This article will introduce you to a range of conscious rappers from the early days of hip-hop up until now.
Conscious rap is as old as hip-hop itself, but it’s clear to see that it’s alive and well today.
But what is conscious rap? The phrase is sometimes regarded as synonymous with political hip-hop. However, conscious rap specifically refers to politically progressive rappers, as opposed to politically conservative rappers.
The term ‘conscious rap’ has fallen in and out of vogue, with some rappers and rap fans disliking or distancing themselves from the phrase. Like it or not, the descriptor has never gone away, and remains a helpful shorthand to refer to rappers that are politically progressive or left-wing.
Let’s dive in and learn about some of the best conscious rappers in history and today.
Tupac Shakur is the first name most hip-hop fans think of when you say the words ‘conscious rapper.’ The iconic emcee, who is one of the best-selling rappers of all time, was the son of political activists – both of his parents were members of the Black Panther Party in New York.
His most political album is Strictly 4 My N.I.G.G.A.Z… (1993), which goes deep into the artist’s social and political views. The record was a big commercial success, reaching number twenty four on the Billboard 200 album chart.
Some of Tupac’s most political songs include ‘White Manz World’ (1996), ‘Can U C the Pride in the Panther’ (2000), ‘Ghetto Gospel’ (2004), and the unforgettable ‘Changes’ (1998) – Tupac’s enduring meditation on race, class, and politics.
Universally regarded as one of the greatest rappers of all time, Nas was also a conscious rapper. His tracks frequently deal with social and political issues, giving expression to his views on society.
His 2006 album Hip-hop is Dead, which topped the Billboard 200 album chart, is generally regarded as his most political album. About the record, Nas said:
“When I say ‘hip-hop is dead,’ basically America is dead… There is no political voice. Music is dead… Our way of thinking is dead, our commerce is dead. Everything in this society has been done… That’s where we are as a country.”
Some of Nas’ most political songs include ‘Untitled’ (2008), ‘Daughters’ (2014), and ‘Cops Shot the Kid’ (2018).
3. J. Cole
J. Cole has become one of the biggest names in rap music right now. Although he is not as well known for his politics as, for example, Kendrick Lamar, many of his songs address social and political themes. J. Cole is arguably at the forefront of new conscious rap today.
One of J. Cole’s most political tracks is ‘Be Free’ (2014)’, a song about police brutality and the shooting of Michael Brown. His song ‘High for Hours’ (2017) discusses a meeting he had with Barack Obama, his frustrations with the former president, and his desire for revolution.
‘Friends’ (2018) offers a thoughtful reflection on the societal ills that lead to drug use. And his 2020 song ‘Snow on tha Bluff’ addresses the murder of George Floyd. It’s clear that J. Cole is amongst the most politically-engaged rappers on the scene today.
The legendary KRS-One – also known as Teacha – is responsible for one of all-time great conscious rap anthems – the 1993 hit ‘Sound of da Police.’
A former member of Boogie Down Productions, KRS-One worked alongside DJ Scott La Rock before he was shot and killed in 1987. KRS-One went on to form Stop the Violence Movement in response to Scott’s death.
The Teacha is also a vegan activist, and has rapped about his veganism in the song ‘Beef’ (1990).
Nearly three decades after the release of the legendary ‘Sound of da Police,’ his 2020 album ‘Between Da Protests’ shows that the Teacha is still teaching, and staying true to the political roots of hip-hop.
5. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar has emerged as one of the most successful rappers of our generation, and also one of the most political. At least a dozen of Kendrick’s songs directly address social and political issues.
The song that saw Kendrick burst into mainstream awareness as a political rapper was with the 2015 ‘Alright,’ which came to be considered as the soundtrack to the Black Lives Matter movement. Pitchfork ranked the song as the number one best song of the 2010s.
Some of Kendrick’s other political tracks include ‘Good Kid, M.A.A.D City’ (2012), ‘How Much A Dollar Cost’ (2015), and ‘The Blacker The Berry’ (2015).
The artist’s self-reflective 2022 album Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers has seen him continue to lean into the realm of conscious rap.
Common is one of the foremost names in conscious rap. His thoughtful raps often address social justice issues including race, gender, and class. He famously objected to using the degrading word “b****” in his lyrics.
