Why Jay-Z and numerous hip-hop stars see a silver lining to Trump

Photo by Theo Wargo/Getty Images for TIDAL

NEW YORK —  Jay-Z is the latest hip-hop star to reflect on what he sees as a silver lining to the presidency of Donald Trump — a theme that surfaced in hip-hop and some progressive circles even before Trump won the 2016 election.

“There was a great Kanye West line in one of [his] songs: ‘Racism’s still alive, they just be concealin’ it,'” the MC told The New York Times, referring to lyrics from “Never Let me Down,” a 2004 Kanye West song that features Hov and ​J. Ivy. “Take a step back. I think when Donald Sterling got kicked out of the NBA, I thought it was a misstep, because when you kick someone out, of course he’s done wrong, right? But you also send everyone else back in hiding. People talk like that. They talk like that. Let’s deal with that.”

These comments mirror a larger theme in hip-hop: that Trump, with his bombastic rhetoric and a string of defiant controversial remarks on race, left no room for anyone to argue that we are living in a largely post-racial society, as some had argued after the election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president.

The silver lining view is in no way an indication that hip-hop, which is ramping up its activism in the age of Trump, is accepting the President, but an indication that this community wants an honest conversation on race.

Jay-Z, who was one of the most prominent supporters of Obama, said that while a debate on racism in America will ideally be encouraged and supported by a president instead of provoked, “it’s still happening in a good way, because you can’t have a solution until you start dealing with the problem: What you reveal, you heal.”

Even before Trump declared his candidacy in June 2015, CNN’s #GetPolitical series had been conversing with artists about the intersection of music and politics and covering the cultural debates taking place in the hip-hop community.

Here’s a look at 13 highlights from #GetPolitical reporting on music, politics and activism that mirror what many in the progressive community have come to terms with as a “silver lining” to Trump:

Rapsody: ‘(Trump) really took the sheep off the wolf’

North Carolina rapper Rapsody, whose latest album “Laila’s Wisdom” was nominated for a Grammy for best rap album, told #GetPolitical in September that socially conscious hip-hop has been amplified and is making its way to new ears during Trump’s administration because people are more willing to listen.

“(Trump) really took the sheep off the wolf, or he removed the curtain, and it’s like this really is America. It’s 2017 and we still have people coming out with torches and with hate in their heart for the color of somebody’s skin or someone else’s religion,” she said, referencing the August white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. “And that’s what (Trump) has shown … that (racism) exists, and it’s still a thing and it’s being passed down in that sector from one generation to the next.”

David Banner: ‘I’d rather an ugly truth than a beautiful lie’

Trump drew an equivalence between white supremacists and the protesters who condemned them during an off-the-cuff news conference in August by saying there was “blame on both sides” for violence at a white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, Virginia.

His comments drew praise from David Duke, a former leader of the Ku Klux Klan, and also caused a backlash of bipartisan outrage from lawmakers, who called on the President to declare that there’s no equivalency between white supremacists and the people who oppose them.

But in hip-hop, not everyone wanted Trump to unequivocally condemn them.

“I’d rather an ugly truth than a beautiful lie,” rapper and activist David Banner tweeted. The tweet echoed a sentiment he voiced the day after Trump won the general election: “This may be the best thing to ever happen to black people, maybe in history, because now there is no excuse. I think the veil of America has been ripped off. The fake mask has been ripped off.”

“Why do you wish someone else was in office? Is it so the snake can go back into the grass? No, let it show its head so we can deal with it,” Banner added in a tweet.

Killer Mike: ‘America is still the same place as 53 yrs ago’

When images of torch-wielding white supremacists marching in Charlottesville went viral, Atlanta rapper and activist Killer Mike shared a similar sentiment.

“Y’all can hate and wanna push them back into the dark but I wanna thank them for being honest. America is still the same place as 53 yrs ago,” he wrote on Instagram.

Big Boi: ‘Had Hillary Clinton won everyone probably would have thought everything was OK’

When Bernie Sanders supporter Big Boi, who is one half of the Grammy-winning duo Outkast, was asked about this theme, he told #GetPolitical in June that a Clinton win might have perpetuated a myth that America has moved past these racist ideals.

“Had Hillary Clinton won, everyone probably would have thought everything was OK and wouldn’t have been paying attention and thought we were in good hands like Allstate” the Atlanta rapper joked, referencing language from a popular insurance commercial. “But now that Trump is in there, everybody’s like, ‘Oh, what’s going on?’ so it might have energized the minds of the people.”

