Expert examines links between hip hop, political activism

By Liz Lebron

Hip hop’s tales of excess and riches dominate today’s music industry, but does the genre have a role to play in black music’s long history of activism? That’s the question James Stewart posed to New College students during his talk, Speaking Truth to Power: The Role of Hip Hop in the Post-Obama Era.

James Stewart shares political views of black millennials 6
James Stewart shares political views of black millennials

“I am always concerned with how you mobilize people to confront something that is unjust,” said Stewart, who is president of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History.

Music has been a source of resilience for African Americans throughout their history on the American continent. Enslaved people from different regions of Africa used song to overcome language barriers and later encoded escape plans into the spirituals they sang in the fields. During the Civil Rights Era, musicians reminded African Americans to remain hopeful because a change was gonna come while showing white Americans what was going on. Rap music put inner city problems on MTV for all to see.

“Authentic Black musicians serve as much as a valuable resource to understand the role of African Americans as the work done by historians and social scientists,” said Stewart.

The commercialization of rap and hip hop music meant moving away from political commentary and including more odes to romance and opulence on records. Stewart, who is also a professor emeritus of economics at Penn State University, saw a return to political mobilization in hip hop after police fatally shot Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. Artists like Common, Killer Mike, and J. Cole released tracks in support of protestors who took to the streets in outrage after Brown’s death.

Stewart played a selection of post-Ferguson hip-hop songs for the audience and asked those in attendance to analyze the lyrics based on a typology of political commentary in black popular music  he developed. Attendees identified Common’s Letter to the Free,  for instance, as a documentary piece with “descriptions of negative conditions designed to document the magnitude of problems and possible causes,” as well as defiant challenge, or “demands that external forces cease and desist from exploitative behavior.”

The hip hop community’s response to Ferguson and subsequent engagement with the Black Lives Matter movement reminded Stewart of musicians like Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder, who were active in the Civil Rights Movement. Today’s hip-hop artists, Stewart proclaimed, also have a responsibility to engage with issues of social injustice and economic inequality that persist in communities of color.

See the full schedule of Black History Month events taking place at New College throughout February.

— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre bay front campus is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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