Although some do not connect African American civil rights movements through music, the Black Lives Matter, Civil Rights, and Post-Civil Rights movements are all connected through technological innovations in hip-hop. Artists like Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, J. Cole, and Common all use forms of technology to identify with the struggles of African Americans from the past.

Kendrick and Pac Share Moments About The Past, Present, and Future

In Kendrick Lamar’s sophomore album, “To Pimp a Butterfly,” Lamar uses technology to create an interview with deceased rapper Tupac Shakur. The interview featured in the final track “Mortal Man,” taken from an interview with Swedish radio show host Mats Nileskar, highlights an uprising of African Americans who are “tired” of stealing during riots and ready to commit “murder.” Like Shakur’s generation, Lamar sees that “there’s nothing but turmoil going on.” Using Shakur and Lamar’s digital conversation regarding the mistreatment of African Americans, comparisons can be made between the civil rights movements from two different eras. The conversation demonstrates that African Americans are mistreated, despite the generation.

While songs by Shakur and Lamar can be used to compare generational differences, Lamar’s technological innovation to incorporate a past interview makes the comparison direct for the audience. Lamar composes lyrics that Shakur “could relate to,” in “Mortal Man.” The line “maybe I’m just another n*gga” is used to describe Lamar’s feelings as an African American man in modern times. Moreover, the album title, “To Pimp a Butterfly” has a close connection to the book, “To Kill a Mockingbird” by Harper Lee, where an African American man is wrongly accused of rape. The cover depicts African American men in front of the White House; on top of a white judge whose eyes are crossed. The cover demonstrates the rising of African Americans against injustice in court. Lamar’s use of technology transforms the novel into an album that captures injustice through the eyes of another author.  

Cole’s Disgust Towards Injustice

Jermaine “J.” Cole uses his music video illustrations to express his emotions in comparison to suppressed African Americans. In Cole’s music video for his song “G.O.M.D.,” Cole is a slave to a white family before the Civil Rights movement. The lyrics of the song resemble love and relationships, but not the Civil Rights movement. Though this song may not make specific references to the Civil Rights movement, Cole emphasizes how glad he is that “[Cole] ain’t you and you ain’t [Cole].”


Cole uses the video for the song to create a divide between African-Americans and white Americans. Cole also wrote a song immediately after the controversial killing of Mike Brown in Ferguson Missouri, where Darren Wilson, a white police officer, shot Brown, an African American citizen. The song uses technology to include an interview from Brown’s friend Dorien Johnson. The interview shows Johnson describing how a police officer’s excessive aggression led to the death of Michael Brown shortly after stealing cigarillos from a convenience store. Johnson states once Brown felt getting “shot, he turned around and put his hands in the air, and started to get down, but the officer still approached with his weapon drawn and he fired seven more shots and [Johnson’s] friend died.” Technology allows African-American musicians to take control of their past and portray historical events in their own ways. Their personal demonstration of historical events  through technological advancements in music allows the audience to create a connection with mistreated African Americans. The line where Cole states, “all we wanna do is take the chains off” resembles slavery, and allows for a contemporary comparison. Cole released a statement to MTV after releasing the music video for “G.O.M.D.,” where he stated that the video is “a commentary on the need for unity and togetherness.”

Kanye West: The Oppressed Walk With Jesus

Kanye West uses imagery through his song lyrics, music videos, and instrumentals to depict the issues of being an African American in a predominately white society. The song “Jesus Walks” uses the imagery from the official second music video (main version) to show the racism against working prisoners. West begins the song stating that African Americans are at war with “racism.” The prisoners are working under the watch of white guards, who are shown beating the black prisoners while working. West’s song uses instrumentals that are difficult to interpret, until watching the second music video. The video begins with the African American prisoners singing the chant of the instrumental as they march together.”

While the second video is the primary video used by West, the first and third videos have significance. All three videos illustrate African-Americans as the main characters. West’s lyrics emphasize that religion is for everyone, since Jesus walks with “hustlers, killers, murders, drug dealers even the strippers.” Another example of innovation in hip-hop is the use of skits, specifically by Kanye West. In West’s skit “Graduation Day,” a man at a university tells West that he cannot graduate after he heard children singing about “drug dealin’ to get by” and stacking “money ‘til it get sky high” in his previous track titled “We Don’t Care.” After his performance in “We Don’t Care,” the administrator at the university calls West a “nigga.” West’s feelings are clear that he sings about the life scenarios that are more common to African Americans. The administrator told West that he was “tryin’ to get [West to graduate] with these white people,” but his actions of expression made him unable to graduate.

Common Shares Words With Dr. Martin Luther King

Less famous African American rappers have also made significant contributions to hip-hop through the use of technology. In Common’s song “A Dream,” the rapper uses audio recordings from Dr. Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream Speech.” This technique makes a connection between the African Americans of the Civil Rights Movement and the African Americans today. Common studies his culture, and has experience as a poet, film producer, actor, and recording artist from Chicago, Illinois. His dream is simplified to “my dream is to be free” whereas Dr. King’s dream is described as African Americans and white Americans being connected as people who will “work together, pray together, struggle together, go to jail together, and stand up to freedom together.” The different statements of the dream made by both Common and King show the difference between the desires of African Americans of different generations. Common’s desire to be free is similar to J. Cole’s desire in “Be Free.” Cole uses a true story instead to show why he wants to be free. Common’s view is also similar to that of Alice Walker’s in her reflection titled, “The Civil Rights Movement: What Good Was It?” For some “The Civil Rights Movement will never be over as long as [their] skin is black.” (Walker 81). Walker does state that the Civil Rights movement gave African Americans hope, and describes the Civil Rights movement as a morale booster. Overall, Common’s contribution to hip-hop with “A Dream” is made more significant because of his use of Dr. King’s audio. The comparison between generations is aided due to the evolution of technology.  

