A humanist hip hop song might be easiest defined by what it isn’t: It isn’t an overtly spiritual song, obviously, or a song that evokes or venerates a pious lifestyle, but it also isn’t just any piece of secular music. 50 Cent’s “In Da Club” is purely secular, but it’s also misogynistic and it glamorizes a shallow and unfulfilling lifestyle.
Instead, a good humanist hip hop song needs to uphold the values we, as humanists, live our lives by: social conscience, an independent spirit, a pursuit of truth, a quest for knowledge, creativity, and freedom. It doesn’t have to be a sermon; as Dessa reminded us in the last “Humanism and Hip Hop” installment, it can sound very crass to use music as a bullhorn to proselytize. It’s often as effective, or indeed more so, to use the lyrical advantages of hip hop to tell stories of human causes, to find truth rather than to spit truth.
A good humanist hip hop song can also come from an artist who might not consider themselves a humanist, or at least might not be aware that they are. Some artists are devoutly religious in their personal life, and sometimes even in their music, but from time to time they produce songs which resonate just as profoundly in a secular context as in a spiritual one.
In short, it needs to do more than just exclude dogma. It needs to elevate truth.
Thus, this list cannot be comprehensive; there are simply too many great hip hop artists who use their music to spread humanistic messages to the world. But a humanist seeking to identify their ideals and beliefs in the ever-expanding universe of hip hop culture would do well to start with songs like these:
1. Talib Kweli, “Get By”: Talib Kweli’s political voice has been deeply influential in the hip hop mindset dating back to his collaboration with Mos Def, Black Star, in the late ‘90s. The biggest hit from his solo debut album Quality, “Get By” is a blistering burst of community-conscious rap, at once a scathing criticism of a culture beset by constant fear and struggle and an affirmation of the power within each person to rise above. Production by a pre-fame Kanye West helps to seal the song’s status as an under-appreciated classic, and its lyrical empowerment makes it a great example of a humanist hip hop song. See also: “2000 Seasons,” “The Proud,” “K.O.S. (Determination)”
2. P.O.S., “Been Afraid”: An incendiary and anarchic rapper by reputation, P.O.S.’s history is that of “the other:” A punk- and hardcore-loving lyricist and guitarist, black in a predominantly white community, whose default response to the world around him is resistance. His music has always contained an edge of vital anger. But on “Been Afraid,” he takes a softer tone, telling the story of a young woman finding strength in herself after the trauma of an abusive relationship. The deeply personal tale combined with the soulful beat makes it an emotionally moving listen. See also: “Low Light Low Life,” “Drumroll,” “De La Souls,” “How We Land”
3. Macklemore, “Contradiction”: While his slightly more soulful “Church” has received attention in some circles for being a cogent explanation of his atheism, Macklemore found a much more difficult, and some would say worthwhile, conversation in “Contradiction.” The song goes beyond religious questions to tackle the two sides at play in the rap game: The side that rebels against corruption and champions the weak, and the side which advocates sexism and other troublesome notions. By telling a story that challenged his own assumptions, Macklemore produces a track that is ripe with self-reflection social commentary. See also: “Church,” “Wing$,” “Same Love”
4. Janelle Monae, “Tightrope (ft. Big Boi)”: Janelle Monae is as unique an artist as you can find in today’s music scene: An immensely talented singer and lyricist who can hop from genre to genre in a heartbeat. A strong feminist who prefers a tuxedo and pompadour to a dress and a silky long wig. A creative storyteller whose music tells the story of a futuristic civil war led by a sentient android named Cindy, all an allegory for the sexualization and inequality inherent in popular music. “Tightrope,” along with being her biggest hit to date, is a perfect encapsulation of her personal message of individuality, of finding strength in yourself in the face of life’s challenges, and of being brave enough to look at the world through your own lens without falling prey to the beliefs of others. See also: “Many Moons,” “Sincerely, Jane,” “Cold War”
5. Sage Francis, “The Best of Times”: “The Best of Times” isn’t a socially conscious rallying cry, or a fiery political commentary, or a rebuke of the controlling nature of religion. In fact, it barely feels like a song; the music phases softly in and out for most of the track until the second half, while Sage Francis’s honest storytelling gives a feeling more of a memoir than a rap verse. But the bittersweet memories of childhood and growing up cascade into a series of questions, questions about how the artist got where he is in life, and where he’ll be in the future. And for noted atheist Francis, the answers can’t come back definitively. They hang, but rather than a feeling of unease about what life brings, there’s hope, promise, possibility, like a humanist in the middle of his life wondering at the quiet beauty of what has come before, and grinning about what might be to come. See also: “Love the Lie,” “Civil Disobedience,” “Hell of a Year”