Self-Destruction: A Case Study of Violence and Hip Hop


 by Ryan M. Jones


Museum Educator





In March 2016, the National Civil Rights Museum opened a controversial exhibition entitled Kin Killin’ Kin. Artist James Pate has created images comparing Black-on-Black violence to the history of terrorism by the Ku Klux Klan. The graphics show African American youth murdering each other wearing Klan regalia. Visual references to episodes in the Civil Rights Movement and the Hip Hop culture are included in the series. With statistics of young black men as victims of homicide on the rise, Hip Hop music has become one of the leading forms of storytelling. Since the 1980s, Hip Hop artists have conveyed stories of urban violence from several different perspectives.


African American Hip Hop artist, 2pac, was familiar with the violent narratives. Prior to his highly publicized tension with the Notorious BIG, 2pac issued his take on Black violence in his debut single “Souljah’s Story.” 2pac emphasized that cutting welfare would lead to more social ills because poor blacks who depended on this assistance would increasingly turn to crime without it.


In 1996, Queens, NY rapper Nas released the unforgettable “I Gave You Power,” where he spoke from the animated perspective of a gun. Nas’ frustration as a weapon can be felt in the lyrics, “He squeezed harder, I did not budge, sick of the blood, sick of the thugs, sick of wrath of the next man’s grudge”[1] In the voice of the gun, Nas demonstrates the weapon’s (his) resistance to violence by withholding gunfire. Nas portrays the gun’s paradoxical existence, “My creation was for blacks to kill blacks.” Nas takes a stand by not allowing the gun (himself) to be used for that purpose.


Hip Hop music also took a political stand as heard in Public Enemy’s 1989 song, “Fight the Power.” Member Chuck D asserts, “Freedom of speech is freedom of death,” comparing his position to that of Frederick Douglass’, “If there is no struggle, there is no progress.”[2] Both were advocating that nothing will be given to you, and that you must persevere to succeed. A generation after the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s and 70s, African Americans were not experiencing universal equality. Blacks were being systematically oppressed in more subtle ways. Public Enemy’s goal in “Fight the Power” was to convey the continued heated tension in contemporary America, and help people see racial intolerance, violence, and police brutality from the perspective of those who were marginalized or oppressed. African Americans were impoverished and forced to live in low-economic areas where violence frequently occurred.


Famed female artist and actress Queen Latifah also brought to the forefront violence and assault against women in her provocative “U.N.I.T.Y. Latifah illustrated women and communities suffering as a result of the frustrated males who turned to violence because of their social condition and inequalities endured daily.


There have also been a few uplifting and inspirational tributes to end black violence. KRS-One formed a Hip Hop-themed, “We Are the World”-like song entitled “Self Destruction.” This track featured the Hip Hop elite including MC Lyte, Public Enemy, Doug E. Fresh and Heavy D. It urged communities across the nation to unite with one another, instead of increasing the murder rate of black men at the hands of black men. Kool G. Rap also formed alliances with major artists in the motivating “Erase Racism,” where he dreamed of a day when everyone is colorblind. Kool G. Rap also advocated for education and solidarity “The ink is black, the page is white, together we can learn to read and write.” [3]


[caption id="attachment_4634" align="alignright" width="400"] "Your History II" by James Pate. Charcoal, 30″ x 40″.[/caption]


At the end of his career, 2pac’s posthumous song “Changes” provided a sense of hope for those who were affected daily by youth violence. 2pac pointed the finger at his African American community for the hate and anger it held. He rapped “I got love for my brother, but we can never go  nowhere unless we share with each other. We gotta start making changes; learn to see me as a brother instead of two distant strangers.”[4] 2Pac believed his people were to blame for the violence because of selfishness, jealousy and envy toward each other. He urged African Americans to take a stand.


The Hip Hop culture has long been associated with violence and stereotypes. Hip Hop music and the exhibit Kin Killin’ Kin at the National Civil Rights Museum both provide narratives of everyday life that millions of people, unfortunately, are forced to endure. Viewing the artwork and hearing the lyrics, one can agree that racism and violence are linked and must be addressed. To understand the roots of racial violence and move toward reconciliation is perhaps the greatest challenge.







[1] Nas, "I Gave You Power," from the album It Was Written. July 2, 1996. Columbia Records.



[2] Public Enemy, "Fight the Power,"  from the album Fear of a Black Planet.  June 1989. Motown.


[3] Kool G. Rap, "Erase Racism,"  from the album Wanted: Dead or Alive.  November 14, 1990. Cold Chillin', Warner Bros.


[4] 2Pac, "Changes," from the album Greatest Hits.  October 13, 1998. Interscope, Death Row Records.



Posted by Connie Dyson at 6:16 PM
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