REWIND: Five of the best protest songs in hip-hop

Run The Jewels

Run The Jewels perform at the Oracle Arena in Oakland on March 13, 2018. Alessio Neri/STAFF.

We’re in week… nine of RIFF Rewind’s Black History Month? I think this is the ninth. Wait here for a second and I’ll check.

Yes, it appears we’re entering Month Three of Black History Month. I had originally vowed to do this until the government took any sort of legislative action to address the legitimate grievances of the protesters, but instead the police have gotten even more flagrantly violent while still finding the time to do the exact same things to the same people. So the odds of getting any more action than hollow platitudes are dropping by the hour.

What I’m saying is that eventually my editor is going to make me stop, so I’d better start addressing the common complaints. I’ll touch on the major one first: So far out of 45 songs in this series only one has been even arguably hip-hop.

That’s been intentional! When people think of Black musicians, their thoughts jump to rappers, so I wanted to spotlight other genres worthy of attention. And I think I’ve done that. We’ve gone through old school rock and roll, blues, punk, metal and other assorted rock, among other things. And I naively didn’t think I’d still be doing this—come on, Congress, not even an ultimately meaningless proclamation?—so it’s finally time.

Here are five of my favorite hip-hop protest songs.

2Pac — “Changes”

I’ve made clear many times—in this column, on Twitter, in RIFF’s Slack, to my family and friends, to total strangers who happen to be within earshot—that Tupac Shakur is the best lyricist of the 20th century and arguably (by me) the best English-language poet.

You will not convince me otherwise, so don’t bother.

This is probably my favorite of Shakur’s songs, with “Keep Ya Head Up” close behind, and it meets all my qualifications for a protest song, so it makes the cut. Like any great poetry, the lyrics speak to his situation and his world, not just explaining things but showing you the world through his eyes. And that message, if you have even a glimmer of empathy, makes you want to help to fix it.

Like I said. Best of the 20th century.

N.W.A. — “Fuck tha Police”

First, a reminder that Ice Cube is an anti-semite. He’s always been an anti-semite and recently he’s given up even trying to hide it. So don’t give Ice Cube any money.

Anyway, let’s flash back to 1988. Nobody knew Ice Cube was an anti-semite yet, but they were super mad about his group’s song about the police. There was endless pearl-clutching, based mostly on the name and a couple lines, that it was encouraging the poor impressionable youth of America to murder police officers en masse.

The thing is, if you actually listen to it? Like, listen to and absorb the stories and the message in the verses? It enunciates exactly what all these protests are about: Overly aggressive policing, police brutality, unjustified searches and detainment.

That’s right, 32 years ago white people ignored a protest against police brutality because its presentation offended their delicate sensibilities, and they decided it was definitely an attack on men and women in uniform. Colin Kaepernick would probably find that story familiar.

Geto Boys — “Point of No Return”

Speaking of Kaepernick, the second to last line of this song is, “I’m the type of nigga throw a party when the flag burn.” That’s being disrespectful to the flag. Take notes.

Anyway, I’m most interested in the line immediately before that: “You need to be concerned about the motherfuckin’ deficit.” Because I’m pretty sure this is the only song in rap history to mention the federal deficit. Granted, though, it’s a dig at one-time Presidential candidate Bob Dole.

Dole, you see, as a senator from Kansas, was waging a one-man war on Time Warner for selling rap albums. Only rap, though—not predominantly white and increasingly violent metal, though, for some reason. He specifically wasn’t fond of Tupac, and I’ve told you in what esteem I hold him in, so you can guess what I think of that.

But that’s not what drew the Geto Boys’ ire. They accused him of “jumpin’ on the rap bandwagon” because, despite his years-long campaign, he accepted a $21,000 contribution to his Presidential campaign from none other than Time Warner. Because principles have always been a matter of political convenience, and money has always come before policy.

Dead Prez — “Police State”

To quote the song: “And the people don’t never get justice/ And the women don’t never get respected/ And the problems don’t never get solved/ And the jobs don’t never pay enough/ So the rent always be late/ Can you relate?/ We living in a police state.”

Black Americans have been living in 2020 for decades. But now that militarized police are indiscriminately gassing peaceful protestors and beating middle-aged Navy veterans for no reason, and that federal troops are in 75-percent-white Portland, white Americans are starting to realize what this song was saying 20 years ago: In many ways, we’re in a textbook police state.

Run the Jewels — “JU$T”

I tried really, really hard not to just make a whole list of Tupac, Public Enemy and Run the Jewels again. I’m fully aware that’s what I usually do, and my illustrious editor Roman always points out that I get into ruts where I just list the same handful of songs from my favorite bands every week.

And yes, I did include both Tupac and RTJ on this list. But in my defense “Changes” is one of the best hip-hop songs ever, and I haven’t gone a week without listening to the entirety of RTJ4 since it came out. I don’t understand how every Run the Jewels album is better than the last and I can’t wait until RTJ5 eventually comes out.

Also, and most importantly, this is a remarkably prescient song. They were saying “look at all these slave masters posing on your dollars” before people started pulling statues down! Zack de la Rocha was ahead of the game with Rage Against the Machine, and he’s still one step ahead to this day.

Follow editor Daniel J. Willis and tweet column ideas to him at

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