They wasn’t aimin’ at us not at my house
They hit The World Trade, The Pentagon
And almost got the White House.
– Dead Prez
The people that’s most affected by this war are the so-called hip-hop generation.
September 11, 2001 is a day that will forever live in infamy. Representing the largest attack on American soil in United States history, images of the towers falling reverberated around the world, imbedding themselves in the memories of millions. As Americans searched for answers, their government took bold and decisive action. President George W. Bush declared a war on terror, and began a worldwide manhunt for the perpetrators. The Patriot Act, sanctioned torture and two major wars would follow, as Bush sought to bring justice to the “enemies of freedom” that had “committed an act of war” against his country. Opinion over how to proceed was fiercely split throughout America, with the potential exception of one community who united in an absolute rejection of Bush’s policies. The hip-hop community, from the outset, contested the epideictic interpretation purported by Bush and his administration. As early as October 11, 2001, hip-hop artists began to critique their government’s reaction to the attacks. Sage Francis set the tone for much of the biting criticism which was to come, declaring:
There is a new price on freedom, so buy into it while supplies last
Changes need to be made…Seven pm curfew
Racial profiling will continue with less bitching
We’ve unified over who to kill, so until I find more relevant scripture to quote…
Wave those flags with pride, especially the white part
Why did hip-hop artists so strongly reject the conventional interpretation of 9/11, rather than rally behind its government in the aftermath of the attacks? Not one answer can be provided to this question. In fact a multitude of racial, political and economic factors combined to ensure that hip-hop artists found themselves, from the outset, challenging the events of 9/11 and the policies of the Bush administration.
Hip-hop is often underestimated as simply rap music, when in reality it is a combination of various disciplines: deejaying, rapping or emceeing, dancing styles, graffiti art and hip-hop knowledge. The concept of hip-hop knowledge is the most significant aspect—alongside rap music—with regards to hip-hop’s response to 9/11, and it is this which helps uniquely define hip-hop as its own community and culture. As Marcyliena Morgan and Diane Bennett describe it in their article “Hip-Hop and the Global Imprint of a Black Cultural Form,” “hip-hop knowledge refers to the aesthetic, social, intellectual, and political identities, beliefs, behaviors, and values produced and embraced by its members, who generally think of hip-hop as an identity, a worldview, and a way of life.”
Something else important to take into account about hip-hop, especially within the context of this work, is that although hip-hop’s appeal has grown massively throughout America and the rest of the world, it remains, in the words of Murray Forman
A major problem for African-Americans in New York and throughout America is their belief that the nation’s police forces are inherently corrupt and brutal institutions. Hip-hop, therefore, has since its inception held a very negative view of the police as they perceive them to racially profile and unfairly victimize African-Americans. This is something which has been expressed consistently in their music. This meant that the sanctification and praise of the NYPD and Port Authority Police officers that occurred after 9/11 angered many in hip-hop and black communities. A backlash to this positive representation of the police was quick to manifest itself in hip-hop, with several artists releasing songs which attempted to reaffirm the negative aspects of America’s police. For example, underground rapper J-Live released the song “Satisfied” in which he raps,
The same devils that you used to love to hate
They got you so gassed and shook now, you scared to debate…
It ain’t right them cops and them firemen died
The shit is real tragic, but it damn sure ain’t magic
It won’t make the brutality disappear
It won’t pull equality from behind your ear
The song serves as a warning as much as it does an indictment. J-Live is worried that the bravery shown by police officers during 9/11 will overshadow the previous brutality and exploitation they have perpetrated. His concern is that the image of a brave and self-sacrificing police force, an image which became popular after 9/11, will replace the traditional black image of police as oppressors. This for him would not only be untrue, but would hinder the process of fixing the problems inherent in the NYPD and other police forces across the country.
The rapper Paris also tried to challenge this positive view of the police, reminding his listeners of previous crimes committed by the NYPD in an attempt to convince people of their inhumanity. “These pigs still beat us, but it seems we forgettin’/But I remember ‘fore September how those devils do it/Fuck Giuliani, ask Diallo how he doin’.” Paris’s reference to Amadou Diallo, a Guinean immigrant shot 41 times while reaching for his wallet on the streets of New York, has a clear purpose. He is trying to remind African-Americans that whatever good the NYPD did on September 11th, it did not absolve them of their past or future crimes.
