Kendrick Lamar (Getty/Kevin Winter)

The 25 best hip-hop protest songs ever

People were quick to call Eminem's freestyle the best thing ever/ Here are 25 tracks that do it better


Rachel Leah
October 28, 2017 7:00PM (UTC)

When Eminem released his freestyle as part of the BET Hip Hop Awards' annual cypher, it turned out to be a 4-plus-minute a capella tirade against President Donald Trump. He indicted the president for his most egregious transgressions: perpetuating racism, emboldening white supremacy, his irresponsibility with North Korea, the attacks on black NFL players, his abandonment of Puerto Rico. The list goes on.

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Hip-hop fans, athletes, and mainstream media, praised the lukewarm freestyle as urgent, necessary, powerful and genius. "After 27 years of doubts about rap I am now a fan," sports and political commentator Keith Olberman tweeted. "Best political writing of the year, period."

To suggest that Eminem's mediocre bars were anything other than tepid demonstrates a a shamefully low bar for the craft of hip-hop and for what constitutes bravery. To declare that Eminem's freestyle about Trump is a turning point in hip-hop is lazy, uninformed. That's not surprising, though. White artists are often lauded for their courage in speaking out against injustice, while black artists are often overlooked or penalized for the same actions. When Beyoncé showed up to the Superbowl in an outfit that honored the Black Panthers, conservatives slammed her and the police union called for a boycott of her subsequent world tour.

The reality is, rappers have been criticizing the government, picking apart systems of oppression and addressing the pervasiveness of police brutality in black communities since the art form's inception. It's why rapper and Public Enemy member Chuck D famously dubbed hip-hop "the black CNN" decades ago.

To claim anything other than that points to a lack of understanding of hip-hop's history rather than a reflection of its culture. So here are the 25 best rap protest songs (and some albums) across the nearly 40-year genre that put Eminem's freestyle in its proper place. Olberman, this is for you.

topimpabutterfly-gateway-compressor"To Pimp A Butterfly," Kendrick Lamar, 2015
The single "Alright" from Kendrick Lamar's second studio album has become the soundtrack to national protests in the wake of high-profile police killings of unarmed black people. It's hook "We gon' be alright," is an affirmation of black life, community and hope. The song is an obvious choice, but the entire album is this brilliant, genre-bending manifesto with bars as smart as they are powerful.

"From Compton to Congress/ Set trippin’ all around/ Ain’t nothin’ new but a flu of new DemoCrips and ReBloodlicans/ Red state versus a blue state, which one you governin’?" Kendrick raps on "Hood Politics," equating well-known street gangs with politicians on both sides of the aisle. On "To Pimp A Butterfly," Kendrick takes on the perils of capitalism and racist institutions in many forms.

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"Wesley's Theory" is a reflection of the pimping of black artists exploited by the entertainment industry. On "Complexion (A Zulu Love)," Kendrick addresses the longstanding legacies of color-based discrimination in the U.S. and around the world, and how that hierarchy continues to inform beauty standards today. The album's content is expansive, but rooted in blackness and social justice, through a fiercely radical lens.

 

 

changes-gateway-compressor"Changes," 2Pac, 1992
2Pac's skill with and fervency for addressing the racial and economic disparities in black communities across America is inextricably tied to his ranking as one of the greatest rappers of all time. He was engaged, unapologetic and uncompromising in his indictments of the inner-trappings of this country that kept people of color and poor people marginalized from both upward mobility and some basic civil rights.

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Perhaps no song captures this legacy more than "Changes." His pointed meditation on police brutality and the war on drugs that waged in black communities is poignant and painfully relevant decades past its release. Take the line: "The penitentiary's packed, and it's filled with blacks."

There are numerous quotable moments in the song, but the first verse is particularly powerful: "Cops give a damn about a negro/ Pull the trigger, kill a n***a, he's a hero/ 'Give the crack to the kids, who the hell cares?/ One less hungry mouth on the welfare!'" The hook of "That's just the way it is" is a reminder that this cycle of oppression persists.



georgiabush-gateway-compressor"Georgia... Bush," Lil Wayne, 2006
When Hurricane Katrina pummeled Louisiana and massive flooding submerged New Orleans, the George W. Bush administration was criminally slow to react. Hundreds of thousands of people were displaced by the storm, yet the most vulnerable individuals in the thick of the New Orleans plunder were its predominantly black and poor residents. As a New Orleans native himself, Lil Wayne offered  "Georgia... Bush" as a response to and condemnation of America's commander in chief. He also took jabs at the media for its focus on "looting" while people were trying to survive.

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"Look at the bullshit we been through/ Had our n****s sitting on top their roofs/ Hurricane Katrina, we should've called it Hurricane (Georgia) Bush/ Then they telling y'all lies on the news/ The white people smiling like everything cool/ But I know people that died in that pool/ I know people that died in them schools," Wayne raps. He goes on to highlight the sheer neglect of black lives in perhaps the most succinct and powerful line of the song: "Trying to wash us away like we not on the map." It remains one of Wayne's most explicitly political songs.