Rappers of the past did not have these technology options available to them.

Importance of Advancement Since the Beginning of Hip-Hop

Clive Campbell, also known by his stage name DJ Kool Herc, developed rap music when he spun records on turntables in his home in the Bronx, New York.. At the time of DJ Kool Herc, instrumentals and song lyrics were the only forms of technology that artist could integrate into their music. Music videos existed at the time, but were not used in ways to express the oppression of African Americans as they are now. Some of the earliest rappers, for example, Sugar Hill Gang created music videos that were simply performances such as the songs “Apache” and “Rapper’s Delight.” Moving forward to the 1990s, Tupac Shakur would write songs to connect with the struggles of his fellow African Americans. His songwriting abilities created the fame that he earned throughout his career as an artist. Lyricism is a great way of voicing emotion towards a certain topic, in this case growing up as an African American. If lyricism is a great way of communication why is technology so important in this argument? The answer is because technology makes it simple to make connections with past and current events. Lyrics alone can be difficult to interpret since there is not visual imagery to support the information in the song. The tools used by modern hip-hop artists are more effective in connecting to generations of African Americans than those of hip-hop artists of the past. Without technological advancement in hip-hop, the artists today would not be able to voice their opinions in personal, transformational ways. Expression is what separates a rapper from an artist.

Artists vs. Rappers

What makes rappers like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole artists extraordinary in comparison to other rappers today? Lamar and Cole talk about issues of class struggle, poverty, and racism, whereas rappers such as Chief Keef talk about sexual desire, drugs, and achieving as much money as possible. As an example, Lamar’s song “Keisha’s Song” from his album “Section .80” discusses how some black women have to resort to becoming a prostitute in order to make money to support themselves or their families. J. Cole talks about the important class struggle issues of African Americans in his track “Rich Niggaz” from his album “Born Sinner.” Cole’s discussion covers his hatred for people who did not have to struggle to earn fame. He states that people who are money driven become “lost and heartless” and that no amount of money can “save your soul.” Comparing those two tracks to Chief Keef’s most popular songs “Love Sosa” and “Hate Bein’ Sober,” the lack of artistry is proven. In both songs, Chief Keef talks about using drugs, alcohol, and how he is sexually involved with women. Unlike Chief Keef, Lamar and Cole preach to be an active voice in the African American community, while being innovative and using technology in an advanced time period.

African Americans have been forced to suffer from disadvantages that were cast upon them from racist white Americans, for centuries. The songs explained are all tools alone, used as ways of protest to the negative treatment of African Americans. The Civil Rights movement, although progressive, did not completely halt the flow of cruelty towards African Americans. Musical expression is a way that African Americans are able to voice their viewpoint, and their suffering. The ability to utilize technology and create songs that have clear meanings is important. A song that has important meanings should be easily understood so the audience can relate. Music is important because it is a way of empowerment and free speech. Hip-hop music, along with technology, establishes a generational connection between African Americans oppressed in the times of the Civil Rights, Post-Civil Rights, and Black Lives Matter movements.


Works Cited

Lamar, Kendrick, George Clinton, Thundercat, Bilal, Anna Wise, Snoop Dogg, James Fauntleroy, and Ronald Isley. To Pimp a Butterfly. N.d. CD.

Cole, Jermaine. 2014 Forrest Hills Drive. 2015. CD.

Rapper’s Delight the Best of Sugarhill Gang. Rhino, 1996. CD.

Lamar, Kendrick. Section.80. TDE, 2011. CD.

Charters, Ann. The Portable Sixties Reader. New York: Penguin, 2003. Print.

Cole, J., Miguel, Kendrick Lamar, and James Fauntleroy. Born Sinner. Roc Nation, 2013. CD.

Common,, Talib Kweli, Jeannie Ortega, Tupac Shakur, Montell Jordan, Mark Isham, and Miri Ben-Ari. Freedom Writers Music from the Motion Picture. Hollywood Records, 2006. CD.

West, Kanye, Evidence, Syleena Johnson, Glc, Consequence, Jay-Z, J. Ivy, Talib Kweli, Common, Twista, Jamie Foxx, Ludacris, Mos Def, and Freeway. The College Dropout. Roc-A-Fella Records/Hip Hop, 2004. CD.

“Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech – American Rhetoric.” Martin Luther King I Have a Dream Speech – American Rhetoric. N.p., n.d. Web. 02 May 2016.

Keef, Chief, Lil Reese, 50 Cent, Wiz Khalifa, French Montana, Young Jeezy, and Rick Ross. Finally Rich. Glory Boyz Entertainment/Interscope Reco


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