The Power of Music: An Exploration of Social Justice in Rap Lyrics | Emilie Rodriguez

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Hello Spartans! How has music influenced your life? If so, how?

     Music is a universal language that has power to communicate a variety of messages to listeners. There are songs about being in love, being sad, being happy, and every mood in between. There is power in music. Some artists take it a step further by using their craft to communicate social and political messages to their audience. A couple of weeks ago I attended the free YG concert here on campus. His performance inspired me to write this reflection piece.


The Influence of Music on My Life

     Anyone who knows me personally knows that I love music. Since I was little I was surrounded by 60’s and 70’s soul music and R&B.’ When I hopped in the car with my parents the voices of Smokey Robinson, Sade, War, Etta James, and Marvin Gaye were on repeat to school and from school. When I was younger I wondered why my parents played this music over and over and would ask,”This song again?” Now that I am older I look back, and have a greater appreciation for the exposure I had to such iconic artists. Music has always been a huge part of my life, and attending concerts has become a hobby of mine.

Social Justice Realizations at the YG Concert

     I have attended close to thirty concerts. Each concert, venue,and artist provides a unique experience. With that said, when rumors circulated during the Summer that YG was coming to San Jose State for free I was all for it. I coordinated with friends to make sure we got spots in line- since there was a limit of students they were letting in. I have seen YG before, and expected him to put on a great show as usual. Little did I know his performance, and the crowd would inspire me to write this.  When YG got on stage the crowd went wild, students started dancing, and singing along. He walked on stage wearing a red and black button up, and on the back read,”Police Get Away with Murder”


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     This statement on his shirt is also a song title off of his latest album,”Still Brazy”, but there is power in this statement. As an artist (like many others) he has heavy influence on pop culture. Even deeper broader than pop culture, he represents the society he comes from.

     Towards the end of the night I decided to step away from the crowd, listen, and observe in the back. A couple minutes later he started performing “FDT.” I looked into the crowd, and to my surprise I saw someone waving an American Flag. I watched them wave the flag the entire song. I looked at the flag, and felt conflicted. I also felt like it was not appropriate to wave the American flag around while YG was rapping about current issues our country is facing, Donald Trump, and institutionalized racism being one of them. The American Flag is supposed to be a symbol of freedom, and patriotism for our country. Contrary to expectations of so called mainstream American culture in the United States, I did not feel proud. I asked myself,”Why don’t I feel prideful, why does the waving of the American flag feel so inappropriate at a moment like this?” I felt confused. We live in the United States where we are expected to be grateful for the freedom we have. Unlike other places around the world we are fortunate to have the freedom of speech, religion, etc. We are supposed have equal rights, and the right to fair justice.  I thought how could this  flag bring me a sense of pride  in a country where police get away with murder, racism is institutionalized, and one of our leading presidential candidates is a full blown racist. From my experience justice does not mean the same thing for everyone. Justice is often overlooked when it comes to people of color. I took these thoughts home with me, and turned to more music for some clarity.

      I began looking through my music library for other rap artists whose lyrics have references to social and political statement. I asked myself a couple of questions,”Is rapping about social justice and political issues a form of activism? Are these lyrics a form of resistance to oppression?”

      As I dug deeper, I found the answer to both of my own questions in the music. For years I did not realize how powerful of a platform music is to communicate meaningful messages. I think rapping about social justice and political issues is a form of resistance, and activism. Music can be used to symbolize the conditions of a society; social problems, and political.

     YG’s choice to acknowledge the reality of social injustice (in this case police brutality) was very intentional.  He is doing more than sharing his personal opinion about politicians, he has shed light on issues that are impacting an entire country via music. Music is a mode of communication. His lyrics show a level of social consciousness, and an opinion about social injustice. Many other rap artists I looked into have used also music as their medium to express opinions  on social issues.

Where Rap Genius Came in Handy

     I was able to narrow my selection down to four songs, and artists. I chose to take a closer look at specific songs by: Joey Badass, Kendrick Lamar, Tupac, and Nas. Here is the list of songs I chose: “Paper Trails” by Joey Badass, “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar, and “Changes” by Tupac. The lyrics to all of these tracks were provided by