Nas: ‘We all know a racist is in office’

Nas wrote an open letter to his fans in May urging then to capitalize on the spirit of activism in the age of Trump and called on them to get politically involved to combat what he said as institutionalized racism perpetuated by the Trump administration.

“We all know a racist is in office. People can talk their s—,” Nas writes in the letter published to Mass Appeal Magazine. “Comedians can sound racist. People can go through their moments of that s—, but when you have the responsibility of being President and you carry on like that, you send a strong message to people outside of your group that they ain’t worth s—.”

His words reflect a sentiment that was expressed by many in the hip-hop community (and chronicled in this Obama lyrics analysis) that even a black president was unable to change what they see as a racist system.

Kendrick Lamar: ‘Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?’

Kendrick Lamar reflects on lessons after Obama left office and was ironically replaced by a man who was a leading voice in the birther movement, which questioned Obama’s birthplace and his legitimacy as President.

“Donald Trump’s in office, we lost Barack and promised to never doubt him again. Is America honest, or do we bask in sin?” Lamar raps in the song “XXX” from his double platinum Grammy-nominated 2017 album, “Damn,” calling on Americans to acknowledge and confront the dark reality of racism.

Rick Ross: ‘We gotta destroy before we elevate’

When Trump won, many in the hip-hop community welcomed what they considered to be a crucial coming-to-terms with America’s dark past of slavery, segregation and civil unrest and the recognition that the legacy of these ugly forces still plays out today.

This sentiment is embodied in this lyric from Florida rapper Rick Ross’ 2017 song “Apple of My Eye”: “I’m happy Donald Trump became the President because we gotta destroy before we elevate.”

Joey Badass: ‘I definitely think it’s a change for the better’

Brooklyn rapper Joey Badass, who released the album “All-Amerikkkan Badass” in the spring, told CNN”s #GetPolitical in April that the rise of Trump has led to an “awakening” when it comes to the state of race relations in America and has caused a positive shift in hip-hop:

“I definitely feel like hip-hop is going through a change right now … a lot of musicians are realizing and stepping up to the plate and, you know, almost accepting their responsibility, like OK, we are the leaders of the people. We are the voices. We speak for all of these people,” Joey Badass said.

“I definitely think it’s a change for the better and is definitely the silver lining in the gray cloud of everything that’s happening in our current political climate,” he added.

Vic Mensa: ‘We’re not able to hide behind myths of this being a post-racial society’

A week after Trump won, Chicago rapper Vic Mensa, who said he reluctantly voted for Clinton, told CNN’s #GetPolitilcal that a Trump win could actually be a “good thing” because Trump was forcing America to come to terms with the fact that racism is alive and well.

“We’re not able to hide behind myths of this being a post-racial society because Donald Trump has outlined exactly how a large portion of America feels,” Mensa said. “They feel like they’re losing their birthright as white people to be the masters of the universe, and they’re losing this American dream that was sold to them where you’re always supposed to have a leg up.”

While some politicians use “neutrally worded messaging” to avoid controversy when discussing race relations, “Donald Trump came without a poker face,” Mensa said, adding that Trump outlined his enemies clearly, which allowed supporters to no longer swallow or sugarcoat their racism.

Common: ‘Sometimes it has to go to that dark place for us to get to that light’

About a week before Election Day 2016, Chicago rapper Common, who backed Clinton at the time, told CNN’s #GetPolitical that there is a silver lining to the rise of Trump because the unleashed racism that has been “bubbling” underground in America and “sometimes it has to go to that dark place for us to get to that light.”

“(Trump) supports some of the racist ideals that this country does have, and we’ve got to acknowledge that,” the Chicago rapper said. “And I don’t think it’s a bad thing that this is brought out … because we need to know it exists and stop acting like it doesn’t and not be fooled because President Obama was in office.”

KRS-One: ‘it seems like racism in the United States is overflowing’

In #GetPolitical’s reporting this theme first surfaced in a November 2015 interview with hip-hop legend KRS-One before Clinton and Trump had nabbed the Democratic and Republicans nominations for president.

Obama was still in office and criminal justice reform and police brutality had become key campaign issues for progressive, but KRS, who has been rapping about these issues since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, said that despite having an African-American President, “it seems like racism in the United States is overflowing.”

For more on the intersection of music, culture and politics, CHECK OUT #GetPolitical.