In these next paragraphs I will look at how hip-hop artists have tried to challenge the idea that America was an innocent victim of 9/11, attacked by self-appointed leaders who hated, according to George Bush, America’s freedoms. This version of events depicts America’s foreign policies since 9/11 as justified self-defense, and as serving global interests. It is arguably the most disputed aspect of the post-9/11 climate, and hip-hop artists have gone to great lengths to contest this binary notion of America as a benign actor in the world.
The group Dead Prez makes a concerted attempt in their song “Know Your Enemy” to contest the notion that Bush’s war on terror was as he portrayed it. The chorus at the beginning of the song makes their stance instantly clear, with the lines “George Bush is way worse than bin Laden is” and “F.B.I., C.I.A. the real terrorists,” stressing their belief that the American government are the real villains of the conflict. As the song progresses they also make a more nuanced critique of American foreign policy, highlighting previous involvement the U.S. has had with its current enemies:
You wanna stop terrorists?
Start with the U.S. imperialists
Ain’t no track record like America’s, see
bin Laden was trained by the C.I.A
But I guess if you a terrorist for the U.S
Then it’s okay, uh, uh
By framing the war on terror in the broader historical context of US involvement in the Middle East, they assert that bin Laden himself worked with the C.I.A. in the late 1980s, while he was fighting the Soviet Union in Afghanistan. Through this reference to America’s alleged involvement with bin Laden, Dead Prez are clearly trying to show the complex relationship America has with the world, highlighting the fact that despite the Bush administration’s claim to be for freedom, they are in fact fighting an enemy, that according to Dead Prez, they helped create.
Another excellent example of this attempted contextualization is undertaken by the rapper Mr. Lif in his song “Home of the Brave.” Mr. Lif throughout the song accuses Bush of using 9/11 to disguise ulterior motive with lines like “Bush steals the Presidency. He needs the backing of the media, what could the remedy be,” and “Bush disguises blood lust as patriotism.” Lif ends this barrage of criticism with two damning lines echoing the sentiments of Dead Prez: “And you can wave that piece of shit flag if you dare/But they killed us because we’ve been killing them for years.” With this finale he, like Dead Prez, is attempting to place not just the war on terror, but 9/11 itself in a broader historical context. He clearly does not believe that America was an innocent victim on September 11th ; rather its actions throughout history have fostered such resentment in the Middle East and the world, making an attack like 9/11 an inevitability.
The Afro-Peruvian artist Immortal Technique has, more than any other rapper, attempted to place America within the broader context of history, exposing what he believes is its imperialist agenda in the process. The song “The 4th Branch” is just one example of this, but in terms of challenging the terms of America’s post 9/11 foreign policy, it is arguably his strongest:
They bombed innocent people, tryin’ to murder Saddam
When you gave him those chemical weapons to go to war with Iran…
Cause Condoleezza Rice is just a new age Sally Hemings…
You really think this country never sponsored terrorism?
Human rights violations, we continue the saga
El Salvador and the contras in Nicaragua
And on top of that, you still wanna take me to prison
Just cause I won’t trade humanity for patriotism
By utilizing his knowledge of American and global history, Immortal Technique completely undermines what many people believe America stands for. He is not only condemning the war in Iraq but the complete credibility of the American government, American corporations and anyone who embraces American patriotism. While few other artists would be capable of highlighting American hypocrisy as well as Immortal Technique, many seemed to believe that the projection the U.S. government gave of itself and its country was a wholly false one.
