From NWA’s iconic “Fuck tha Police” to Macklemore’s cringe-worthy “White Privilege II,” hip-hop has been a direct successor to the soulful protest anthems of the 60s, aiming to topple prevailing power structures. Hip-hop is counterculture by design, and government institutions serve as multi-headed monsters that emcees attack in politically charged songs.
This feud is not one-sided. The FBI has painted the art form as a nefarious organization of bad actors throughout gangsta rap’s popularity. NWA infamously dealt with the FBI attempting to — rather hypocritically — censor lyrics the department deemed violent. Milt Ahlerich, the assistant FBI director at the time, wrote a letter to the rap group’s distributor, Priority Records voicing his opposition to rap:
“Advocating violence and assault is wrong, and we in the law enforcement community take exception to such action.”
Of course, this attempt at silencing the artists created something of a proto-Streisand effect and ultimately bolstered NWA’s infamy and, by proxy, popularity. But this did not quell the FBI’s mission to label the culture as a Mafia-esque machine. These attacks on hip-hop culture only served to proliferate the anti-authority anthems of gangsta rap:
- In 1999, the FBI defined the Wu-Tang Clan as a “major criminal organization.”
- In 2011, some gangsta rap cliques were deemed to be money laundering and gang recruitment organizations.
- The infamous COINTEL program was conceived, an alleged disinformation operation originally aimed at dismantling the Black Panther and outlying civil rights groups.
In many ways, hip-hop has picked up where the Black Panthers left off and has become the contemporary black scapegoat for a litany of America’s ills. Political militias roaming the streets of Oakland gave way to touting gang affiliations on wax. Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam” is sampled and expanded upon in Brother Ali’s “Uncle Sam Goddam.” Malcolm, Martin, Huey, and even Gil-Scot Heron are now frequently referenced and channeled by artists both mainstream and underground. If hip-hop could be seen in part as an evolution of a civil movement, the FBI has been keen to employ the same tactics it always has to slow or delegitimize it.
These cases have inspired and fueled a fairly onenote sentiment within the hip-hop community.
Some artists lean into the antagonist role of the drug dealer chasing black market riches:
“X6’s red, up in Albany with the dreads
Bags of black, fuck the feds.”
– Raekwon, “Surgical Gloves”
Others take a more professional role and cite historical clashes while evoking civil action:
“J. Edgar Hoover, and he coulda proved to you
He had King and X set up.”
Public Enemy, “Party for Your Right to Fight”
Some just say things to say things because it’s a common trope within the genre to capitalize on:
“Fuck the FBI and fuck all the Army troops
Fighting for what, bitch? Be your own man.”
Soulja Boy, “Let’s Be Real”
The underlying issues of institutional racism, counter-intelligence operations, and national security fear-mongering have kept tensions high in the beef between the Bureau and hip-hop, resulting in a myriad of negative messages aimed squarely at law enforcement.
But what happens when the FBI, an agency with a history of attempting to govern hip-hop, attempts to govern the government?
The ongoing investigation into the Trump presidential campaign’s possible connection to Russia could be the event that spurs a slight shift in rap rhetoric. On last year’s “The Heart Part IV,” Kendrick Lamar may have been one of the first rappers to indirectly align with the FBI’s current modus operandi:
“Donald Trump is a chump
Know how we feel, punk? Tell him that God comin’
And Russia need a replay button, y’all up to somethin’”
That replay button, though subtle, is a line that contains a sentiment never before heard in mainstream rap: the FBI needs to do its job and investigate a possible conspiracy.
While not an outright admission of siding with the feds, Lamar’s lyrics do suggest an acceptance and need for a functioning government, one unmarred by possible treason and shadowy international influence. In order to do that, Robert Mueller’s special counsel investigation should be seen through to the end. Kendrick seems to agree.
Kendrick follows up by touching on the more insidious effects of the past election:
“Electorial votes look like memorial votes
But America’s truth ain’t ignorin’ the votes”
If Donald Trump’s campaign did indeed collude with Russian influencers, K. Dot sees it as a possible death warrant for America. What’s interesting about this, however, is that he may find the FBI, particularly Mueller, to be an arbiter of national justice. Kendrick does lay some of the onus on the American people here by mentioning the vote, but it’s clear that the public can only do so much if the rule of law is undermined entirely, which is what a premature firing of Mueller would indicate.
Regardless of Lamar’s opinion on the Trump administration, anti-authority themes in “conscious” hip-hop continue to be utilized. Police brutality, mass incarceration, poverty rates, and gang warfare are still a major blight in American life, especially for people of color, and law enforcement is a major player in these themes. Kendrick himself would go on to discuss gang violence and police brutality on DAMN.’s “XXX.” Unless these issues are remedied, there will be no shortage of anti-authority sentiment in hip-hop. The message will continue to be, “Fuck da police.”
Though the “replay button” line is small and subtle, it has nevertheless made its mark in the dialogue between rap and law enforcement, however nuanced it may be. Yes, our nation suffers from institutional racism, and yes, we have an administration marred in corruption and scandal. Now, more than ever, is a time to recognize allies from foes. Sometimes, those allies might just be in bed with some of our foes. Kendrick’s take on the Russia investigation, while swift, may prove to be a watershed moment in shaping rap’s relationship with the FBI.