A cultural movement in search of a political movement meets a political movement in search of an artistic force.
They say every movement has its soundtrack; but this film metaphor doesn’t come close to capturing the way that music’s unique combination of word and sound has been integral to progressive and radical change throughout the century. From South Africa’s anti-apartheid movement, to the freedom songs of the US civil rights struggle, musical rhythms have fueled the very heartbeat of social movements — strengthening bonds within groups, creating space to connect across racial and cultural lines, educating about issues, engaging emotions, and tapping into deeply held political and spiritual beliefs.
The Occupy Wall Street movement, and the larger anti-capitalist sentiment from which it derives its strength, does not have a coherent soundtrack. While musicians of all stripes have taken the movement and its “99%” message as inspiration, and arts of many kinds have popped up at occupation sites, there is no set of “occupation songs” that drive the movement. This may in part be a result of the very wide net the movement is trying to draw — certainly 99% of the population could never agree on liking the same music. But if I had to put my money on one genre that has the potential to unite young occupiers across the country, and the world, it would be hip-hop music — with its wide appeal, roots in rebelliousness, and long history of political and social critique (sorry, folk music).
Meanwhile, conscious hip-hop has long been a cultural movement in search of a political one. Hip-hop culture, and the music it has spawned, have undoubtedly affected the world. But even at the height of political rap’s popularity in the late ’80s, as artists like Public Enemy and KRS-One brought racism, inequality, police brutality, and others social issues the forefront, the US lacked a parallel large-scale political movement seeking systemic change. In this absence, rappers have lent their voices in small groups to various political issues — from prison abolition to youth organizing to the Obama campaign — and have arguably made a significant impact on movements overseas such as the Arab Spring.
Where the Occupy protests meet Hip-Hop, some creative sparks have been flying. Not only can this make for good listening for conscious hip-hop fans, but it has the potential to raise issues specifically affecting young people of color — something Occupy needs to do if it seeks to be a truly diverse, justice-oriented, and sustainable movement. Songs have been put out by a number of artists, both famous and little-know. Above is Jasiri X’s “Occupy,” and Rebel Diaz’s “We the 99%” (thank you to Balance Edutainment for pointing me to these links.) And here is a video for a lesser-known Chicago rapper named Brandon Carter, which I really liked. Enjoy!