Play and Politics in Contemporary Rap

This weeks’ post was contributed by OCH research fellow and TU graduate student Layne Farmen. Layne is interested in contemporary Rap as part of the African American poetic tradition. Here, he explores how contemporary rap “plays” with musical forms in order to re-purpose art for political and social ends.

Tulsa rapper Steph Simon’s video for the song “Upside,” opens with the logo for his organization, “World Culture Music,” before presenting a wide long-distance view of the city. It then moves to an aerial view of the former mansion of W. Tate Brady, the Ku Klux Klan member whose name can be found on buildings and streets all around the city to this day. Simon raps, “Ain’t nobody gonna stop my mission,” as a crowd of dancing, partying people of all ages surround him. The song isn’t about Brady; he isn’t worth the air. It’s about celebration, vibrant art, and resilience. Further, what was once used as a symbol for hate is now being used to propel exceptional black art.

The dynamic repurposing going on here is used in a different way by the poet and critic Nathaniel Mackey, who advocates for a model of “Othering” that turns nouns to verbs, in order to promote multi-cultural understanding. For Mackey the innovations of black artists have historically been appropriated by white imitators, who bring a sort of commercialized stability to the abstract dynamism of the form, moving from “verb” to “noun.” The project, therefore, is to artistically “other,” to utilize “black linguistic and musical practices that accent variance, variability—what reggae musicians call ‘versioning’” (52).

The re-purposing of art in new contexts is central to the conventions of rap music, and the understanding of white appropriation runs throughout. Chuck D, the Public Enemy emcee, for example, used hip-hop and staggeringly loud production to shake the foundations of the establishment by employing the earth-shattering power of language, and famously disses figures such as Elvis for capitalizing on an appropriated form.   Just last week Steph Simon opened for Chuck D with a cover of “Fight the Power, before the Public Enemy emcee was presented with the Woody Guthrie Award.

Rap as Play: The Fugees

One of the playful potentialities of rap music comes from sampling and re-mixing, where older art can be re-purposed into a production mix and spiked with 808’s or trap beats. Artists can then sing or rap over the track to create completely new and exciting art. Though many old-guard artists are thrilled by the prospect of this creative rejuvenation, other more lawsuit happy icons are liable to throw a bit of a fit. 

In my own research, I’m exploring how the work of the rapper Lauryn Hill connects to Mackey’s concept of “artistic othering”. Two of Hill’s most celebrated songs with the rap collective The Fugees are covers/remixes: Roberta Flack’s “Killing Me Softly” and The Delfonics’ “Ready or Not Here I Come (Can’t Hide From Love).” The sparsity of Hill’s verses in “Killing Me Softly” along with the energy of the back-up from fellow members Wyclef Jean and Pras in the choruses juxtaposes existential emptiness with aggressive resolve, but there are no explicit political statements since it’s a direct cover. The Fugees “Ready or Not,” on the other hand, was released with a darkly political video.  In it, text hits the screen immediately: “The Fugees’ quest for justice and battle against intolerance continues…” Scenes of post-apocalyptic warfare, racial violence, and refugees on-the-run then follow, all corresponding with potent lines like the following from Pras, “I refugee from Guantanamo Bay/Dance around the border like I’m Cassius Clay.”

Playing with Rap: The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill

And then, after a bitter breakup from both Wyclef Jean and the rap trio as a whole, Lauryn Hill went solo with one of the most commercially successful records of all time. The staggering success of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill can be attributed to many things, but I believe both a mastery of genre, coupled with an utter disrespect for generic boundaries is key. Joan Morgan, the scholar who coined the term “hip-hop feminism,” says that Hill was masterfully pulling from black musical traditions of the 1960’s, 70’s, and 80’s at will” (14). And despite Drake’s claim that he was the first rapper “to successfully rap and sing” in his work, Hill was always doing both, which since has given way to an openness in mainstream rap to artists whose style exists somewhere along the blurred lines between singing and rapping (Future, Lil Nas X, etc).

Playing Beyond Rap: MTV Live Unplugged No. 2.0

At the height of her success, Lauryn Hill turned the microscope on herself, and delivered a difficult, painful performance that became her second album: MTV Unplugged No. 2.0, which has divided fans to this day. Suddenly the polished performer became a broken vessel, as Hill moved completely outside the conventions of hip-hop to a new setting: a stage, a guitar, a microphone. Between songs, Hill speaks for up to ten minutes at a time, making jokes at her own expense, appealing to voices in her head, and desperately begging her audience to look through the distortions of society to find reality and enlightenment. 


Many thought Hill was unwell and that her rambling between songs was indicative of mental instability. La Marr Jurelle Bruce, however,  in an exercise of “critical generosity” takes a different approach.  He reads Hill’s performance of “madness” as a deliberate means of escape from the turmoil of celebrity culture and public vulnerability.  Her eccentric performance then allows her to “elud[e] surveillance, [gain] privacy, and finally achiev[e] freedom” (378).

Since Unplugged, Hill has continued to tour, stubbornly refusing to cater to her audience’s expectations. Instead of performing her songs as recorded, she accelerates tempos to a manic degree, interpolates hits with reggae instrumentals, and meticulously arranges the familiar into new and near unrecognizable territory. But these revisions are not musical alone. In November of 2018 Hill played in Birmingham, and during “Forgive Them Father,” showed “footage – filmed on police bodycams and jerky phones – of a multitude of black victims of white police violence” (The Guardian). Hill, like Tulsa’s own Steph Simon, is using the playfully subversive capacities of rap to shine a light on systemic white supremacy. And this re-contextualizing power will continue to allow the dynamic medium to be a tool for making verbs out of nouns, and to resist hegemony and the establishment in visible, radical ways, whether it’s dissing Elvis, shedding light on injustice, or throwing a party at an old racist’s mansion.


Bruce, La Marr Jurelle. “”the People Inside My Head, Too”: Madness, Black Womanhood, and the Radical Performance of Lauryn Hill.” African American Review 45.3 (2012): 371-89. Print.

Empire, Kitty. “Lauryn Hill Review – a Difficult Re-Education.” The Guardian, Guardian News and Media, 1 Dec. 2018,

Mackey, Nathaniel. “Other: From Noun to Verb.” Representations. 39 (1992): 51-70. Print.

Morgan, Joan. She Begat This: 20 Years of The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill. Atria. New York, 2018. Print.

(note: all lyrics were taken from original videos or albums, and checked with the website Genius when necessary).