Over the last couple weeks, I’ve seen a few memes on my Twitter timeline that compare how we entered 2016—smiling and happy—with how the year has ended: an absolute mess. They’re obviously meant to be comical and provide a good laugh, but the more you think about it, it’s all kinds of fucked, especially with Donald Trump becoming our President-elect and Kanye’s subsequent downward spiral capping off the year.
Indeed, 2016 has been mind-boggling, with only a handful of events in the last couple weeks providing respite: Chance the Rapper’s seven GRAMMY nominations; Gucci Mane and Zaytoven’s Tiny Desk performance on NPR; and DJ Khaled’s collaboration with Palmer’s Cocoa Butter. These were joyous occasions.
Still, this year’s tougher moments—rife with social injustices—have far overshadowed anything pleasant. The youth have united to combat these transgressions, calling for empowerment, solidarity, and awareness. Many artists and musicians have also felt compelled to join the movement, using their platforms to spread uplifting and inspiring messages, songs that call for us to continue to band together and protest systemic oppression.
Some songs have been rallying cries, and others have bared the most honest truths. Here, we present the best rap protest songs of 2016, in no particular order.
Vic Mensa - “16 Shots”
When Chicago teenager Laquan McDonald’s dash-cam video was finally released on November 24, 2015—he was shot and killed by a Chicago Police officer in October 2014—his city was enraged. Vic Mensa demonstrated with his fellow protesters that night, and subsequently released the song “16 Shots” from his excellent EP, There’s Alot Going On, in summer 2016. The title refers to the number of times that McDonald was shot, a simultaneously harrowing, forceful and mobilizing anthem that again boosts the Black Lives Matter message.
A Tribe Called Quest - “We the People…”
“We The People…” is arguably the most politically-charged cut from A Tribe Called Quest’s newest album We got it from Here… Thank You 4 Your service, an LP ripe with political messaging. The album bridges nostalgia with novelty, giving it a timeless quality, with this song, in particular, able to resonate just as much with present-day America and one 30 or 40 years in the past. “We The People…” is a harsh indictment of our current socio-political climate—and more than anything, it is an appeal to humanity, an overture for unity.
YG & Nipsey Hussle - “FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)”
“FDT” is one of the biggest and best political attacks of the year, so cautionary that even the Secret Service contacted Def Jam to have YG remove a few lyrics from the song, including one about El Chapo knocking off Trump (filming of the music video was shut down as well). Sonically evocative of classic G-funk, “FDT” proved to be a powerfully captivating protest song that demonstrators have organized behind. YG’s defiance is empowering, and the song's corresponding movement was strong enough to warrant the honor of Best Hip-Hop Moment of the Year.
Vince Staples - “War Ready”
Sampling OutKast’s song “ATLiens,” Vince Staples opens his song “War Ready” with a punch, his anger in agreeance with that of André 3000's “Found a way to channel my anger now to embark / The world's a stage and everybody's got to play their part." We’re not unaccustomed to Staples speaking his mind, or speaking on the realities that plague his Long Beach, California hometown. With the hook, he assures us he’s ready to use his music as a platform to fight for change—and in doing so, encourages us to do the same.
Kendrick Lamar - “untitled 03 | 05.28.2013.”
On the third cut from untitled unmastered., Kendrick Lamar seeks advice from minority groups—Indian, Asian and Black—on how to better live his life, each imparting wisdom. The song is a sharp statement on the nature of the hip-hop industry: How white people profit from the artistry and musicianship of black culture.
Run The Jewels - “2100” ft. Boots
Run The Jewels released “2100” the day after the presidential election, as a means to quell some of the negativity that resulted from Trump’s win. Killer Mike and El-P’s tones waver between a palpable softness and something more forthright—still, it’s the gentler moments that catch your ear, especially when Mike sings, “I'm here to tell you don't let em tell you what's right wrong / Make love, smoke kush, try to laugh hard, and live long.” The message is one of never backing down, and once again RTJ reminds us how important their voices are these days.
ScHoolboy Q - “Black THougHts” ft. Kendrick Lamar
“Black THougHts” overflows with stereotypes that continuously pigeonhole the black community, its subdued, stripped-down beat highlighting ScHoolboy Q’s commentary. Though the song’s tone is controlled, there is still a sense of urgency in its restraint, a quietness in this list of ills. Like all of the emcees on this list, Q also acknowledges the importance of using his influence as a rapper to help society move forward.
By Tara Mahadevan. Follow her on Twitter.