With the success of Straight Outta Compton and a new wave of hip-hop artists pushing the form and expanding the range of rap-worthy topics beyond bling and bottle service, the socially conscious side of hip-hop culture is slowly shining through over the gangsta rap cliche that conservative parents fear.
As far back as “old skool” anthems like “It’s Tricky”, a track that has Run DMC’s now-ordained Reverend Run rapping about “sleazy girls”, respecting people’s privacy, and claiming, “We are not thugs, we don’t do drugs, but you assume, on your own.” What follows is a list of rappers, hip-hop recording artists, who rap about more meaningful or politically relevant things, are outspoken activists, or active philanthropists, or defied impoverished, violent upbringings and bigotry to reach the heights of success.
No list of hip-hop role models is complete though without mentioning entrepreneur and Def Jam records founder Russell Simmons, without whom most of the artists on this list would have never been heard (including Russell’s younger brother, Joseph, also known as Reverend Run). Russell Simmons is himself a prolific giver to charity, a vegan and holistic medicine fan, so it is no coincidence that hip-hop history has had an enlightened bent to it from its beginnings. Outside of the Simmons brothers and some first gen rappers like Will Smith, here is a list of 12 Genuine (Positive) Role Models In Hip-Hop.
Now hear me out: When Slim Shady released Role Model on the Slim Shady LP, sarcastically rapping, “Don’t you want to grow up to be just like me?”, the farthest things from his mind were philanthropy or responsible living, true. But decades later, after releasing Relapse, Recovery, and the Marshall Mathers LP 2, albums that track his maturation, Eminem is quick to point out his own hypocrisy, being a non-deadbeat father and recovered pill-popper but rapping violence, misogyny, homophobia, and generally irresponsible behavior. On top of having recovered from the depths of addiction and survived the heights of fame/infamy, maintaining custody of his daughters, Mathers also donates generously to several non-profits, including his own Marshall Mathers Foundation, that deal with inner-city youth development; giving kids a place to be removed from the chaos that, for better or worse, made the bleached-blond instigator who he became.
11. Yasiin Bey
Most know Yasiin Bey, born Dante Smith, as Mos Def. The actor and rapper denies connection with the conscious rap movement that he is credited with launching and with six children by four women and deficient child support payments, he may not be the role model fans wish him to be. But, he is a fervent activist and staunch left-winger who has been vocal in protesting against the murder conviction of Mumia Abu-Jamal, the unfair trial of the Jena Six, and the $1 million ransom put on former Black Panther Assata Shakur, and has appeared in two human rights-focused documentaries.
10. Kanye West
Despite his borderline paranoid accusations and the ensuing Twitter battle over FEMA’s response to Hurricane Katrina, the fact remains that Kanye West was there, in Louisiana, playing a vital role in relief efforts on the ground in New Orleans. Say what you will about his award show etiquette, his choice in romantic partners, or his arguably delusional arrogance, the millionaire has donated to numerous philanthropic organizations, including Doctors Without Borders, Human Rights Watch, Habitat For Humanity, and his own foundation, named after his late mother, Dr. Donda West, and dedicated to providing guidance to college drop-outs.
9. Queen Latifah
For all Beyoncé‘s singing about putting rings on “it”, and taking her man to Red Lobster, there is a shortage current, positive, messages coming from female hip-hop and R&B stars. But there are some examples in hip-hop history of women preaching against sexism and misogyny and in their success showing non-stereotypical females can make it against steep odds, and Queen Latifah is the rapping matriarch who paved the way. A true renaissance woman, Dana “Queen Latifah” Owens is a Grammy Award winner, sitcom star (Living Single), a versatile actress having starred in thrillers (The Bone Collector) to musicals (Hairspray, Chicago), and a philanthropist through her own Lancelot H. Owens Foundation for underprivileged youth and extensive work with VH1’s Save the Music.
Two years ago (2014), the rapper Nasir “Nas” Jones re-released a 20th anniversary edition of his first LP, Illmatic; an album that broke new ground for, among other things, lyrics that did not glorify but rather painted a grim, unbiased look at drug/gang violence, and eschewed the popular materialistic themes of mid-90s hip-hop. For his conscious poetry and for his charity work, Nas is someone others with similar roots can look up to. Most recently the proudly-East coast rapper sold a painting, that he created while rapping onstage then auctioned off, for $14k, with proceeds going to cancer research. Was also helped organize the activities of Saving Our Daughters, which is a non-profit to help the daughter-victims of Hurricane Sandy.
