tired of bein’ poor and even worse I’m black. My stomach hurts so I’m lookin’ for a purse to snatch.” Cynically, he views the cops as helping encourage an environment of poverty stating, “Instead of a war on poverty they got a war on drugs.” Moreover, Tupac ties poverty to racist attitudes, “Give the crack to the kids who the hell cares. One less hungry mouth on the welfare.”
…vision of social justice through the reconciliation of races, abolishing violence against “brothers” and the end of poverty.
[/pullquote]Tackling racism, Tupac bemoans, “Cops give a damn about a negro. Pull the trigger kill a n**** he’s a hero.” In a slight of hand gesture, he provides an image of racism’s consequence, “The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.” Frustrated with what is occurring, Tupac raps, “I see no changes all I see is racist faces. Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.” Though, hopeful for reconciliation between races to end this turmoil he continues, “’cause both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight. And only time we chill is when we kill each other. It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other.” Beyond poverty and racism are elements of violent behavior which Tupac sees as extensions of racism, “First ship ’em dope & let ’em deal the brothers. Give ’em guns step back watch ’em kill each other.” Contradictorily, Tupac, however, sees no other way than to resort to violence to protect himself:
And as long as I stay black I gotta stay strapped
And I never get to lay back
‘Cause I always got to worry ’bout the pay backs
Some punk that I roughed up way back
Comin’ back after all these years
The solution for these problems lie within the community itself as Tupac prophesizes:
I got love for my brother but we can never go nowhere
Unless we share with each other
We gotta start makin’ changes
Learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers
And that’s how it’s supposed to be
Then in one of the most devastating lines in the entire song, Tupac draws out the root of racism, violence and poverty and preaches, “Take the evil out the people they’ll be acting right,” but how that evil is removed is based on “appeal[ing] to the brother in you.”
Send Me/Represent and the Gospel Solution
116 Clique is a compilation of Reach Records rappers and Send Me/Represent features Lecrae, who according to his “I Am Second” video saw Tupac as a role model, though, idolizing the thug aspects of the rapper. Lecrae’s childhood is an all too familiar narrative for African-American boys living in the hood. His father was a drug addict who left his family, he was then raised by his mother, experienced abuse from family members, looked up to gang members such as his uncle, delved into criminal activity and eventually, went to prison. The turning point for Lecrae was at a conference where he met others who went through similar situations, yet Jesus completely transformed their lives (for the complete story view the video here).
Lecrae’s childhood is an all too familiar narrative for African-American boys living in the hood.
Send Me/Represent discusses the issues of poverty and violence but instead of placing blame on cops and extreme poverty, as Tupac does, the failure of completing social justice fall squarely into the laps of apathetic and nominal Christians. Opening with “I seen it with my own two, there’s no way I can show you a perfectly poverty stricken people with no view.” This bold statement, though, encompasses more than physical poverty but an impoverished spirit, followed with the line, “And I bet you can’t believe this, they never heard of Jesus.” The song also voices examples of violence, “while a nine year old is shot down no one’s screaming ‘stop now!’” and the associated consequences, “criminals who on lock down” and “while our brotha’s get’n locked up.” While touching briefly on these themes, the main thrust of the song is on the failure of Christians in doing justice.
First, the problem lies with too many people thinking that America is a Christian nation when it is not.
America ain’t Christian they just practicing a ritual.
That’s why we should be missional.
Hey, what you think I’m spit’n for?
The United States is dying
Secondly, if people were actually following Jesus and preaching the gospel, their neighborhoods would change.
Some regenerated but a lot ain’t saved.
You walk outside and be surprised cuz the block ain’t changed.
The gospel should be heard too.
We claim we ain’t ashamed,
but we ain’t hit the block up.
Thirdly, change should not be limited to the local context of one’s own experience but expand past the borders of the neighborhood and into the world. Real justice through the gospel is a both/and missional work, with neighbors down the street and neighbors half a world away.
Get out on the grind y’all.
Ain’t no better time dawg.
I know y’all read the great commission.
Let me just remind y’all:
make disciples of the nations.
Teach em to obey the Lord.
Hate to never lead someone to Christ before I face the Lord.
Lastly, the riskiness of preaching the gospel to others should not deter believers:
Lord I wanna stock up,
Pack a bag and walk up
In a country where sharing my faith may get me shot up
Anywhere I go, whether my city or far abroad,
I just wanna show them Jesus Christ the risen holy God.
This is why the rappers exhort listeners to “…look what grace did. Not for us to stay hide inside our comfort zones at home in mama’s basement.”
Two approaches on social justice but which one do you do? Do you appeal to the good in people’s common humanity or do you rely on the gospel?