Are Today’s Rappers The New Leaders of Black America?

In a time when the black American population is experiencing it’s most impactful social uprising since the 1960s, it begs the question, Who should be credited with the leadership of this uprising and who put them in charge? This is a comprehensive look at a few prospects among us.

During the civil rights movement, many credit Martin Luther King and the SCLC including leaders like Jesse Jackson, Hosea Williams and others. On the other side of the coin, leaders like Malcolm X and Elijah Muhammad led countless through the Nation of Islam. Around the same time, Huey P Newton and Bobby Seale were taking a more radical approach calling for self arming and community policing through the Black Panther Party to alleviate the never ending cycle of police brutality. Together these figures voices and social impact inspired millions of African Americans to march, protest, boycott, unite, build, lobby and even sit down with Presidents to push for better treatment and opportunities for black people.

But it seems somewhere along the line a different kind of spokespeople began sitting down with Presidents on our behalf. The days of religious leaders and militant groups speaking up for Black America were dead. Assassinated right along with the voices of those figures. Now we began to see rappers, artists, musicians taking the world stage in some of the most impactful ways.

Now before we get into the current acts of courage and sacrifice made by millionaire musicians to the cause of Black America, first we should take a look at what led up to them becoming millionaires and how it impacts Black America.

The 1980s.

If you are between the ages of 30 and 40 then you were likely born during the most detrimental shift in the course of Black progress since pre-civil war. After a century of building out of slavery, overcoming the reconstruction, building the Harlem Renaissance and defeating Jim Crow, we had finally found the self pride to wear afros and pump our fists in Black Power. But by the end of the 70s into the 80s it all began to fall. After the Cuban refugee crisis and the boom of Cocaine, every inner city from Miami to LA was flooded with it and so went the decline of the Black household, and subsequently, the community.

By the late 80s most Black communities had been completely destroyed, and out of the ashes of the worst environments arose a new talented brand of spokespeople. Beginning in New York in the “New Jack City” days and then expanding to LA in the “Boyz In the Hood” days while criss crossing through Chicago, Philly and Detroit and then bubbling out of Atlanta, Houston, Miami and Memphis. Hip Hop had become the voice of the people who were now a product of communities ruled by controlled substances. Although “Trap Music” wasn’t coined until the 2000s, it is necessary to point out that drug dealing and/ or use has been the topic of hip hop music since Slick Rick was telling “Once Upon A Time” stories. But alternatively so was social justice, self empowerment, motivation to win and inspiration for success.

While many condemned this new voice of the streets after the success of songs like “F the Police” by NWA in response to situations like the Rodney King beating, others praised the rebellious tone of these young artists. It was around this time the Hip Hop business became the business of others outside of Black America. Labels like Interscope, Universal and Warner Brothers replaced independents and were largely owned and operated by white and Jewish men. Our voice was now under new ownership.

Through the 90s Black America was introduced to celebrity worship through Hip Hop. The deaths of Tupac and Biggie broke the mold in the way we looked at rappers and their true role in our communities. Losing two of our most impactful brought tens of millions of us together under the banner of hip hop. We shared a common hurt and it made us value those who were still here even more. The rest of the 90s we watched and contributed to the explosive career launches of mega moguls like Jay Z, Diddy, Snoop Dogg, Jermaine Dupri, Master P and then the Cash Money Millionaires took over for the “99 and the 2000. Rap became solidified as our craft and thus we assumed it was still our voice.

Throughout the early 2000s, we were inundated with a barrage of stars from all corners of the country and with a wide assortment of styles and stories. Every city had a hometown hero and shows like 106 & Park and TRL brought us together for our daily dose. However many of these so called stars became better known as one hit wonders and many lacked the longevity and likewise lacked the social impact to remain relevant in a ever changing Black America. Somewhere along the line, it became “ok yea, you’re talented and rich, but what are you doing for the rest of us?” Some of them began to understand the shift and eventually heeded the call.

Among them, some of the most socially impactful, began creating independent avenues and outlets that allowed for the free of flow of content. With the free flow of content came the ability to control the narrative.

Jay Z perhaps leads the list of new leaders by building his Roca Fella and then Roc Nation brand into one that could manage and maintain many artists who had been formerly stuck and indebted to major labels. His platform quickly skyrocketed once he married the Queen Songstress herself and together their image became a symbol of power and wealth in probably the best public display of black love since Ike and Tina (minus the domestic violence).