Without wishing to undermine the sincerity of the political commentary above, an examination of the underlying motivation for such harsh criticism of American policy is necessary. While it could be simply argued that the nature of African-American existence in American history makes hip-hop’s rejection of post-9/11 policies a logical extension of this existence, the conclusion seems overly simplistic. In fact a close examination of post-9/11 hip-hop itself provides some answers to this question, highlighting that the way blacks perceived this foreign policy could negatively affect them. This concern is perhaps put most powerfully in a spoken word piece recorded by Mumia Abu Jamal entitled “The War Against Us All”:
This isn’t just a War on Iraqis or Afghanis or Arabs, or even Muslims
It is ultimately a War on us all
That’s because the billions and billions that are being spent on this War
the cost of tanks, rocketry, bullets and, yes, even salaries
for the 125,000 plus troops is money that will never be spent on
education, on healthcare, on the reconstruction of crumbling public housing…
The fight against the War is really to fight for your own interests
Abu-Jamal is clear in his position. It seems that, even if he believed the motives of the war on terror to be just, he would not support it, because to support it would be to support a divergence of resources away from the poor and impoverished people in America. He believes that as long as the poor continue to struggle upon American soil, military expenditure and involvement overseas can never truly be justified. While not a specifically racial viewpoint, this argument would have been especially pertinent to African-Americans given their greater reliance upon government aid and assistance.
The line of critique taken in the song “The War Against Us All” would become increasingly popular as 2005 progressed, as in August of that year Hurricane Katrina would expose how America’s wars in Iraq and Afghanistan had left the country under-prepared for a rescue operation on the scale of what would occur in New Orleans. While many would condemn the government’s handling of Katrina, it would be a hip-hop artist who would provide the bluntest and most widely reported act of dissent. Kanye West speaking on a NBC telethon designed to raise money for Katrina victims launched into a remarkable tirade against George W. Bush and the American government:
And, you know, it’s been five days [waiting for federal help] because most of the people are black… I mean, the Red Cross is doing everything they can. We already realize a lot of people that could help us are at war right now, fighting another way—and they’ve given them permission to go down and shoot us.
This initial outburst was not sufficient for West, and after his co-presenter Mike Myers turned back to him to see if he had anything else to add, he uttered the line that would cause massive controversy throughout America: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” While West only makes a slight reference to the soldiers who were unavailable to aid the rescue because of their deployment overseas, the tone of his speech and the beliefs from which it stems mirror many of the criticisms so far examined. As Cathy J. Cohen puts it:
Kanye West’s comments about Katrina provide insight into the struggles, frustration, fear, and disillusionment of not only West but many other young black Americans today. When young black adults and adolescents are interviewed or asked about their lives and political views, Katrina is just one more example of what many believe to be their secondary position in the American political community.
For young blacks and other minorities, Katrina was just yet another illustration of how the American government fails to serve their interests. Michael Ralph even goes as far as to say “the flooding of the Gulf Coast quickly became something like the black community’s 9/11.” This point is interesting for two reasons. First, it underscores the extent to which Katrina awoke African-Americans once more to the realities of racism in their country, provoking “critical conversation” and perhaps an acknowledgment of what a significant segment of the hip-hop community had already been saying. Second, it underlines the extent to which 9/11 did not cause this kind of reflection in the black community. It seems that the impact of 9/11 as a traumatic experience was minimal to African-Americans, who are better represented by the relatively poor people most affected by Katrina than by the affluent white businessmen most affected by 9/11. This may have not have been the reality—many people of all ethnic backgrounds died during 9/11, including over 200 African-Americans—but many, especially after Katrina, perceived this to be the case.
Much of the hip-hop discussed so far tried to contest the notion of who was to blame for 9/11, citing America’s foreign policy as being a relevant if indirect factor that caused the attacks. Some hip-hop artists have gone even further than this, directly implicating the American government as the perpetrators of September 11th. While it is not within the scope of this essay to address the validity of such claims of government conspiracy, I will highlight such claims, and more importantly why such claims have become popular within hip-hop.
Immortal Technique has to be one of the most consistent critics of 9/11 involved in hip-hop. As Jeffrey Melnick puts it he is something of a “poster boy” for the “9/11 truth movement.” Having been born in Lima, Peru, he moved to America as a child and was raised in Harlem, living there in New York City at the time of the attacks. In his song “Cause of Death” the rapper makes a remarkable claim, and one that highlights the extent to which many in the hip-hop community distrust the American government. “I was watching the Towers, and though I wasn’t the closest/I saw them crumble to the Earth like they was full of explosives.”
