Hip-hop’s revolutionary power exists in the fabric of the genre’s existence. The predatory policing that took the lives of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Tony McDade in recent months—a vessel of a capitalist system that must go—has prompted artists like Noname and rapper-comedian Zack Fox, among others, to unabashedly call in for the abolition of the American carceral state.
On the surface, the idea of defunding the police and abolishing prisons may be too radical for those who view crime and punishment as a fact of life. But there’s no such thing as too radical. Human history is defined by revolution and radical change: Ruling classes abuse their power, the people revolt, and seismic shifts occur.
In particular, radical resistance is the basis of hip-hop’s creation. It was a radical idea for Black and Latino South Bronx residents to settle their neighborhood rivalries through DJ and breakdancing battles instead of violence. It was an even more radical concept for that movement to evolve into the most powerful artistic force in the world.
Any hip-hop head is inherently subscribed to revolution, whether they know it or not. Hip-hop is predominantly composed of people who were never supposed to sidestep systemic oppression. Artists like 50 Cent, JAY-Z, and Fat Joe, would-be casualties of the so-called “war on drugs,” were supposed to die tryin’ to get rich. But instead, they sold their story to the world.
There’s justified criticism of hip-hop’s wealthiest figures becoming a figment of the very establishment the people are relenting against. Nevertheless, the genre is full of customs and ethos that serve as practical examples of radical praxis at work. I put together a list of the most prominent:
1. Self-Policing Communities
Don’t let Tekashi 6ix9ine fool you: hip-hop does NOT need the police to solve our problems. Those familiar with the carceral state know it’s rarely interested in justice as much as accruing more veritable slave labor. In hip-hop, artist tension is often quelled through a mutual acquaintance. Respected figures like Houston’s J Prince, LA’s Big U, and Chicago’s JoJo Capone are known for stepping in and using their influence to put out figurative fires.
Game has said the late Nipsey Hussle stepped in to squash his 2016 beef with Meek Mill. J Prince once squashed messy beef between Master P and Pimp C. It’s nothing for respected mediators to bring rival artists together and come to a peaceful resolution.
People seeking police abolition want similar community-based conflict resolution methods. Abolition doesn’t mean lawlessness, but alternative approaches that focus on accountability and repairing the harm done to the aggrieved instead of punitive consequences. Whether it’s restorative justice, circles, social workers, gang interventionists, or calling up a big homie, there are existing models of intra-community regulation that we can finetune to work for American communities.
2. Community Solidarity
No one’s gonna have our back like we have our back. To collectively achieve anything, the people have to foster solidarity and share resources.
The Atlanta hip-hop community primarily operates on socialist principles. Since the ‘90s, the superstars of every era have relinquished ego and offered opportunities to the city’s next generation. Gucci Mane signed Young Thug without even hearing his music. Thugger, in turn, did the same for Lil Baby.
As Rick Ross rapped on his “Bitch Don’t Kill My Vibe” remix, “I was raised in the South, you helped your brother to shine.” He once signed Isa Muhammad, then experiencing homelessness, to MMG after hearing him rap once in the street. Up north, Dame Dash signed Cam’ron to Roc-A-Fella and was close to signing the late Big L as well, both out of Harlem solidarity.
Capitalism conditions us to be adversarial in the name of a dollar, which is why we should explore economic systems that promote the community over hierarchy.
3. Redistribution of Wealth
JAY-Z once rapped, “What’s better than one billionaire? Two.” But the right answer to that query is 2,000 millionaires. If we uproot economic inequality, we have to demand the end of excessive wealth.
Since the George Floyd-inspired uprising began, artists like Kanye West, Drake, The Weeknd, and more have donated a sizable pool of money to bail funds and community organizations. Also impressive is the charity of artists (turned landlords) like Desiigner, who helped their tenants bypass rent amid the COVID-19 pandemic.
Beyond this moment, there’s the charity of moguls like JAY-Z, Diddy, and others, who have offered grants and resources to hundreds of students. In 2017, Nicki Minaj randomly gave thousands of dollars of tuition to students. While these gestures are a step in the right direction, looking at the Forbes List and unemployment stats, there are indications there’s a lot more where that came from.