Jay Z’s acquisition of the New Jersey (turned Brooklyn) Nets set the example that our power stretches further than the recording booth. His Roca Wear clothing did nearly a billion in sales globally, His Roc Nation even began managing sports figures and carrying concerts around the world. As he and his wife approached billionaire status, there had been a new precedent set, and the tops of political America could not ignore it.

The couple began to be included in conversations we weren’t use to seeing hip hop stars in. After campaigning for both Barack Obama in 2008 and Hillary Clinton in 2016, they had solidified their seat on the world stage as certified spokespeople for the culture. After the NFL Boycott over Colin Kaepernick’s kneeling, Jay Z was the only “leader” among us to come to the table with the NFL and hash out a detailed plan to rectify and reverse its course of action in ways that benefit Black America. To all of those watching this seemed to be the pentacle of our status in recent history. Here we had a kid from Brooklyn who grew up in the same drug infested and toxic environments as most of us, now successful from legal means while influencing national Presidential elections and negotiating with major corporations on our behalf.

But it wasn’t just Jay Z who took the political stage to stand up for our rights. Some could say he even bred an entirely new generation of hip hop freedom fighters.

At the same time Jay Z was building his Dynasty in New York, another kind of King was bubbling out of the South. Atlanta’s own T.I. took a far more problematic route to his throne being arrested nearly 10 times since 1998 and serving two years in prison after already building a multi million dollar brand. But his tenure wasn’t all bad. Over the years T.I. proved his ability to care for his people through involvement in countless hood-humanitarian efforts and since mass incarceration remains one of the biggest oppressives ills in our communities, his story resonated with most. Its even fair to point out that even Martin Luther King himself was jailed some 29 times (3x more that T.I.) mostly on civil disobedience and other trumped charges that plagued black men growing up in Atlanta forever.

Most saw T.I. as the everyday product of our environment with at least the brains and wit to survive it and achieve better circumstances and wealth. He had gone on to build his own family unit into a collective brand topping TV charts with his “Family Hustle” series and showing that he too could be a father, husband and diverse businessman. Now with probably the best track record of any Atlanta artist in history, a new leader was born.

Over the years we began to hear T.I.’s voice in efforts to eradicate police brutality and led the boycott against Gucci for its racists actions. He even stood with locals and boycotted at Houston’s Atlanta steakhouse who had discriminated on black patrons. More recently he participated in the Revolt Summit with Atlanta Mayor Kiesha Lance Bottoms to encourage the black community to vote in 2020.

In 2019, he was honored by the Georgia State Senate for his philanthropy in the community. In March 2019 Blavity reported:

The Paper Trail artist was heralded for his founding of the nonprofits Harris Community Works and For the Love of Our Fathers. Respectively, the organizations focus on encouraging and steering disadvantaged children toward better opportunities and assists persons who have Alzheimer’s and dementia.

The Atlanta native has been instrumentally involved in local community events from hosting turkey drives, speaking at schools and prisons to donating time and money to natural disasters, student organizations and more.

But T.I. wasn’t the only Atlanta lyricist using his platform to affect change.

Rapper Killer Mike has been an unlikely successor to the voice of the people since his rap career was never nearly as successful globally as the likes of T.I. and Jay Z. But his voice has been just as powerful in the movement of the people even long after his last top hits in the late 2000s. He was very sternly outspoken after the deaths of Eric Garner, Freddie Gray and Mike Brown. He even ran briefly as a write-in candidate to Georgia’s House of Representatives to bring awareness to local elections.

In addition Killer Mike led the movement to drive Black consumers to transfer mullions to Black banks including the Black owned Citizens Trust Bank. He has also been a large supporter of Black gun ownership and education while also campaigning with Senator Bernie Sanders for a more progressive US Government and standing up against Hilary Clinton based on her war mongering record.

Lately Killer Mike has been expanding his Kingly empire going into the restaurant business with T.I. and building community awareness about black literacy and community reform. In the past year he has stood alongside Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms after the death of George Floyd and the ensuing protests in Atlanta calling for justice. He also met with Georgia Governor Mike Kemp to discuss the impact of COVID 19 on small businesses in the music industry as well as human trafficking in Georgia.

