Why hip-hop needs a voice on Zimmerman verdict

Since George Zimmerman’s acquittal for the murder of Trayvon Martin, the reaction within the hip-hop community has ranged from long-winded Twitter rants to total silence.

While rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Immortal Technique and Phonte have been vocal about the verdict and what it says about the value of black life in this society, far too many high-profile stars have said nothing.

Kanye West, for example, positioned himself as a new age revolutionary on Yeezus, but his revolutionary spirit seems to have disappeared since he stepped out of the booth; his last tweet as of this writing was a link to a GQ article about his new creative direction.

Jay-Z recently took to Twitter to connect with fans as a promotional stunt for Magna Carta Holy Grail, but we haven’t heard a peep from him about arguably the most important court decision of our generation.

The ‘black CNN’ is off the air

To be fair, Kanye West and Jay-Z use Twitter sparingly, if at all. But it’s telling that both superstars have recently used the medium to promote their new projects but not to protest a gross miscarriage of justice.

Their silence on this issue speaks to a broader silence in hip-hop on issues that matter.

Anyone who’s been following hip-hop longer than the length of Future’s career knows that it began as the voice of a people that previously had none. It was a multi-faceted movement that embraced the party and the protest alike. It was urban journalism in its rawest, realest form; Chuck D called it the “black CNN.”

But over time and under corporate control, hip-hop has become a tool to oppress the community it was once intended to serve. Listen to the messages spewed by mainstream rappers, approved by record labels and broadcast by radio and TV stations and they all amount to one theme: black death.

Get rich or die tryin’

Rappers proudly present themselves as drug-dealing, drug-using, gun-toting materialists who shout out brands of clothing, cars and liquor and view women as sexual objects while ignoring problems that threaten to decimate our people.

Unemployment rates are spiking, inner-city violence claims more lives than overseas wars, schools are shutting down and prisons are opening — and the list goes on. But save for the occasional track like Jay-Z and Kanye West’s “Murder to Excellence” or Lupe Fiasco’s “B*tch Bad,” we’re too busy twerking and popping Molly, posing as murderous drug kingpins or riding around with drugs and guns, sans a care in the world to acknowledge that we are a community in crisis.

Never before has hip hop been so one-dimensional and so uniformly destructive. The corporate stranglehold on our culture has prioritized profits before people, and rappers have willingly played along to get a paycheck.

Things have to change.

Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal remind us in very clear terms what we have known for a long time: that the idea of a post-racial society is the delusion of a country in denial, and that too often blacks are seen as dangerous, worthless, the enemy.

A young black boy is dead, and it seems his only crime was blackness. Still, a number of people in our society are calling him a thug who deserved to die and celebrating his murderer’s acquittal. This is a wake-up call we cannot ignore.

Artist-activists like Jasiri X are doing great work speaking about community ills and injustice, but where are the mainstream rappers with followers of millions to take similar strides? Where are the artists using their fame, wealth and stature to help the community in a meaningful way? Where are the rappers concerned about impacting something besides their bottom line?

For many years now, rappers have been mouthpieces for corporations who profit off black dysfunction. They’ve let white record executives with dubious motives dictate their content. They’ve served as the marketing arm for the prison-industrial complex. Listeners and journalists have enabled their toxic messaging.

This has to end.

The days of Afrika Bambaataa playing Malcolm X speeches over break beats, Public Enemy imploring listeners to “Fight The Power” and N.W.A. breathing fire about police brutality may be long gone. But we can, and must, do better.

Hip-hop did not create the problem of violence, dehumanization and systematic oppression against blacks. But hip-hop can, and must, help to solve it. Trayvon Martin’s death and George Zimmerman’s acquittal must become a catalyst for the genre to reprise its role as the artistic component of a progressive social movement, a powerful voice of the community and for the community.

Martin Luther King Jr. told us that “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Author, feminist and teacher bell hooks tells us that “All our silences in the face of racist assault are acts of complicity.”

We can no longer tolerate injustice, or remain silent in the face of it. Perhaps in a different time, under different conditions, rappers could indulge in self-serving aims and excuses about how they didn’t sign up to be role models. But we don’t have time for selfishness and excuses. Our schools are failing, our people are hurting and our children are literally being hunted and killed without consequence.

From Emmett Till to Trayvon Martin, this country has sent a very clear message about the value of black lives and the nature of American justice. It’s time we start a coordinated campaign to seek the justice we are so consistently denied, and we need our most visible artistic icons to help lead the way.

Lauren Carter is a Boston-based writer, editor and hip-hop head. Follow her on Twitter @bylaurencarter.