Hip-Hop as a Tool of Catharsis and Empathy

“Hip-hop, art, is only going to do what the people are doing. Art doesn’t imitate life. Art is the expression of life. So art and life are never separate. Whatever people are going through is going to be in their music…”

This twenty-year-old quote from New York rapper Mos Def beautifully describes the power that any form of art — especially music — possesses in relation to the commotion of the world at any given point in time. Music has always been used as a means to express the lives of American artists and citizens during tumultuous times. A prime example being when artists like Bob Dylan, John Lennon, Creedence Clearwater Revival, and others made moving tunes that protested U.S. involvement in Vietnam back in the 1960s and 1970s.

In viewing hip-hop under this lens as an artful expression of the artists’ current lives, a sad conclusion is very quickly drawn. 

Hip-hop was born from pain and frustration, as its earliest popular groups — like Public Enemy and N.W.A. — made passionate, rage-fueled music to express their disdain for the systemic racism that persisted in the United States. If you look at the history of the folk and rock genres, Vietnam era protest music was merely a blip on the radar. Hip-hop was about racism when it began over thirty years ago, and it’s about racism now. 

While the genre has certainly diversified over the years, albums like To Pimp A Butterfly and ALL-AMERIKKKAN BADA$$ are still being released in today’s age. Why? Look again to Def’s comments — rap artists are simply making music about what they go through. More than three decades have passed and artists are still rapping about racism and police brutality because very little has changed.

As a white young adult who grew up comfortably middle class in a suburban neighborhood, it would be a disservice to even attempt to imagine what it’s like for an African American to repetitively witness racially motivated police brutality and constant failure from the justice system. While my heart breaks for black communities that are all too familiar with the effects of this cycle, I simply do not possess the means to empathize with them on the same level that they can with each other. Not having experienced racial prejudice is obviously nothing to feel guilty for, but it does pain me to know how many people have been put through so much mental and physical trauma that others like myself cannot even begin to comprehend.

As an avid music lover, I’ve always found music to be incredibly cathartic. If I ever had trouble sorting out emotions in my head, listening to a specific type of music that related to my situation always helped. Since people like myself lack the ability to wholly empathize with black communities as a result of never having experienced racial struggle, listening to the specific type of music that relates to their situation is a necessary alternative.

Hip-hop itself is a genre of catharsis, with its artists constantly using their music as a tool to express their personal experiences with racial prejudice and provide their listeners with a glimpse into what it’s like to be in the shoes of someone whose life has been negatively impacted by racism. In my personal experience of listening to such music, these glimpses that rappers offer never fail to be emotionally powerful and incredibly moving. Music possesses the power to make you feel certain ways about any given topic that simply reading about said topic cannot do, and the emotional impact is far greater when it comes to such a pertinent and calamitous topic in racism.

Listening to experiences of racism so emotionally delivered through hip-hop can be a gateway for greater empathy from non-black people who seek to grieve alongside black communities when racially motivated tragedy strikes. This is not at all to say that the support offered by people who haven’t heard stories from victims of racial prejudice is any less valid or valuable than the support given by those who have. It is rather to say that, as human beings and advocates for justice, we should strive to the best of our ability to understand the pain of those whose rights are repetitively violated in our community. 

Hip-hop is bursting at the seams with impassioned expressions of emotion stemming from experiencing racial prejudice that can help those unaffected by racism to develop a greater understanding of what many are forced to go through on a frequent basis. Listening to such music will never be able to sufficiently convey the pain that racism inflicts to those who will never experience it, but it is an incredibly useful tool for those who seek to empathize with victims of racism here in the United States.

Linked below is a playlist I’ve created that contains hip-hop music I have always found to be especially harrowing and impactful in its message and delivery on the topic of race. I encourage everyone who reads this to give it a listen in effort to empathize with and stand alongside those most bereaved by the murder of George Floyd and the cyclical injustice that festers in this country.

About Nick Johnson

Nick is a Political Science major from Elmhurst, Illinois. In his free time, he enjoys listening to music, playing sports with friends, and starving along with the rest of the hip-hop fans across the world as they wait for Kendrick to drop his next album.

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