According to Complex:

In the photos, Mike is seen waring a black t-shirt that says “plot, plan, strategize, organize, and mobilize.” Back in May, Mike included that same phrase in comments he gave to reporters when speaking on protests in Atlanta. When responding to critics of his Gov. Kemp meeting, Mike pointed to the intention behind that t-shirt.

“Only time will tell,” he said on Thursday when asked if he felt Gov. Kemp actually cares to “fix any of that” with regards to issues the artist listed as being close to heart. “In the meantime, I plan to keep doing what was on that t-shirt I wore. We all must!”

But Killer Mike hasnt been the only MC taking time to plot, plan and strategize.

Mysonne The General has been sort of a mythical creature in the hip hop world. A world class freestyle champion his flows, like Killer Mike, still never carried over into international stardom yet his voice among the people has been heard from New York to Ferguson to Baltimore to the Supreme Court steps in his protest against police brutality as well as the appointment of Supreme Court Judge Bret Kavanaugh by President Donald Trump.

He has been an onsight disruptor on the scene for Immigration, unjustified police murders of black people including most recently as a heavy critic of the handling of the murder of Breonna Taylor in Louisville Kentucky. At the Supreme Court Protest he was jailed with rappers Trae the Truth and YBN Cordae.

He has been arrested countless times in connection with his protests and disruptions even alongside outspoken shero Tamika Mallory becoming known as the “Street Politicians.” In 2019 the General stood outside Metropolitan Detention Center for days protesting that inmates had no power and heat during the winter season and vowed he wouldnt leave until the facilities were restored power and heat. He camped outside the jail with reality show star Yandy Smith and dozens of other filming live on Instagram as inmates beat on windows in agony from the intense cold within the jail.

According to XXL:

Hip-hop is rallying behind inmates with no heat in a New York prison. According to The New York Times, over 1,600 inmates at the Metropolitan Detention Center in Brooklyn, N.Y., have been without proper heat and hot water for the past week. This situation was happening as the temperature in the city dropped as low as 3 degrees Fahrenheit this week.

On Saturday (Feb. 2), Mysonne, Meek Mill and T.I. voiced their concerns about the inhumane treatment of the prisoners at the facility. Mysonne reported live from outside of the facility in order to raise awareness for the injustice that is reportedly going on. In his video, the inmates can be heard beating on the windows in desperation.

“Everybody Tell the governor, and the Mayor these brothers are in here with no heat no lights they are sick,” the rapper captioned the clip. “This is Inhumane!! Come occupy with us at The MDC in Brooklyn.”

Actions like these solidified Mysonne as a man of the people but although his views and support seem liberal and left leaning, there have been other career rap artists who worked to get the agenda of the people on conservative desks as well.

Kanye West has been sort of a confusing blur of ideas and viewpoints throughout his career but one thing he has always been is involved. From the days when his music reflected a balance in the hip hop trajectory to the building of Roc A Fella alongside Jay Z, to building an adored family and singing God’s praises from random mountain tops with a church choir.

He turned his oddly fashioned clothing line into a billion dollar business and he was most notably remembered for calling out President George Bush live on TV during the Katrina aftermath, much to his co-hosts surprise. Despite his battle with mental health issues, his genius has contributed to many of today’s successful artists, brands and charities. Most recently donating $2 Million to the families of George Floyd and Ahmad Arbery after their untimely deaths by vigilantes and police. He also made sizable donations to underserved communities during the Coronavirus pandemic.

He was widely criticized for his support of Donald Trump citing “If someone inspires me and I connect with them, I don’t have to believe in all they policies,” shortly after claiming it was because Democrats conspired “to take the fathers out the home and promote welfare.” Was there truth in his claims? Could this been Kanye’s odd and impulsive reaction to problems he saw posed on our people from the top?

His wife has spent the better part of the past decade working with Presidents herself to help free wrongly incarcerated Black men from prison. An act that has earned her points in the community despite her own scarred background.

Later in 2020 Kanye announced his own Presidential bid and although it received little support, he vowed to keep trying in future elections. Could this be a reality in America? Who would he represent in such a seat?

But lately Kanye isn’t the only legendary rap star stepping to the 45th President.

Ice Cube spent the past few weeks defending his choice to step to President Donald Trump to present what he called a Contract With Black America. His detailed planned offered various methods of restoring black communities and providing millions in resources to Black business owners and students.

