On the first track of Yasiin Bey’s Black on Both Sides album, the artist formerly known as Mos Def, answered a question he’d been asked repeatedly about the future of hip hop: “You know what’s going to happen with hip hop? Whatever’s happening with us.”
Indeed, since the birth of the genre, mass incarceration has been happening with us and with hip hop. But some artists are putting activism behind their powerful rhymes. In a survey of hip hop artists’ activism for prison reform, Sheldon Pearce listed ways artists have reached beyond the music to shape public policy and prison reform efforts, according to Pitchfork Magazine. Here are just a few examples:
Simmons partnered with Van Jones for #cut50, the pair’s joint effort to “cut the prison population in half over the next decade,” Pitchfork reports. Simmons’ earlier organizing efforts helped bring the Rockefeller Drug Law Reform Act to fruition, sending thousands of people home from prison.
Nas sold Black Santa sweatshirts to reduce incarceration. A portion of the proceeds from the rapper’s clothing brand went to the Center for Court Innovation, a nonprofit that seeks to reduce incarceration.
3.Dice Raw, affiliated with Roots
Dice Raw released a rap documentary version of Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow. The documentary accompanied Jimmy’s Back, a concept album about mass incarceration.
Pusha T released a PSA for a bill that would legalize marijuana. California’s Proposition 64 would legalize recreational marijuana, thereby reducing incarceration and recidivism.
5. Jay Z
Jay Z continues his years-long efforts for prison reform. His docuseries, Time: The Kalief Browder Story, “documents one Bronx teen’s unlawful incarceration and his eventual suicide, showing how the system railroads black men and women, and breaks many of them,” according to Pitchfork. Jay Z has also supported efforts to reduce sentencing for non-violent offenses, co-signing California’s Proposition 47.
If it’s true that what’s happening in hip hop is whatever is happening to us, then the struggle against mass incarceration is one we can join. If you’re interested in organizing, but don’t know where to start, check out this resource list provided by Michelle Alexander.
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