 

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befree-gateway-compressor"Be Free," J. Cole2014
After the police killing of teenager Mike Brown in Ferguson, artistic outpour erupted within the hip-hop community. But J. Cole's tribute to Brown was one of the most influential. Its power did not lie in Cole's lyrical prowess, though the skill was there. Rather, it was the depth and emotion he communicated.

Using a timbre that sounded like a voice worn out and exasperated from repeated cries, his pain was audible. And Cole spit out lines that summarized the brutality in a matter of words, like this one: "Can you tell me why/ Every time I step outside I see my n****s die," or "All we wanna do is break the chains off."

What was especially significant in "Be Free" was the inclusion of the harrowing eyewitness account of Mike Brown's friend, Dorian Johnson. The mind-numbing beat continues as Johnson relays what he saw that August day. "He turned around and put his hands in the air, and started to get down," Johnson said, "but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn, and he fired seven more shots and my friend died."

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"All we wanna do is be free," J. Cole says in conclusion.



untitled-gateway-compressor"Untitled," Nas, 2008
"Untitled" was not the original title for Nas' ninth studio album. No, the album that dove headfirst into the state of America's race relations, with an album cover that featured Nas' bare back with whipping scars in the shape of a letter "N," was initially named "N****r." In hip-hop, everyone knew the album's real name and that "Untitled" was merely a placeholder, indicative of America's penchant to erase its racial history rather than to confront it.

On "Untitled," Nas is relentless in his charges against America, from its early genocide of Native Americans ("Assassinations diplomatic relations/ Killed indigenous people built a new nation") to the issue of segregation in the education system ("Schools with outdated books, we are the forgotten.") Still, it also reflects on his love for the black community and the resilience he witnesses ("I love y'all; pyramids to cotton fields"). When you think of hip-hop and protest, "Untitled" is a powerful example of a body of work that did so in its entire packaging.

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fuckthapolice-gateway-compressor"Fuck the Police," NWA, 1988
Indicative of the ways black communities are targeted and treated by many police departments, particularly in major cities like L.A., where NWA was from, there are many anti-police songs in hip-hop. But NWA's "Fuck the Police" is iconic. In it, the group members put the LAPD on trial. Ice Cube ferociously raps: "A young n***a got it bad ‘cause I'm brown/ And not the other color, so police think/ They have the authority to kill a minority."



fightthepower-gateway-compressor"Fight the Power," Public Enemy, 1989
"Fight the Power" was originally conceived as part of the soundtrack for Spike Lee's seminal film "Do the Right Thing." It's since become one of Public Enemy's most-recognized songs, with the hook: "Fight the power/ We've got to fight the powers that be." It glares at the oppressive systems in place dead on.

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asongforassata-gateway-compressor"A Song for Assata," Common, 2000
"A Song for Assata" is a moving tribute and retelling of the trial of activist and Black Panther member Assata Shakur. Her case was highly publicized and controversial, and it's widely believed she was framed for the murder of a police officer. She successfully escaped from prison and sought political asylum in Cuba. "I read this sister's story, knew that it deserved a verse/ I wonder what would happen if that would've been me?/ All of this just so we could be free," Common raps.

 

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policestate-gateway-compressor"Police State," Dead Prez, 2000
In "Police State," Dead Prez addresses the ways black communities are surveilled, and over-policed and incarcerated in America. The duo called for a revolution, one in which wealth would be redistributed and where black freedom would be realized: "Bring the power back to the street where the people live/ I'm sick of working for crumbs and filling up the prisons."



revolution-gateway-compressor"Revolution," Arrested Development, 1992
"Revolution" is a rap anthem from the soundtrack of Spike Lee's biopic film "Malcolm X." Arrested Development is known for their socially conscious lyrics, but "Revolution" is one of their most pointed. "The U.N., The U.S/ We can't allow you/ To tell us a kid in the ghetto/ Is not as important as/ A kid in Bosnia."

 

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landofthefree-gateway-compressor"Land of the Free," Joey Bada$$, 2017
Joey Bada$$ dropped this politically-charged song on the day of President Donald Trump's inauguration, and it deals closely with inequity, mass incarceration and even the Ku Klux Klan. "Leave us dead in the street to be their organ donors/ They disorganized my people, made us all loners/ Still got the last names of our slave owners." Most powerfully, the music video features a firing squad of police officers and shows Joey immune to their bullets.



reagan-gateway-compressor"Reagan," Killer Mike, 2012
As the title suggests, "Reagan," is a reckoning of what former President Ronald Reagan's tenure was like for black communities. "They declared the war on drugs like a war on terror/ But what it really did was let the police terrorize whoever," Killer Mike raps, and then: "I guess that that's the privilege of policing for some profit/ But thanks to Reaganomics, prisons turned to profits." The music video is a chilling animation of the policies and effects of Reagan's presidency on black lives.