He was attacked from all angles about his alignments despite offering the plan to both parties and being turned down by the Democrats. But is Ice Cube qualified to present such a plan on our behalf? What has he stood for all these years?

Many members of the Los Angeles hip-hop community expressed their anger or made songs in response to the Rodney King beating in 1991, but Cube was particularly methodical about expressing his outrage. Some of his older siblings had been involved in protests surrounding the Watts riots in 1965, he said, and activism ran in his veins. “All black people are going to be faced with things like that, until we are where we are supposed to be in this society,” he said. “So every few generations are going to look to protests in that manner, if things don’t change.”

He also understood the philosophical divide between two forms of protest: the nonviolent, epitomized by Martin Luther King Jr., and the “by any means necessary” approach popularized by Malcolm X. Cube made it clear which side he came down on. “I saw pictures of my family in the streets with picket signs — ‘Nonviolent Movement’ — getting beat and getting wet with a water hose and getting lynched. Now, a nonviolent movement, that’s as peaceful as you can get and this country did that to them,” he told Creem.

Other than being part of the infamous NWA rap group that went head to head with police for the ongoing police brutality brought upon us. Ice Cube has been a strict advocate for Black growth and has run one of the only all black movie companies since the early 90s. All of his movies from “Friday” all the way to “Are We There Yet?” included almost 100% black casts and put dozens of new actors and actresses in the business including names like Chris Tucker, Nia Long, Katt Williams, Mike Epps and many others. It’s also fair to mention all of his movies in the past 15 years have been majority family friendly representing rare positive images of black families in Hollywood.

In 2107 Cube launched his own professional basketball league called the Big 3 ,a half-court, 3-on-3 league featuring retired NBA players who wanted to have one final go-round on the hardwood. His league gave way for formerly scorned played like Allen Iverson to get a check from the sport they loved.

Big3 Coach Nancy Lieberman was quoted as saying

“You know why the BIG3 is so important? The BIG3 has given these young men the chance to stay in the game, still transition in a later part of their career, be around guys that make them feel secure. … There’s a story within a story,” Lieberman said. “Basketball is the opportunity, and it’s life-changing. Now the BIG3 is allowing this post-career career to happen in real time, right in front of your eyes. You see the athletes, I see the men.”

For years Ice Cube has been a supporter of the honorable Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam visiting with the Minister many times in person. Most recently Cube was in the news for sternly calling out a white CNN news reporter for racist remarks he made against Farrakhan. Cube firmly told him to “Watch Your Mouth” when referring to the honorable Minister.

It’s also fair to the point of this article to point out that even the Minister himself (one of Black America’s only non rapper leaders) was also a musician in the 1950s long before leading his community of millions.

Now likely the only remaining Black leader on a world stage who leads from a religious standpoint since the death of the civil rights movement.

So does this make Ice Cube worthy to lead us? Has he shown his dedication to black empowerment? Has the Minister shown what can happen when musicians turn their purpose around and build for the people? This is all an incredible effort but they aren’t the only Muslim musicians building for the people are they?

Akon is probably one of the most globally notable entertainers in the world and with hip hop as his roots, he stands as the first rapper to achieve feats of global development. The Senegalese native hit the scene in the early 2000s with his “Locked Up” single singing an all too familiar tune inspired by America’s mass incarceration. Over the years he built a fortune writing, producing and performing music with everybody from Young Jeezy and TPain to Mariah Carey and Michael Jackson.

His success was then flipped into a partnership with two other African businessman to raise $2 Billion to create “Akon Lighting Africa” which is an effort to bring solar electricity to over 1 million households on the mother continent. His efforts were criticized for his partnership with the Chinese but his efforts have also been widely praised across the continent for helping many underserved villages achieve power for the first time.

He, like Kanye, announced and then abandoned plans to run for POTUS but his political impact has been felt around the world sitting down with dozens of Presidents, Prime Ministers and World Leaders including speaking at the United Nations Summit on Global Development in New York City.

It seems the Senegalese native has been working really hard to continue bridging the gap between Black America and the Motherland speaking out a number of times including in an infamous Al Jazeera interview where the rapper claimed “America was never built for Black people”.