The assertion that even as the towers fell, he was already considering the notion that the perpetrators of the attacks were not an enemy of America, but rather the ruling elite of America shows the startling skepticism present in the hip-hop community, and to a lesser extent the black community in America. Other hip-hop groups and artists have also made similar claims in their music: The Lost Children of Babylon extensively cover a variety of theories in their album The 911 Report: The Ultimate Conspiracy, which examines in extensive detail the various conspiracies which surround the entire event. There have been less extensive although arguably more significant references to similar theories in mainstream hip-hop. The rapper Jadakiss released the song “Why” in July of 2004 featuring the line, “Why did Bush knock down the towers?” It was one of three singles he released off his number one album Kiss of Death, and sparked controversy, with several radio stations banning it and Fox News personality Bill O’Reilly claiming George W. Bush should sue Jadakiss for slander.
Lupe Fiasco is another mainstream artist who at least questioned the role America may have played in the events of September 11th. In his song “Words I Never Said” he asks, “How much money does it take to really make a full clip?/9/11, Building 7, did they really pull it?” While these are only two examples of mainstream hip-hop artists addressing such conspiratorial notions, their boldness should be taken into consideration. Many more artists in hip-hop and other genres would become increasingly critical of George Bush’s war on terror, but very few others in mainstream culture would go as far to claim that the American government was actually to blame for the attacks, blowing up the Twin Towers and Building Seven to justify their own military ends.
The credence given to 9/11 conspiracy theories in hip-hop is clear from the examples given above. What these examples do not tell us—and what it is arguably more important than the examples themselves—is why such conspiracy theories have been taken seriously by people within the hip-hop community. A compelling argument for the growth of these theories in hip-hop and African-American communities is made in Travis L. Gosa’s article: “Counterknowledge, Racial Paranoia, and the Cultic Milieu: Decoding Hip Hop Conspiracy Theory.” In the article Gosa asserts that “conspiracy theories may be used to make sense of racial inequalities that are ignored or discussed in race-neutral coded language in a colorblind society.” He believes that the “veil of colorblind logic” which is prevalent in American culture has led to the discussion of “white advantage and historical racial oppression” to be minimized, with many claiming that racial inequality died alongside institutionalized racism such as segregation. This has forced black communities to create new theories and explanations for the disadvantages they encounter in America.
Gosa also argues that hip-hop plays a significant role in propagating these conspiracy theories in an attempt to “challenge race-class disadvantage in a color-blind society.” Working within the confines of this theory, 9/11 conspiracy theories can be seen to fit within a similar framework. Although 9/11 conspiracies do not directly explain class-disadvantage in America, secret groups like the Illuminati and the Masons are often accused of being involved in such plots. These supposed groups are alleged to be benefactors from the military spending which 9/11 justified, with their gains coming at the expense of the poor and disadvantaged. Gosa’s logic is therefore that hip-hop applies 9/11 conspiracy theories within American society as they create a rationale through which the struggles of African-Americans can be explained, given that race is no longer considered as relevant a factor.
A slightly different version of this logic can be seen through the analysis of comments made by the rapper KRS-One. KRS-One has been recording music since the 1980s and, according to the writer Derrick P. Alridge, considers himself primarily an activist who uses “music as a platform to deliver” his political message. He has throughout his career engaged in political and social activism, often speaking as a representative of the hip-hop community in interviews and on panels. It was at just such an event for The New Yorker in 2004 that he garnered significant controversy, when asked why hip-hop had not done more to engage 9/11. He said:
because it does not affect us, or at least we don’t perceive that it affects us, 9/11 happened to them… 9/11 affected them down the block; the rich, the powerful those that are oppressing us as a culture… We cheered when 9/11 happened in New York and say that proudly here. Because when we were down at the trade center we were getting hit over the head by cops, told that we can’t come in this building… we were racially profiled. So, when the planes hit the building we were like; mmmm justice.