 

 

thepointofnoreturn-gateway-compressor"The Point of No Return," Geto Boys, 1996
The Geto Boys take turns admonishing the government for various injustices — police brutality, mass incarceration, the war on drugs — and charging them with the executions of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X and Fred Hampton. By the end of the track, their frustration with America and its oppressive systems is palpable. "I'm the type of n***a throw a party when the flag burn/ I'm at the point of no return," Willie D raps.



wordsineversaid-gateway-compressor"Words I Never Said," Lupe Fiasco, 2011
On "Words I Never Said," Lupe Fiasco looks outward. "I really think the war on terror is a bunch of bullshit," he spits, adding the biting line: "Gaza Strip was getting bombed, Obama didn't say shit." Even though the song was released before Trump even imagined a political career, Lupe addresses the Islamophobia that has been central to his ascent. "Jihad is not holy war, where's that in the worship?/ Murdering is not Islam, and you are not observant."

 

 

themessage-gateway-compressor"The Message," Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five, 1982
"The Message" is one of rap's earliest socially-conscious songs and help moved the genre from being just the soundtrack of the parties in which it began to an art form capable of telling tales of survival and resistance. "It's like a jungle sometimes/ It makes me wonder how I keep from going under," the hook goes.



blackamericaagain-gateway-compressor"Black America Again," Common, 2016
Common said of this track and its title: "This song could have been written in the ‘60s, it could have been written in the 1800s and still apply, and now it’s 2016." Indeed, it's a poignant song that tracks black life and survival from slavery to the present, connecting everything in between. "The new plantation, mass incarceration/ Instead of educate, they'd rather convict the kids/ As dirty as the water in Flint, the system is," he raps.

 

soundofdapolice-gateway-compressor"Sound of Da Police," KRS-One, 1993
This is KRS-One's notable take on police brutality and the racism he sees as embedded in the institution. "Be an officer? You wicked overseer!" he spits. He then connects injustice in the streets to the past injustice of early American colonialism. "There could never really be justice on stolen land," he says.



mathematics-gateway-compressor"Mathematics," Mos Def (now Yasiin Bey), 1999
Here, Yasiin Bey takes the numerical approach to illustrate the oppressive socio-economic statistics that perpetuates a hierarchy and keeps black and poor people at the bottom. "Stiffer stipulations attached to each sentence/ Budget cutbacks but increased police presence/ And even if you get out of prison still living/ Join the other 5 million under state supervision," he spits.

 

unity-gateway-compressor"U.N.I.T.Y." Queen Latifah, 1993
This song from the legendary emcee addresses misogyny in three places: society, the home and hip-hop. Latifah covers it all through a verse on street harassment, domestic violence and sexist slurs in rap, focusing specific attention on what it means to endure this sexism as a black woman. "Love a black woman from/ Infinity to infinity (You ain't a bitch or a ho)," the hook goes.



highforhours-gateway-compressor"High for Hours," J. Cole, 2017
J. Cole released this song on this past Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, revealing the hypocrisy of the American story. "They came here seekin' freedom," he says of early settlers, "then they end up ownin' slaves/ Justified it usin' Christianity which saves."

 

 

sunshine-gateway-compressor"Sunshine," Pusha T, 2015
In this track, Pusha T departs from his usual retelling of the trials and tribulations of being a drug dealer to call attention to some of the recent high-profile killings of unarmed black people by the police, and how, even with video footage of such shootings, there's is no accountability or justice. "Woo! Still a target, but the badge is the new noose/ Yeah, we all see it, but cellphones ain’t enough proof/ So we still lose."



binladen-gateway-compressor"Bin Laden," Immortal Technique feat. Yasiin Bey, Jadakiss, Eminem, 2005
Immortal Technique and an all-star cast let their conspiracy theories run wild in "Bin Laden." While outlandish at times, the bars have the force of truth. "They funded al-Qaeda, and now they blame the Muslim religion/ Even though Bin Laden was a CIA tactician/ They gave him billions of dollars and they funded his purpose" Technique raps. "This shit is run by fake Christians, fake politicians."

 

 

likereally-gateway-compressor"Like Really," Oddisee, 2017
Oddisee dispels the talking points of the right in "Like Really," while taking some pointed shots at Trump. "How you gonna make us great, when we were never really that amazing (nah like really)/Take it back to what, I don't find hanging black lives entertaining (nah like really)."



dontshoot-gateway-compressor"Don't Shoot," Dave East, 2016
In this song, Harlem-native Dave East adjusts his voice to tell an evolving story of police interactions from child to teenager to adult. His encounters become increasingly more alarming and violent, until his last one marks the end of his life. "This attitude is programmed/ Imagine getting harassed for you whole life/ All day and the whole night/ They say prison is the new slave ship."

 

fuckdonaldtrump-gateway-compressor"FDT (Fuck Donald Trump)," YG feat. Nipsey Hussle, 2016
Before Eminem called out Trump, YG had already created a whole song doing so, one that predated his election to the presidency. The addictive hook? "Fuck Donald Trump." YG said the track resulted in the Secret Service investigating his lyrics. Really, though, it is about inspiring people to get engaged and vote. The LAPD also shut down the shoot for the music video. All of the backlash and concern illuminated the song's power, and hip-hop's influence more generally, as a genre at the center of popular culture with the capability of shifting political perspective and dialogue.


Rachel Leah

Rachel Leah is a culture writer for Salon. You can follow her on Twitter: @rachelkleah.

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