He began pushing back against the system by creating and launching his own cryptocurrency called Akoin for the purpose of empowering businesses in Black and African communities. The currency is months away from going live.

Most recently Akon has been in the global news after unveiling his plans to build a $6 billion city in his native Senegal named Akon City. The project was recently approved by government officials and plans to move forward have begun. The star says his “Smart City will welcome African Americans.”

With these kinds of heights being reached by hip hop stars, should we not accept them as the modern day civil, social and economic rights leaders?

But Akon is not the only former hip hop artist building cities in Senegal either .

RJ Mahdi is an Atlanta native former hip hop artist, media personality and event promoter who repatriated to Senegal in 2014. Although never experiencing fame on the level of the other on this list, RJ built his career in the independent circuits in the early 2000s, promoting local artists who couldn’t secure major deal financing. In 2008 his radio show Nightlife Radio based in Harlem New York provided hip hop artists nationwide with major exposure and he later opened up multiple recording studios in low income communities of his hometown Atlanta as well as Northeast Ohio for young artists. He championed the “Be Your Own Boss” movement in 2011 driving millions of young people to identify multiple streams of income and build generational wealth. He later strong armed professional sports campaigns and Fortune 500 media clients from white competitors and former employers citing they had been “racists and worked to hold us down economically in the field dominated by White men.”

After building several successful media and entertainment industry businesses in Atlanta, New York, Miami and Ohio, he experienced watching his closest friends and family killed or incarcerated, including his younger brother, who at 17 was sentenced to two years in prison. Growing highly critical of the cycle of violence, oppression and racism in America, RJ and his wife decided to take another course. In 2014 he decided his family would benefit from a more cultural and traditional life in Senegal. A radical move for a kid from East Atlanta.

He launched several Pan-African media networks in his first year on the soil and garnered hundreds of thousands of subscribers with tens of millions of views. All networks were focused on bridging the communication and economic gap between the diaspora and Africa.

6 years later he now runs the #1 Diaspora owned export, tourism and investment firms in West Africa. His organization has welcomed hundreds of African Americans back to African soil for the purpose of shopping, visiting, investing or relocating while building mutual commerce with local Africans on the ground and engaging in traditional and spiritual events and practices.

His efforts have been heralded on BBC, The ROOT, Travel Noire and others for the social and economic impact of his organizations. Since launching his efforts in late 2014, RJ has started multiple agriculture projects, a restaurant franchise, built a free community library, sponsored a youth center for two years, led business incubators for local entrepreneurs, hosted language and computer classes and participated in countless conferences, panels and discussion workshops all funded by investors and supporters from the Diaspora and in particular Black America. He was later named the Roving Diaspora Ambassador to Senegal by the Government of the State of the African Diaspora (SOAD).

Now in 2020 RJ Mahdi and his organization the Made In Africa Project has announced they have embarked on a collective 1200 acre city project for returning members of the Diaspora. The city named Alkebulan boasts major industries such as manufacturing, tourism and education and agriculture while vowing to create tens of thousands of jobs and businesses for returnees in partnership with locals. As apart of the primary stages RJ headed up the signing of the EXODUS Alliance with Marcus Garvey’s UNIA-ACL, SOAD, Sankofa Repatriation and other champions for repatriation in efforts to raise $1 Billion to help a million Black families move back to Africa, including some to the city of Alkebulan.

The Alkebulan city has the local government’s full support and the theme is collective development. On his Instagram RJ says “this will allow our people to come home and heal while getting to know and learn from our local brothers and sisters on the ground. We will all be able to build and benefit from this great city and God willing have something we can leave for future generations.”

Learn more about Alkebulan here.

These actions of former entertainers has placed the most unpredictable candidates in the race to lead our people out of 400 years of oppression. We see liberal artists, conservatives, Muslims and Pan-Africans all presenting solutions to the never ending challenges posed against us.

All of them products of the inner city environments that most of our children, parents and peers grew up in. All of them attributing their success in business and wealth to the Black community. All of them sacrificing their careers, their paychecks and possibly their lives to go against the grain and make a difference in the way our people are able to survive on this planet.

So again, it begs the question. Are these our leaders? Do they have our support as a people? Do we trust them with our agenda? Have they effectively replaced the civil rights leaders of the 60s? If not them, then who?

  • Jabir GM (Journalist)

International Pan-African News Media