Freedom of Speech and Hip Hop

By Anjali Nayak

In the face of oppression, both legends and underground spearheads of hip hop have created a rich, unique form of music that brings concepts of inequality and racism to the public view. Created by rapping over drum breaks at house parties and block events in the Bronx, rap has become a dominant force in not just the music industry, but pop culture as a whole. Although rap is a uniquely American form of expression, the popularity of streaming has spread the genre to every corner of the world. 

Gil Scott Heron, considered the “Grandfather of Hip Hop”, created the song “The Revolution Will Not be Televised”, expressing his dismay of mainstream media’s tendency to neglect news of police brutality. Offering a humorous yet powerful critique of America in the 1960s, the song quickly became a defining moment of the black power movement. Today, the title of the song can be seen plastered on signs and banners at every Black Lives Matter protest. 

NWA’s album, Straight Outta Compton, shot rap music into mainstream media. Considered one of the most important projects in music history, the album describes the street violence, oppression, and police brutality in the group’s hometown of Compton, California. In an album highlight, the song “F– Tha Police”, rappers Ice Cube, MC Ren, Dr. Dre, and Eazy-E spit bars such as “F— the police comin’ straight from the underground/ A young n—- got it bad ’cause I’m brown/ And not the other color so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority”. Safe to say NWA does not care for The Compton Police Department. The song outraged white Americans, and The Parents Music Resource Center launched a public campaign against the group and its use of profanity. The FBI targeted and investigated members of NWA. To those not affiliated with hip hop culture, Straight Outta Compton was seen as an obscene, vulgar mess. On the other hand, fans of rap music saw the album as a masterpiece, displaying the hardships experienced by black people throughout the country. In 2017, the album was archived by the Library of Congress and has been recognized not only as an important milestone in music, but as a turning point for African Americans all over the United States.

The importance of civil rights and equality is still deeply woven into hip hop today. For example, Kendrick Lamar’s critically acclaimed “To Pimp a Butterfly” is considered one of the greatest rap albums of all time. TPAB is an intricate assessment of themes such as equality and capitalism. The instrumentals are derived from genres of music pioneered by black people, such as jazz, funk, and soul. The album is essentially a love letter to African American culture, contrasted with the dark reality of being a black man in the United States. Hit single “Alright” became a protest song, and the project as a whole helped spread awareness of the hardships African Americans face in the country. 

As of today, hip hop is now the most popular genre of music in the world, overtaking Rock and Roll. Streaming services have become a large part of the widespread appeal of hip hop. For example, websites such as Soundcloud and Spotify have made it easy for artists to upload their music to the internet, which can then be viewed by anyone in the world. Rappers in countries such as Spain, Thailand, Italy, and the United Kingdom become inspired by songs they find on streaming services, creating an emergence of rap music in countries that would otherwise not be able to. Rap music inspires citizens in other countries to speak out against the government. Thanks to streaming, hip hop has helped galvanize political change all around the globe. 

In Spain, citizens risk losing their right to freedom of expression. Citizens in Spain can be arrested for making jokes, art, and statements that either directly or indirectly attack the Spanish government. One example is the case of Joseph Miguel Arenas. Better known by his stage name Valtonyc, the rapper has taken refuge in Belgium after being sentenced 3 years in prison for threats, glorification of terrorism, and insults to the crown, going against the Criminal Code. In an interview with the Washington Post, Valtonyc says, “As artists, our only weapon is our words. Eminem, the most famous rapper in the world, has a song called We are Americans, where he says that he wants to see the president dead. Snoop Dogg has a music video where he shoots Trump. Ice – T has a song called Cop Killer. In Spain today, they would be convicted for these songs. For much less we are going to jail”. In just the year of 2017, the Spanish government arrested 12 rappers for their work. Earlier this year in February, rapper Pablo Hasél was convicted of criticizing the monarchy. His arrest has sparked protests across the country and renewed debate over free speech in Spain. Thousands flocked to fight for Hasél, holding signs reading “Free Pablo”. Nearly 80 people have been arrested and 100 injured due to the fights breaking out during the protests. Amnesty International has been a large advocate for Hasél. Esteban Beltrán, director of Amnesty International Spain, says, “If these articles of the Criminal Code are not amended, freedom of expression will continue to be silenced and artistic expression will continue to be restricted.”. The case for Hasél has helped Spanish citizens fight for their freedom of speech. 

In Thailand, a group called Rap Against Dictatorship, created a music video for the song “Patiroop (Reform)” with symbolic yet gorey imagery, meant to fight the oppressive Thai government. The video takes inspiration from Childish Gambino’s “This is America”, a similar music video depicting the corruption of the American government. The video went viral and started an uprising in Thai youth months before the next Thai election. The Thai government felt threatened by the song, and the military would open fire in any area the song was being played in. Instead of fighting rap music with violence, China tried a different tactic. After watching rap music empower rebellions and revolts in other countries, the Chinese government decided to use the art form to their advantage by creating communist propaganda in the form of rap songs. The song “This is China” strives to enforce patriotism in Chinese citizens, with lines such as, “The red dragon ain’t no evil but a peaceful place / The beautiful land with rich culture remain”. 

What started as a small pastime in the Bronx has become a global phenomenon, empowering revolution and political change in many countries in the world. In modern society, youth has been using rap music as an art form to speak their unapologetic truth.