4 Hip-Hop Songs Actually “Fighting The System” That You Won’t See at the VMAs

MTV reduced the role of artists from a tool of social and political impact to something lucrative and artificial.

MTV recently released their nominations for this year’s VMA Awards, which—much like the GRAMMYs—have ebbed and flowed in their relevance within the hip-hop community since their formation back in 1984. As can be expected of award shows produced and tailored by those outside the culture, the VMAs have predominantly recognized the most mainstream and popular hip-hop releases—which are typically the songs and videos most palatable for white audiences.

The Best Rap Video category (introduced in 1989), for instance, featured early winners such as “Baby Got Back,” “U Can’t Touch This,” and “Parents Just Don’t Understand.” Meanwhile, cultural phenomena and soon-to-be classics like N.W.A’s “Straight Outta Compton,” Public Enemy’s “It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back” and Boogie Down Productions’ “By All Means Necessary” all dropped in 1988 and were fair game for the inaugural year of the category. They all went without mention.

This trend of hip-hop’s most profound and powerful projects not being received well by the mainstream is certainly not unique to hip-hop, nor MTV or the VMAs, but it is something that called attention to itself given the addition of a new category for this year’s awards—the Best Fight Against the System.

This category isn’t really new. It existed from 2011-2013 as Best Video with a Message (a little too vague, huh?) and from 2013-2015 as Best Video with a Social Message. But if you look at the early hip-hop nominees in the category, it is telling of what narratives and experiences a corporation like MTV was willing to co-sign or endorse: Eminem’s “Love the Way You Lie,” K’naan’s “Is Anybody Out There?”, Lil Wayne’s “How to Love,” Macklemore & Ryan Lewis’ “Same Love” and Snoop Lion’s “No Guns Allowed.”

The inclusions of K’naan and Snoop Lion is interesting because those songs enjoyed very minimal chart success (“Is Anybody Out There?” peaked at 92 on the Hot 100, and “No Guns Allowed” never charted). As stated before, it’s run-of-the-mill for a company like MTV to only really acknowledge and show awareness of hip-hop that has “crossed over,” as the Eminem, Lil Wayne and Macklemore songs did, but by nominating K’naan and Snoop it shows that MTV was willing to look beyond the Top 40 to populate this category with content that they felt contained strong social messages (an act that is actually rather political, as their choice of what messages to lift up and acknowledge shares something of their preference in regards to the many issues artists choose to address)—and ultimately landed on those five.

Fast forward to 2017. The award has again been renamed with specificity in mind, and has returned altogether after a puzzling absence in 2016—a year in which artists (especially within hip-hop) were creating some of the most politically engaged music in recent memory (but mostly expressing sentiments about issues like police brutality that corporations like MTV aren’t too eager to publicize, so you can be the judge as to whether or not that’s merely coincidental…).

Now, there’s nothing inherently wrong with this year’s selections as a whole. You could, I’m sure, make a powerful argument for considering each and every one of these songs on the list (especially considering their music videos, which is really what this award show is about) and none of them would be as embarrassing as, say, if Katy Perry’s “Firework” had won in the category’s first year.

But this year’s nominees come from a really wide span of time—Alessia Cara’s “Scars to Your Beautiful” came out in November 2015—and absent are many of the most pressing, urgent and powerful takes on the system from hip-hop. Some of those records wouldn’t have been considered solely because they don’t have music videos, while others probably weren’t even on MTV’s radar, but we couldn’t allow an award like "Best Fight Against the System” to acknowledge the hip-hop that it does (Big Sean’s “Light,” Logic’s “Black SpiderMan,” Taboo’s “Stand Up / Stand N Rock,” and the Hamilton Mixtape’s “Immigrants”) without shedding light on the snubs; on the songs we wish could’ve been nominated that we feel didn’t receive the recognition, awareness or action that they deserved.

Editors Note: For this list, we only considered releases from the past year.

Joey Bada$$ — "Land of the Free"

I’m still baffled by people who haven’t given Joey’s ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ a complete listen. These are the same hip-hop fans who still want defiant, politically aware content and concept albums and lyrical expertise, yet haven’t invested the time and energy into understanding all that Joey gave us with this one. The media is also to blame, as “Land of the Free” was referred to by most outlets as just a protest song against Donald Trump—which, given the fact that he released it on his inauguration and included the line “And Donald Trump is not equipped to take this country over,” makes sense—but it watered down the deeper message of a potent and intellectual take on America’s current state.