KRS-One is not proposing conspiracy theories as a way to understand racism in a “color-blind” society. What he is doing, though, is making a conscious effort to keep race a significant part of the national conversation in the wake of September 11th. His comments are an attempt to keep the issue of racism relevant at a time when the nation is—in his eyes—worryingly preoccupied with the aftermath of a terrorist attack. In this sense there are comparisons between what he is attempting to do, and what the rappers who propose conspiracy theories are doing. They are trying to keep hip-hop and African-American communities relevant at a time when their issues are being increasingly sidelined. KRS-One’s comments are undoubtedly extreme, but they seem born out of a desire to keep the issue of black inequality and oppression alive, at a time when most people are preoccupied with 9/11 and the plethora of issues that it raised.
In an attempt to keep my analysis of post-9/11 hip-hop balanced, I made a concerted effort to find songs that reflected the more conventional American response to September 11th, for example, like those which were seen in country and rock music (e.g., Toby Keith and Bruce Springsteen). It must be said, though, that even hip-hop music made very soon after the attacks displayed few of the emotional responses present in other genres. In fact the song “September in New York” by the group Masterminds (the group consisting of three members Oracle, Kimani, and Epod), which was released in March of 2002, is the only example I found while researching this piece. The song has elements similar to that found in other genres and media with the lyrics:
Where were you the day the world fell
When you whole sense of security got shot to hell
I was sitting on my couch face drowning in tears
Feeling trapped by the wall in my fears
This song provides one of the few conventional reactions to 9/11 with the resident New Yorker Kimani, expressing the loss and fear many experienced after September 11th. The song was released in March 2002, and the relatively short period between 9/11 and the release could explain the rawness of Kimani’s emotions. Yet even within this song, released so soon after 9/11, Oracle expresses skepticism and worry that the events would be misused by the American government in the second verse:
Look at this here, World War 3 about to appear
Look at this here, abracadabra magical fear
Look at this here, you saw them Twin Towers disappear
Look at this here, hard to tell the hunter from the deer
This excerpt, particularly the last line, highlights once again one of the common concerns that runs throughout hip-hop’s response to 9/11, the issue of causation and blame. The artists, while affected and scared by 9/11, are still unwilling to view the events from a one-sided perspective. By claiming it is “hard to tell the hunter from the deer,” he is refusing to exonerate America, and the potential role it played in creating the environment that led to 9/11. The fact that this song represents the reaction closest to that seen in other genres also underpins the fact that hip-hop and African-Americans were differently affected by 9/11, and remained much more skeptical of America than their white counterparts.
9/11 remains an unforgettable event for many, if not all Americans. Within even the most conspiratorial claims of American government complicity, the notion that it led to the tragic death of thousands remains an unchallenged fact. Beyond this, though, hip-hop took a widely divergent response to September 11th. Its response was swift and clear. The American government’s previous actions in America and throughout the world should be seen as a contributing factor to the events of 9/11. The Bush administration’s war on terror was therefore perceived very differently by the hip-hop community—and by extension—the black community. They did not see George W. Bush as a defender of their freedom, pursuing villains who wished to take their freedom away. In fact, much of black America and a huge amount of the hip-hop community actually saw Bush as the greatest threat to their freedom. They saw him curtailing civil liberties and divesting valuable resources towards war, not in an attempt to protect them, but rather to seek his administration’s own interests at their expense. The black community also saw their views become less relevant, urged to support an American war effort that was diverting attention away from the issue of black inequality in America. With the immediate issues of violence, poverty and hugely under-funded public education just three of the crises plaguing the youth of the hip-hop generation, terrorism was inevitably not considered particularly important, or even relevant to them. In this context it can be said that 9/11 was not an event which inflicted great suffering upon black America, but rather a justification for the continuing of great suffering within black America. As Paris states so clearly at the beginning of his song AWOL: “The people that’s most affected by this war are the so-called hip-hop generation.” Hip-hop believed this, and whether it was true or not, it motivated much of criticism that came after September 11th.
Jimmy Jenkins is a Masters student at Leiden University in the Netherlands. He received his BA in History from John Moores University, Liverpool. His main research interests include music history, African-American music, the Civil Rights Movement, contemporary American politics and British political history.