A glance at Nelson Mandela's influence on hip-hop
On what would have been his 100th birthday, we recall how the revolutionary has inspired a few songs and lyrics.
Mandela Day in Johannesburg was a spectacle worthy of beaming admiration and pride. Standing before thousands of South African people of every shade of brown under the sun, America’s first black president delivered a speech honoring the legacy of South Africa’s first black president. The moment built perfectly upon President Obama’s 2013 speech in which he cited Nelson Mandela’s patience, compassion, and mental fortitude as reasons he was a “personal inspiration.” Five years later, the former Commander-in-Chief returned to lay out the most pressing issues facing the world today. There was no greater place to discuss the importance of democracy and racial justice than on South African soil—the birth place of the Apartheid.
Nelson Mandela’s strength and wisdom has made its mark on hip-hop as well. On the thought-provoking “What If,” Jadakiss contemplates how different Mandela’s life would be if he’d never been wrongfully imprisoned.
On “Mortal Man” from 2015’s To Pimp a Butterfly, Kendrick Lamar ignited many conversations because the track included an exclusive Tupac interview, but the entire song offers pointed analysis on leading marginalized people. Perhaps the most thorough meditation on Mandela’s impact, this track contemplates whether being a leader for liberation is worth the sacrifices and uncertainty that comes with it. Questioning his fans’ loyalty, Kendrick asks, “How many leaders you said you needed and left them for dead?” before naming leaders who were betrayed or abandoned by their people. These haunting verses are an effective precursor to Tupac Shakur’s interview in which he forecasts a fiery revolution.
The Compton rapper wrestled so much with these questions that he visited Mandela’s cell on Robben Island “to find clarity.” The leader spent 18 of his 27 years (nearly 10,000 days) of imprisonment in a 9×8 cell, sleeping on a straw bed as the war waged on. Due to his influence within the prison, Mandela also spent extended periods in solitary confinement. Living in these grey, inhumane conditions—especially under wrongful imprisonment—must have pushed the leader’s faith and resolve to the very brink. Still, his fire never died.
To commemorate Nelson Mandela’s life, his grandson Ndaba Nelson has released a memoir containing over 250 letters penned from prison. Though these letters carry his pain and struggle, they also give insight on how resilient this man truly was. In a letter to his family in 1969, Mandela wrote, “I do not know, my darlings, when I’m coming home… Don’t worry about me now. I am happy, well, and full of strength and hope.”
“Mortal Man” also highlighted Mandela’s capacity to forgive and remain peaceful. Kendrick raps, “You wanna love like Nelson / You wanna be like Nelson / You wanna walk in his shoes but your peacemaking seldom.” Despite his wrongful imprisonment, Mandela always encouraged those who followed him to use nonviolent tactics. It is well-known that the CIA revealed the leader’s location in order for the corrupt Apartheid regime to capture him, but he held no grudge against America when he assumed the presidency. In opposition to the violent racial caste system that stratified his people, Mandela always promoted unity.
A year before To Pimp a Butterfly, CyHi The Prynce released the Black History Project to use his platform to speak about racial injustice. The mixtape contains the sonically cinematic “Mandela,” a track that highlights the rapper’s negative experiences with law enforcement as a drug dealer and as a hip-hop artist. Despite all of his obstacles, he has escaped bondage and retained his sense of hope.
Meek Mill, who was wrongfully incarcerated for five months this fall, has become the poster child for injustice. Since his release, he has become a constant reminder of this nation’s need for prison reform—especially for people of color. Imagine if the #FreeMeek hashtags lasted for 27 years.
While Meek is certainly not the “Mandela of this generation” as many have anointed him, he is the latest example of the legendary leader’s impact on hip-hop culture.
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