Nelson Mandela is one of the 21st century's most celebrated civil rights activists. And not for nothing, after surviving a 27-year long jail sentence for conspiring to overthrow a racist South African government, Mandela emerged as a crucial leader in the anti-apartheid effort. All of this culminated to his being the first elected Black president in South Africa.
Given his contributions are plentiful, and as hip-hop is a genre enrapt in social justice, it's no surprise Nelson Mandela is referenced heavily across all eras of hip-hop.
To celebrate what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday (July 18), we've teamed up with our friends at TIDAL to highlight the 15 best Nelson Mandela references in hip-hop history.
Check out five of the top picks below, and click here to enjoy our full list and playlist on TIDAL.
1. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Can Get Down,” Midnight Marauders, 1993
“We rap by what we see, meaning reality / From people busting caps and like Mandela being free / Not every MC be with the negativity”
A classic cut from A Tribe Called Quest’s classic Midnight Marauders, this Mandela reference is delivered over a bed of scratches by the late Phife Dawg. Here, Phife speaks on the importance of rappers tackling social issues, using Mandela’s history as a prime example of civil rights struggle and moving towards goodness.
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2. Will Smith, “Tell Me Why,” Lost and Found, 2005
“Tell me why did Mandela have to live in a cage? / Why did my brother Sterling have to die at that age?”
On “Tell Me Why,” Will Smith confronts senseless atrocities in the form of rhetorical questions. There’s a desperation to the stream of questions, and the mention of Mandela’s 27-year-long jail sentence only amplifies the helpless tone of the song.
3. JAY-Z, “Oh My God,” Kingdom Come, 2006
“Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli / Still got time to give water out to everybody”
Here, JAY-Z is emphasizing his benevolence and impact by placing Mandela in conversation with fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. JAY-Z’s influence and interests know no bounds on “Oh My God,” ending on an image of dispersing water, which is not a far cry from JAY-Z telling us that he gives us life.
4. The Game “Letter to the King ft. Nas,” LAX, 2008
“I feel the pain of Nelson Mandela / ‘Cause when it rains it pours, I need Rihanna’s umbrella”
The Game frequently alludes to Mandela in his bars, citing and revering his sacrifices. Like most Mandela references, “Letter to the King” focuses on anguish and attempts to contextualize Mandela’s struggles in the present. The lightness of the Rihanna punchline also suggests that The Game could never fully understand Mandela’s pain, but communicates the sentiment with some easy humility.
5. Jadakiss “What If ft. Nas,” The Last Kiss, 2009
“What if Nelson Mandela could give his time back?”
As heard on previous tracks, Nelson Mandela is a popular mention in songs framed around rhetorical questions. Not only do these mentions underscore his significance, but they also imply that, at present, there is no way for our generation to fully comprehend the scope of Mandela’s suffering.