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The Hip-Hop Road to Socialism

Since it first went mainstream in the 1980s, hip-hop has been a big business, and many of its leading figures have a strongly capitalist ethos. But there’s an alternative tradition of socialist rap music that challenges the status quo.

Rappers (L-R) the Notorious B.I.G., Tupac Shakur, and Redman backstage at a Tupac performance at Club Amazon in New York on July 23, 1993. (Al Pereira/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

The video for “Marx is a Post-90” features an illustration of the nineteenth-century philosopher and social revolutionary flashing a peace sign. This Chinese rap song extols the virtues of Marx: a young emcee, decked out in a sports jersey with “13” blazoned across the chest, describes his first introduction to Marxist philosophy as something that he had to study to get through exams, before later becoming a full-blown red-or-dead convert.

“You stand up and say the proletariat’s strength will overcome evil,” the rapper spits in his native tongue. “I am your Bruno Mars / But you are my Venus.”

For the uninitiated, “Post-90s” is a demographic cohort: the term refers to people born in the closing decade of the last century. Think of them as the Chinese version of millennials. The Chinese government commissioned “Marx is a Post-90” as a way of getting young people interested in politics, and the video is about as cool as you’d expect from government-approved rap music, with a strange and awkward glop of communist imagery and parody-level rap stunting. 

It’s weird. Or maybe we’ve been conditioned to see Marxism and hip-hop as two entities that cannot be synthesized. While hip-hop clearly does have a history of being something more than music to get up and get down to, also serving as a vehicle for political thought — “the black CNN,” as Public Enemy’s Chuck D once put it — socialist and communist philosophy has never been a cornerstone of the genre. In fact, ever since hip-hop moved beyond its block and went global, capitalism has been as much a part of its development as two turntables and a microphone.

From the Bronx to the Boardroom

As a cultural form, hip-hop was born from the fires of a burning Bronx in the 1970s as a youth culture that was pure and uncommodified. Those kids really changed the world: as the decades rolled on, rap music became the biggest-selling genre on the planet. 

The bling-bling era of the late 1990s reflected the commercialization of rap. The most popular artists focused less on the social issues that had been prominent in the 1980s and early ’90s, and more on extravagances and money — getting it and flaunting it.

Hip-hop seems to exemplify some of the traditional ideological premises of the United States, particularly the idea that every citizen can achieve upward social mobility through hard work or smart entrepreneurship. Its leading players have been upstarts who often come from extreme poverty. A handful of artists who started at the bottom are now among the richest people in the country: in 2019, Jay-Z became the first hip-hop billionaire. There’s even a study of his meteoric rise penned by a senior editor at Forbes magazine, with a preface by Steve Forbes himself.

In rap, billionaires aren’t just encouraged, they’re deified. The most successful hip-hop stars frequently graduate to the corner offices that help prop up the industry. This entanglement of music with big business places obstacles in the way of people who want to make politically radical music. Inevitably, most rising rappers seek to break bread with the capitalist gatekeepers.

Even so, it is surprising that rap has so rarely been fertile ground for socialist thought. Consider the strong presence of the Black Panther Party in the messages of black power articulated through hip-hop. The leaders of the largest black American revolutionary socialist organization that has ever existed constructed it on the basis of a Marxist-Leninist framework that rappers rarely explore.

Hip-hop does skew to the left of mainstream US politics. The Republican Party has always been a toxic brand for rappers to touch, so much so that any kind of warmth shared between a rapper and a GOP politician instantly becomes a headline — witness the backlash against the handful of stars who caped for Donald Trump at the last election.

Hip-hop’s instinct to fall in behind the Democrats intensified during Barack Obama’s first presidential run. Bernie Sanders raked in some hip-hop endorsements, perhaps most notably from the relentlessly political Killer Mike, who has described “compassionate capitalism” as his goal. Leading hip-hop figures sometimes pay lip service to the idea of a revolution. For the most part, however, rap’s political interest remains within the established boundaries of the American system.

Tupac and the Panthers

Even so, some rappers are heroes of the radical left, and none more so than Tupac Shakur, an undeniable icon of left-wing politics. Pac’s image exists in the same realm as Che Guevara, destined to be worshipped on the walls of college dorm rooms forever more, instantly recognizable even to people who couldn’t name one of his songs.

It’s natural that Shakur should have become associated with rebellion. His mother, Afeni Shakur, was one of the twenty-one Black Panther activists who were arrested and charged with several counts of conspiracy to bomb police stations and other public places in New York. Tupac himself appears to have been a member of the Young Communist League at one point, too. But Pac’s socialism was driven less by overarching theories about how society should be restructured than by his own sense of realpolitik.

A ball of eloquent rage, Pac railed against the establishment. He had a particular hatred for American imperialism, once suggesting that it was the bloodiest form of gang violence: 

Somebody shoots your family member, so of course you retaliate, you know what I mean? Same thing the US does, except nobody even shot they family members. They see somebody bomb a school, and all these people get killed, so the United States say ooh that’s messed up, we gotta go show ’em who the real killas is.

Pac railed against the wealth structures of US society, too. “There’s no way Michael Jackson should have, or whoever Jackson, should have a million-thousand-druple-billion dollars and then there’s people starving,” he once fired in an interview. “There’s no way! There’s no way that these people should own planes and then these people don’t have houses, apartments, shacks, drawers, pants.”

There’s something of a balance to Tupac’s “Thug Life” and the Notorious B.I.G.’s mantra “ashy to classy.” “Thug Life” is an acronym for “The Hate U Give Little Infants Fucks Everybody,” which somewhat imperfectly encapsulated Pac’s social justice spirit. Biggie, his historic rival and one of the few rappers to match his greatness, lived only a few months longer, and was also not around long enough to fully shape his own legacy. 