4. Belief in the Impossible
Just 200 years ago, Black people all over the Atlantic were enslaved. There are still people alive who experienced American segregation. The thought of a day without either of these scourges may have seemed impossible back then, but we can thank the courageous people who agreed with James Baldwin, who asserted: “The impossible is the least that one can demand.”
Rappers are today’s most high-profile models of overcoming seemingly impossible odds. Abject poverty, incarceration, near-death experiences, mental health issues, substance abuse, domestic violence, or any other number of human calamities—there are more than enough artists who stand as living testaments that it can get better.
If you feel like contributing to the fight for abolition is unfeasible, consider channeling the resilience of your favorite artists, who consistently demonstrate our innate courage and ability to achieve the improbable.
5. The Power of the Mantra
An essential part of abolition is faith, even when the path doesn’t seem tenable. When the consensus is skeptical, and the establishment is working against our self-interest, what (or whom) do we cling to? Sometimes it’s as simple as a mantra.
Many rappers have used mantras as their mission statement. When Lil Wayne first called himself the “Best Rapper Alive” in the late ’00s, few people felt like he had a legitimate claim to the title that JAY-Z had previously bestowed on himself. But his faith in that affirmation drove him, and he eventually reached a point where JAY-Z called him “my heir” and passed the torch on “Mr. Carter.”
For all of Kendrick Lamar’s lyrical wizardry, his legacy may best be defined by four simple words: “We gon’ be alright,” which has become a rallying cry for protesters at demonstrations all over the world.
When it’s you against the world, affirmatory mantras powerfully sloganize your movement. If you believe, soon enough, the rest of the world will believe as well.
6. People Power
Consider the work that goes into an album launch. Beyond the artists, there’s also the publicists and marketers who get the word out about the project. Some visual artists brand the album art and merch. Managers work with agents to book the artist’s shows. All of these people are selflessly contributing to a greater good in relative anonymity.
That same cooperative dynamic is present in activism. The movement is comprised of so many roles, and visibility doesn’t equal importance to the cause. Activist Deepa Iyer’s social change map delineates the myriad tasks that people play within the “social change ecosystem.”
If massive financial divestments and highway-obstructing marches haven’t taught us already, learn it now: the power is in the people. We’re who leverage labels to “Let The LOX Go,” or work together to push a single to No. 1, like Cardi B’s “Bodak Yellow.” Any artist who crosses a Billboard or Forbes milestone has to thank millions of people for that appointment. So what else could we accomplish together?
The system will never condemn itself. Donald Trump isn’t going to speak about the links between capitalism, the prison industrial complex, predatory policing, and racism.
It’s up to the people to sharpen our minds and discover those links. That’s why self-education is vital. People bashing the practicality of abolishing the police or prisons have probably never read Angela Davis’ book, Are Prisons Obsolete?, which lays out an airtight case for the system’s obsolescence.
Knowing the ledge has been a part of hip-hop since before Rakim rhymed it in ‘91. “Knowledge of self” was a prime tenet of golden era New York hip-hop. The more we read, the more we learn about radical alternatives to capitalism. Today, Noname’s Book Club is a prime vehicle for people to become familiar with radical theory. More artists should take cues from her and artists like Lupe Fiasco, who has no problem jumping on Instagram Live and schooling viewers.
8. Communal Organizing
The late Nipsey Hussle described his stratagem meetings to XXL in 2013:
“We all sit down every week and just bounce ideas around, sometimes we got crazy, way out ideas, and we just all throw them at each other and see how the group feels about it.” —Nipsey Hussle
We should be taking the same collective energy into our current discussions. There’s no idea too radical to be explored. Too, an idea is only as useful as the depth by which we scrutinize it. How many people would want to sacrifice for a mission they haven’t been consulted about? The movement has to dismantle the idea of hierarchy once and for all and transform into a togetherness where no one voice is louder than the hoard.
When labels repeatedly turned down JAY-Z in the mid-90s, it took him, Dame Dash, and Kareem “Biggs” Burke to hit the drawing board and resolve to release Reasonable Doubt independently. We regard RZA as “The Abbot” of the Wu, but his brother Mitchell “Divine” Diggs, and Oli “Power” Grant helped him organize the group’s five-year plan to achieve commercial dominance.