Although he is well known for being politically progressive, in an interview he stated that in his music he wants to be free to address both typical hip-hop themes, as well as thought-provoking and political messages.
“I’m just able to express myself with no fear of judgment. I’m trying to be dope, but I don’t care if I’m saying, ‘Yo, I drink and I be messin’ with these women.’ If I want to be saying something enlightening, I say that, too.”
Some of the rapper’s most popular political tracks include ‘Black America Again’ (2016) and ‘A Song for Assata’ (2000) – a tribute to the political activist Assata Shakur, who was also Tupac’s godmother.
7. Public Enemy
Formed by Chuck D and Flavor Flav, rap legends Public Enemy are well-known for their overtly political image. They were one of the first hip-hop groups whose overriding message was built around politics, and they carry a legacy to this day for spearheading conscious hip-hop.
Public Enemy’s politics revolves first and foremost around issues of race, addressing racist discrimination and asserting pro-black sentiments. Their 1990 album Fear of Black Planet and their 1991 album Apocalypse 91… The Enemy Strikes Black stand as some of the best examples of their politics.
Amongst their famous political songs are ‘991 Is A Joke’ (1990), which criticised emergency services for being slower to respond to incidents in black neighbourhoods, and ‘Bring the Noise’ (1997).
Public Enemy’s most famous song by a mile is ‘Fight the Power’ (1989). The song is a conscious rap anthem, and one of the best-known rap songs of all time.
8. Mos Def
Mos Def – now known as Yasiin Bey – is a rapper who has been politically vocal for a long time. Amongst other causes, he has campaigned on behalf of Assata Shakur, and criticised the US government for its response to Hurricane Katrina.
Along with fellow conscious rapper Talib Kweli, Bey organised the Hip Hop for Respect release in 2000, which was focused on police brutality and the shooting of Amadou Diallo.
His two most famous political songs include ‘Mathematics’ (1991), and ‘Katrina Clap’ (2005), which deals with the Bush administration’s weak response to Hurricane Katrina in black communities.
British rapper Dave, also known as Santan Dave, is becoming well-known as one the new conscious rappers on the scene.
In particular, he is known for his 2018 song ‘Question Time.’ The song, which addresses the British government, touches on a range of social justice issues. His performance of the song at the BRIT Awards attracted huge media attention, and earned him new fans for his uncompromising and powerful stance.
His song ‘Black’ (2019) delves into the issue of black identity, opening with the lines, “black is beautiful, black is excellent / black is pain, black is joy, black is evident.” The song also draws attention to the transatlantic question with lines including, “Black is so much deeper than just African-American.”
One of the UK’s fastest rising rappers, songs like these have quickly cemented Dave’s reputation as a socially conscious and politically progressive rapper.
10. Talib Kweli
Talib Kweli is one of the foremost names in conscious rap, and is well-known for his political activism in a number of areas. The rapper, who was one half of rap duo Black Star with Common, has been especially vocal about race issues in the US, the death penalty, and the Israeli occupation of Palestine.
Kweli is currently banned from performing in Germany, due to his pro-BDS stance on the Israel-Palestine conflict. In response to the ban he commented on social media, “I would like to perform in Germany but I don’t need to. I’d rather be a decent human being and stand up for what’s right than censor myself and lie about BDS for a check.”
His 2002 song ‘The Proud’ delves into his social and political views, dissecting the topics of terrorism, police brutality, and racial discrimination.
11. Immortal Technique
Immortal Technique is one of the most outspoken left-wing rappers in the conscious rap scene. It could fairly be said that most of his songs address political themes head-on.
Immortal Technique’s politics even extend to his relationship with the music industry, with the artist being a constant vocal critic of record companies and their parasitic tendencies.
His controversial 2005 song with Mos Def, ‘Bin Laden,’ criticises the US government’s response to 9/11 and the invasion of Afghanistan and Iraq. The track also features a brief bar from Eminem, “I don’t rap for dead presidents, I’d rather see the president dead / It’s never been said but I set precedents.”
Another of the rapper’s most famous political songs is the 2006 ‘Impeach the President’ with DJ Green Lantern, Saigon, and Dead Prez, which takes aim at George Bush on issues from race, to religion, to war.
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