In his absence, Biggie’s assertion that we went from “ashy to classy” — in other words, poverty to prosperity — was taken to extremes by two of his former collaborators. Jay-Z and Sean “Puffy” Combs pitched themselves as guardians of Big’s legacy and later became extremely wealthy businessmen with diverse portfolios. We’ll never know how Biggie himself would have viewed such hyper-capitalism.

Tupac was too much of a contradiction — as much an antagonist as he was an activist — and too driven by raw emotion to have presented fully rounded political ideas. Nevertheless, his influence on a generation can’t be denied.

Making Excuses for Billionaires

Overtly socialist ideas have mainly been located in the hip-hop underground. A handful of artists have been unequivocal in their willingness to operate under a red flag. Paris, Immortal Technique, and the Coup (whose leader, Boots Riley, is now a movie director) have been recording radical songs since the 1990s. Mainstream success has always eluded them.

Let’s take Paris as a lens. The Oakland rapper felt the sting of trying to release music with incendiary political content in 1992, when he recorded “Bush Killa,” a protest song that criticized George H. W. Bush’s war against Iraq. Paris repeated a decades-old message of righteous black revolutionary politics: their enemy was not foreign but homegrown. He slapped down suggestions that activism should always be nonviolent: “Cause when I’m violent is the only time the devils hear it.” 

The track was due to appear on his second album, Sleeping with the Enemy. But pressure from media outlets and Time Warner shareholders deterred Tommy Boy Records, which was then a Warner Bros. Records subsidiary, from releasing the project. Paris eventually put it out independently.

Paris, now fifty-three years old, is still releasing music today. His recent album, Safe Space Invader, is as dedicated to socialist messaging as any rap album I’ve heard. On “Nobody Move,” he echoes that past by declaring “The return of authentic hard truth spit / The Trump killa, Pence killa, Bush killa, cop killa,” and openly calling for a red revolution: “Convince the proletariat to listen, envision / The uprise and the wise eyеs open wide.”

Socialist politics are still slower to gestate in more commercial forms of rap. “So when we start over y’all tryna do socialism or communism,” said Chance the Rapper, a genuine genre star, in a tweet last year, hinting at a burnout with capitalism that may seep into music that has often focused on Christianity above politics.

Then there’s his fellow Chicago star Noname, who has essentially been using social media to document her ideological evolution since early 2019, when she tweeted a defense of black capitalism. Among the best moments was the revelation that she had turned down the chance to record a song for the Fred Hampton biopic Judas and the Black Messiah, criticizing the film for not centering the Marxist-Leninist revolutionary’s “radical communist politics.” 

She also launched the Noname Book Club, a reading group that has selected literature such as Are Prisons Obsolete? by Angela Davis, The Wretched of the Earth by the anti-colonial theorist Frantz Fanon, and Class Struggle in Africa by Kwame Nkrumah. Noname’s new album, Factory Baby, is due out later this year. If its contents reflect these recent developments in her thinking, it may prove to be the most significant release from an unashamed socialist rapper. “How you make excuses for billionaires?” she asks on her latest single, “Rainforest.” “You broke on the bus.”

Rap Against the State

With the capitalist foundations of US society still seemingly unshakeable, it’s not surprising that some of the most prominent Marxists to have adopted rap as a tool to spread their messages can be found elsewhere. The cover of Marxman’s 1993 album, 33 Revolutions per Minute, featured a red splash background and a hammer and sickle. Marxman consisted of two Dubliners, MC Hollis Byrne and electronic musician Oisin Lunny, and two British Jamaicans, rapper MC Phrase and scratch mixer DJ Kay One. Their album mixed beats specific to its era — funky samples and raw drums, with occasional splashes of British dance and even Celtic music — with righteous left-wing messages. 

The opening track, “Theme From Marxman,” envisioned a conversation between the group and a liberal as they make the argument for wealth redistribution, and scratched Gil Scott-Heron’s voice into the song: “The revolution will be live.” Elsewhere on the album, “Droppin’ Elocution” saluted activists who fight for workers’ power and called for “Revolution social change not just reformation.” This mixture of revolutionary left-wing assertions and hip-hop still makes for a startling concoction because it remains so damn different.

Marxman didn’t change the world, but the Catalan communist rapper Pablo Hasél has, at the very least, scared some of those in power. Hasél, whose real name is Pablo Rivadulla Duró, frequently writes songs defending members of the Basque separatist organization ETA and the Marxist urban guerrilla group GRAPO. 

On February 16 this year, after Hasél barricaded himself with supporters at the University of Lleida in Catalonia, the police took him to prison on charges of “glorifying terrorism” and “insulting the Spanish crown and its security forces” in a series of sixty-four tweets posted from 2014 to 2016 and a song released via YouTube. Here’s one example of a tweet deemed unlawful by the Spanish courts: “While they call Cuba a terrible tyranny, where there are less resources but no evictions, they hide the Bourbon [king’s] gangster-like businesses with Saudi Arabia.”

Spain’s National Court, the Audiencia Nacional, dismissed Hasél’s petition against his prison sentence, citing his previous criminal record, including a two-year sentence for songs “glorifying” ETA and GRAPO. That sentence had been provisionally suspended, but was reactivated when Hasél received another conviction.

As the police were dragging Hasél out of the university, he urged people to take to the streets — and they have — vowing that the struggle against the state would continue. “They will never make us give in, despite the repression,” he said with a fist raised.

The suppression of revolutionary rappers — whether that comes through the capitalist structures of the music industry or more overt government crackdowns — remains a serious barrier to the development of true, unvarnished socialist hip-hop. But the potential stars are still there, bubbling in the underground, ready to spread knowledge.