I remember watching the “Land of the Free” visual for the first time and seeing the apprenticeship in the work—the same desire to provide imagery that could give the song’s auditory experience a lasting and stirring visual counterpart. Joey and co-director Nathan Smith elicit these feelings through footage of a line of white police officers and businessmen armed with guns open firing on a parallel line of unarmed black men, and a later scene of a cross-burning by the KKK, made further disturbing by the ending moments when the KKK members are revealed to be the same police officers and businessmen from before.

It’s a visual statement that needs no transcription—an offering wholly in-line with what Joey addresses in the music as a songwriter, but that also transcends it. Even more challenging for the viewer is seeing the final shots of bliss, of Joey running through idyllic fields with the same group of young black children that earlier we saw him rapping his verses to, pairing the horror of the racial injustice and white supremacy depicted with the nation’s black youth, shown here as carefree and yet will need to be taught about the world they’ve inherited and how they will be perceived.

Imagine if MTV were to give him this award, to allow clips of a man hanging from a tree and white hoods amidst a fiery cross to play across the screen of The Forum later this month. Imagine Joey walking up to the microphone, collecting his well-deserved accolade and maybe adding a few words beyond the music about what he feels we need to do next, or how art has the power to encapsulate suffering and speak to the experiences of those disadvantaged by the system. How far are we really from a place where a sentiment as unfiltered and uncensored as this, and a perspective as honest and indicting as Joey’s, can be received and endorsed and then acted upon by those who construct the VMAs, or those who consume it?

JAY-Z — "The Story of O.J."

“The Story of O.J.” continues the trend of using a video to place provocative imagery directly in the public’s eye. Jay does this through an animated video that calls upon the cartoon images produced of African-Americans that began in the early 19th century and were responsible for shaping much of the white public’s perceptions about black people due to their exaggerated, dehumanizing actions and appearances.

These images still persist in much of the American public’s psyche; how could visuals like these permeate popular culture for so long and not still remain in many minds? It serves as the perfect visual backdrop for Hov to make his point about the perception of black people in society, and how regardless of their status, there’s still a capability of being reduced to their inferior position in the system.

In the supplementary video short, “Footnotes for ‘The Story of O.J.’,” Jay explains the O.J. reference that serves as the song’s foundation: “O.J. would get to a space where he’s like, ‘I’m not black, I’m O.J.’ Like Tiger Woods would get to a space and think, ‘I’m above the culture.’ And that same person when he’s playing golf and playing great, you’re protected. When you’re not, they’re gonna put pictures of you drunk driving and, like, embarrass you. That world will eat you up and spit you out.” This is further exemplified by statements from black celebrities like Chris Rock, Trevor Noah and Mahershala Ali who express the challenges that a racist system has presented for them and those around them.

Far too much of the press around this video and song has gone to Jay’s calling out of rappers holding money to their ears, yet it is one of the most creative ways to call upon this country’s racist history that I’ve seen in a music video. While it likely wasn’t released in time for nomination, I’ll be very curious and eager to see if MTV will be willing to acknowledge it, since while Jay has the mainstream-friendliness they look for in hip-hop contributors, the video is certainly not the kind of “Same Love”-esque socially aware content that they have recognized in the past.

J. Cole — "High For Hours"

I know this track wasn’t a snub since it didn’t come with a video, but it's one of the year’s most thought-provoking releases. Only five weeks after dropping 4 Your Eyez Only, Cole dropped "High For Hours" on MLK Day, fittingly, and the two releases highlight two different capacities he has to make profound music. Where the writing on 4 Your Eyez Only is precise and refined, each song delicately and deliberately advancing the album’s narrative and feeling meticulously composed, “High For Hours” is more in the vein of 2014’s “Be Free." While it doesn’t try to capture the same kind of emotion that song does so intensely, the writing here, too, is more free-form, more reminiscent of a diary entry or a stream of consciousness, and there’s a unique power that Cole can muster in songs where even the way he writes seems to support his “everyman” persona.