7. Missy Elliot
As far as the Internet knows, Missy, born Melissa, “Misdemeanor” Elliot does not have a criminal record but she did come from domestic abuse and extreme poverty to eventually become the philanthropist and five-time Grammy winning (for her 2002 single Work It) rap star she is today. Elliot is a positive role-model for women everywhere because of her progressive ideals, being anti-fat shaming, anti-“slut” shaming, and pro (safe) sex worker, and because of her work on a variety of causes, including contributing 100% of the proceeds from sales of her personal makeup line to AIDS research and being the national spokesperson for Break the Cycle, a non-profit dealing with domestic abuse.
6. Talib Kweli
Just like Mos Def, friend and collaborator Talib Kweli (Greene) does not appreciate being pigeonholed into the “political” or “conscious” rap genre and despises these labels as corporate branding. Mos Def and Kweli have collaborated in the studio, as rap outfit Blackstar and jointly releasing 2000’s Hip Hop for Respect album to increase awareness of police brutality, and on the streets in protest. On his own, since 2011, Kweli has marched with Occupy Wall Street, in a rally against NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, supported a Florida sit-in against the stand-your-ground laws, and protested Michael Brown’s murder in Ferguson, MO; since which the rapper has also organized two benefit concerts in Michael Brown’s name.
Award-winning Toronto musician, K’naan, born Keinan Warsame in Mogadishu, Somalia to a family of artists, barely survived a civil war to flee with his mother and siblings to Toronto by way of New York at age 13. The refugee rapper learned English partly from listening to albums from socially conscious rappers like Nas and Rakim and in his lyrics explicitly condescends to gangsta rappers’ posturing. Riding the international attention he earned when his song Wavin’ Flag was adopted as the 2010 World Cup theme song, K’naan helped raise awareness about a 2011 East African drought. The same year he lobbied on behalf of a bill to increase the presence of Canadian physicians in African countries in need.
Sean John “P. Diddy”/”Puff Daddy”/”Diddy“/”Puffy” Combs was born in the projects of Harlem and while still a child, his father was murdered in connection with work done for the notorious heroin dealer portrayed by Denzel Washington in American Gangster. Despite these humble and violent beginnings, the entrepreneur and multi-platinum selling artist worked his way up in the record industry from intern to owner of his own Bad Boy Records, and is in a position to give back. He has donated to a wide range of causes including Children’s Hope Foundation, which helps support severely ill and disabled kids, and the Hip-Hop Action Summit, Russell Simmons’ organization dedicated to raising political/social awareness in the hip-hop community. Proceeds from his Sean John line steadily go toward breast cancer research, and to top it off he has run in the New York Marathon for kids with HIV/AIDS.
3. Kendrick Lamar
Kendrick Lamar/K-Dot is a proud Christian and has two Grammy’s to show for it, or more specifically for his single, “i”, in which he raps about his religious faith. Since his first full-length indie label release in 2010 he has been steadily gaining a following both for pushing the hip-hop genre musically but for being a good Samaritan across the U.S. This do-gooder has been seen donating toys and giving a free concert to fans and kids in Watts, CA, not far from his childhood neighborhood of Compton, and he has a reputation for taking time to acknowledge and interact with his fans, signing baseballs at Dodger’s Stadium, and sometimes inviting concertgoers on stage to free-style or just bask in his glory.
2. J. Cole
Jermaine “J.” Cole is a relatively new if already heavy hitter in the hip-hop world, but this has not stopped him from using his modest success as a platform for philanthropy. Since 2011 he has been scoring #1 albums and an ever-expanding fanbase with thoughtful, introspective and conscious lyrics, and heart of gold that shines through in interviews. One of the few on this list who graduated college and with honors no less, his Dreamville foundation is dedicated to motivating underprivileged children to value and stick with formal education. Cole also intends to convert his childhood home, where he and his mother moved to escape the trailer park, into free housing for single mothers.
Common is, and may be the only rapper on this list who is, an animal right’s activist and PETA member. On top of maintaining that the former lover of Kerry Washington, Taraji P. Henson, and Erykah Badu has pledged to never use homophobic slurs in his music, claims to be a “pescaterian” after being vegan for a time, supports HIV/AIDs awareness, founded a non-profit called Common Ground Foundation dedicated to developing underprivileged youth into community leaders and social conscious citizens, and on top of all of this has found time to appear in activist documentary #Bars4Justice about the injustices perpetrated in Ferguson, MO.
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