#1: Joey Badass

Capitalism, and the Paper Trail


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     The music video for “Paper Trails ”by Joey Badass begins with Joey Badass saying ,”They say money is the root of all evil. I say it’s the root of all people. Cuz at the end of everyday, no matter white black, or blue collar worker- we still share the same common search for that paper trail.” In these few lines Joey Badass is making a reference to the power money has over us as individuals living in a capitalist society. Regardless of our differences as individuals we all need money to survive. One of the main differences between each social class is that some individuals are making more money than others, and are able to do more than survive (pay bills and put food on the table). Wealth is not distributed proportionally. Typically, people who are wealthier also have higher status in society. They are bosses in charge of workers, large companies, and have higher salaries than the employees they oversee. The white collar workers are at the top economically, and often hold positions of power. An example of these positions of power are politicians. People with higher economic status’ are also going to be able to afford better lawyers, and have higher chances of winning a case in court. For example, the Brock Turner case. He has the white male privilege, means to hire a great lawyer, and dodged correct sentencing for raping an innocent human being. On the other hand individuals who are working class, and being paid lower wages are less likely to be able to afford a luxurious lifestyle, hold a position of power, or afford a lawyer to properly defend them in court. According to a report by the Economic Policy Institute,”People of color will be a majority of the working American class in 2032.” In the song Paper Trails, Joey Badass infers he knows what it is like to have financial stress, and to struggle. Joey Badass says,”Before the money there was love, but before the money it was tough.” He makes a reference to his own personal realization. He was not making money right away from his art; rapping. He pursued music because he loves the art, but love won’t pay the bills or relieve his family of financial stress. Despite the varying opinions on the economics of our country we all share a common goal: to have a roof over our heads and food on the table.

#2: Tupac’s “Changes” is Still Relevant Today


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     Two days ago radio stations, and people around the world paid tribute to the death of Tupac Shakur. He was shot September 13, 1996. This rap icon is known for his poetic lyricism, and his outspoken personality. He did not shy away from voicing his opinion on racism, and social injustice in the United States. The song I chose by Tupac is the popular track,”Changes.”Tupac says,”I see no changes, all I see is racist faces, misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.” Tupac sheds light on the disproportionate amount of racism African American faced in the United States in the 90’s. The racism continues today. The racism is institutionalized and perpetuated unequal treatment of individuals just because of the color of their skin. When he says,”I see no changes all, I see is racist faces.” I thought about who serves as our political representatives in the United States. Not to say all politicians are racist, but a lot of politicians are not colored. Therefore, how could changes be made to help benefit people of color when the people making laws, policies, and passing legislation cannot relate. Second, Tupac continues this verse by saying,”Take the evil out the people, they’ll be acting right. ‘Cause both Black and White are smoking crack tonight.” Tupac is shedding light on the fact drugs are a “color people problem,” but the society we live in, the justice system, and the media has portrayed people of color as the ones who are hooked on drugs. In contrast, both white and black people participate in using illegal substances such as crack and cocaine. The difference is that a disproportionate amount of African Americans are incarcerated because it. If you are interested in learning more about Tupac Shakur’s viewpoints on racism and social injustice  click here for to watch this video!


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#3: “Alright” by Kendrick Lamar

     The final artist I chose to take a look at was Kendrick Lamar. It was hard for me to narrow my choices down to one song! From Section 8.0, Good Kid M.a.a.d. City, to the most recent “To Pimp a Butterfly” Kendrick Lamar uses so much symbolism. His lyrics are packed with biblical, social, and political references. I chose a few lines from the song,”Alright.” Kendrick Lamar makes a reference to African American history in the United States. During the Reconstruction period, post civil war in the United States there was a promise made to provide some kind of reparations to newly freed slaves. The Federal Government offered 40 Acres and a Mule to newly freed slaves. In comparison to the psychological, emotional, and physical damage slaves faced this was a way of repaying them. Kendrick says,”What you want you: a house or a car?

     40 acres and a mule? A piano, a guitar?” It’s almost like a rhetorical question Kendrick asks. The reality is individuals were separated from their families, treated inhumane, and degraded for years- and all it came down to was some type of materialistic reparation. He continues to sing throughout the song,”but we gon’ be alright.” These lyrics are a metaphor for the argument that there was no real reconstruction of the South post civil war. Much more needed to be done to heal the pain, suffering, and degradation former slaves, and African Americans faced. Until this day racism is still an issue, not only in the South but throughout the nation.

Reminders for upcoming events at the Mosaic

     Don’t forget the Mosaic Cross Cultural Center has two upcoming programs this month. If you missed the workshop,”A Battleground: Rape Culture and Consent Culture” last Thursday, have no fear we have two more workshops in September. On Thursday, September 22 we are holding a workshop called,“What’s Wrong with White Privilege? at 6pm-7:30 pm in the Mosaic Cross Cultural Center. The last workshop for the month of September is called,”Savior Halo: Discussing Allyship for the Disabled Community” taking place on September 29 at 6:30pm-8pm in the Mosaic Cross Cultural Center. As usual there is free food!






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