While 4 Your Eyez Only is the conscientious and exacting work of a master talent, “High For Hours” is the reflective free write, the honest rumination that perfectly captures his current place of mind and considerations; his in-progress insights.

This song, like “Land of the Free,” addresses America’s lack of self-awareness and hypocrisies, focusing on the disconnect between being a nation promising freedom and its slave ownership, as well as being one that preaches pacifism and yet publicly celebrated the assassination of bin Laden.

The most interesting window into Cole’s current worldview is the third verse, where he considers the history of revolutions and questions whether overthrowing the system is really the complete answer. It’s a vivid and compelling look into the mind of someone whose album said so much about the conditions of life for black men in America, and yet didn’t directly address the protests he’d been a part of or the administration that was about to take office. It takes the idea he presents in “Change,” that real change comes from inner peace, and suggests that without consideration of this a revolution could just be part of the larger cycle that we’ve seen throughout history.

It’s a call to arms, but rather than for combat it’s a summons to seek out a revolution within one’s self, to not allow the same culture of greed that powers the current system in practice to persist. It’s an authoritative call-out and outline of the system as it exists, but it’s also a map for how to escape its depths.

Run The Jewels — "Thieves! (Screamed the Ghost)"

This list wouldn’t be complete without a song from the phenomenal RTJ3, one that furthers the political action demanded on the gripping “Close Your Eyes (And Count to Fuck).” While Cole’s assertion is that the revolution needs to begin internally, “Thieves!” is an endorsement of the purpose that protest serves. It’s arguably the most important record on a project that consistently calls upon injustice and suggests the need for a revolt-like response. It’s a song that channels anger, an emotion we so rarely get to hear in socially-conscious music (at least in that of the mainstream), and that—unlike so much of what has been nominated for this award—properly expresses the urgency of the issue, which in this case is police brutality and the lack of accountability for police officers.

In an interview with Billboard, the duo addressed this song when asked about whether a particular track had “mapped the identity for the album,” to which El-P responded:

“There’s a song called 'Thieves!'—it was one of the hardest songs that we had ever pulled off. It was a time that we had to really push ourselves to create a narrative together, in an intertwining way that was about something really heavy, that honored not only our perspectives but also honored the weight of the topic. We worked really f--king hard on nailing that, so that we could walk away from that being like, ‘We feel good about putting this out there.’ Because we knew [we] had something potentially special there.”

That attention to detail is clearly evident in the song’s lyricism. Collectively, they present this sci-fi, Twilight Zone-inspired world which serves as a home for them to articulate the experiences of communities which have lost people to police violence, and details what should be done in those same communities to stand up. In one of the song’s most resonant lines, El-P states, “Fear’s been law for so long that rage feels like therapy,” which implicates the system for allowing racial terror to persist for so long, and also highlights the almost curative nature of protest, of releasing anger in response to such events.

As the song winds down and Martin Luther King Jr.’s voice cuts through the combative production, delivering the iconic words, “Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots…,” it’s hard not to think about how the culture’s most pressing and incendiary releases are still largely existing only beneath the surface of popular society.

It’s hard not to consider the implications of having those in charge of championing songs that fight against the system select contributions that are important, but that seemingly go down too smooth. That too equally measure any mention of injustice with more generic sentiments of perseverance and promise. That sonically embrace too many major chords and triumphant chorus arrangements. That don’t ask its listeners to experience discomfort or to necessarily be charged with doing anything about it.

If songs that are to be publicly heralded as fighting against the system are ones that do so, but only in far lighter and more absolving ways, it allows companies like MTV to pat themselves on the back for being culturally aware and allows past winners like Macklemore and Demi Lovato to tack social-progressiveness onto their image without actually inciting any positive change. It reduces the role of artists as a tool of social and political impact to something lucrative, something the system itself is in on, something artificial.

None of the artists who may take home the award on August 27 will be responsible for this themselves, as all of these videos are meaningful and speak to an issue that does deserve attention, but in the wake of how much music is being created that truly asks us as listeners to rebel and to change—to protest and to fight—we must ask ourselves if we’re really heeding the call, or if we’re letting the art of our most concerned citizens simply exist as another clickbait protest song headline, another song solely for hip-hop heads, another call to arms that goes by without a response.



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