On a hot afternoon in July 2015, just outside Cleveland State University, something remarkable happened. As activists began boarding their buses to return home after the adjournment of The National Convening of the Movement for Black Lives conference, a few people noticed a group of police officers arresting a 14-year-old boy. They gathered to protest and were pepper-sprayed. Eventually, the boy’s mother was located, and he was released. The activists celebrated by chanting a lyric from the celebrated hip-hop artist Kendrick Lamar, “We gon’ be alright!”
The mantra quickly spread to Black Lives Matter events across the nation. Soon afterward, a lyric by Janelle Monáe was similarly adopted as mantra. Others followed. In this way, rappers are becoming the great poets of the modern Civil Rights Movement.
Recently, I interviewed one of my favorite hip-hop poets, Toki Wright. He heads the nation’s first fully accredited Hip-Hop Studies program at McNally Smith College of Music in St. Paul, Minnesota. He is revered in the Twin Cities community for his work as an educator, community organizer, and rapper.
“There are so many young people that worship words from hip-hop music more than any scripture they could name from any religious text,” he remarked, “So imagine that these songs are sacred texts. What do they say? What do they say about us? What do they say about the future? What do they say about our spiritual connection? What do they say about our desires, and our beliefs? Because they do say something. If I repeat some mantra over and over again, every day, it becomes a part of me.”
The morning after the presidential election, Toki Wright shared a similar observation with a group of student rappers and faculty members gathered to process the results of the election. The discussion that followed was heartfelt and encouraging. They debated whether the hip-hop industry prioritizes image and attitude over depth and quality of content. They questioned whether it was possible to garner mainstream attention without compromising one’s personal artistic visions. Like all the best poets, they rejected easy answers and embraced ambiguity, both within hip-hop culture and within themselves. Unlike many contemporary poets, they shared a desire to write things that would be shouted wildly in the streets, rather than murmured in classrooms.
Before I left McNally Smith that day, I asked Toki about the history of rapping as a platform for unification and resistance within traditionally marginalized communities. He responded with an original verse:
“Black lives are matter of fact / just as a seed is a seed on the tree of life. / What did you get a chance to learn? / Can you read or write? / Did it bear rotten fruit? / Did you get a bite?”
“Black lives are matter of fact.” I adopted those words as a personal mantra and repeated them endlessly to myself throughout the chaos of the following weeks. Six simple words, but worthy of any sacred doctrine, or any teenager’s ear buds. Worthy of being chanted. Worthy of being felt.