Self-Determination in Hip-Hop

On the presidential campaign trail, race has been a pervading issue for many candidates. From Ron Paul’s racist newsletter scandal to Newt’s comments on poor children’s work ethic to to the Mormon Churches controversial and possibly racist history, the candidates have been struck with hard questions while the population waits with bated breath for what they perceive to be the “correct” answer. The candidates offer all kinds of solutions to many of the problems associated with race relations, but most, if not all of them, ring hollow. Why? Because many see these solutions as empty promises of the campaign trail, a talking point for debates that are not real, hard-nosed practical solutions. As a libertarian and an individualist, a practical and hard-nosed solution that I recognize is also one of the most important qualities an individual can have, that of self-determination.

Self-determination is defined by Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “The state of being free from the control or power of another…without external compulsion. The act or power of making one’s own choices or decisions.” Within the definition of self-determination is the essence of libertarianism, the non-aggression principle (NAP). This essence is clear in several key phrases such as “free from the control or power of another” and “without external compulsion.” Self-ownership, the foundation of the NAP, is also clear in the definition of self-determination. If you own yourself, you have the right to direct your life without external compulsion or violence as long as you’re in accordance with the NAP. Self-determination is a tool for libertarianism and for the NAP to execute itself through. It is self-ownership in action.

While many may not see any self-determination as an important or current issue, it has become a defining issue specifically in the long and historical African-American struggle for equality, and the black community through hip-hop illustrates this desire for self-determination.

The scene is set—the blighted inner-city, the handiwork of the state, run-down public housing projects, crumbling public schools with no options, public playgrounds that double as trash dumps and needle bins, all with a predatory police state carting the majority of the young men away to jail. The promises of civil rights never realized, the unintended consequences of government intervention killed the spirit of the community. More importantly, these government reforms made minorities dependent, and dependent people can never have self-determination. Growing up in these conditions can lead to a feeling of repression and silence in individuals, which in turn can build interesting and powerful cultural movements.

One of these movements is the rise of hip-hop, a genre of music that emerged from the Bronx in the 1970s. Hip-hop speaks not only of reality, such as the hopelessness and pain of the ghetto, but also of hope and of the search for self-determination and peace. Establishing a history for self-determination in hip-hop music is Chuck D from the rap group Public Enemy, who claims that “Hip-Hop began with an emphasis on ‘knowledge of self’ and connection to community, family, and love.” This shows the philosophical beginnings of hip-hop, which began in the 1970’s as unrest in inner cities was reiterated from the period during the civil rights movement. Marginalized groups of young black men morphed into a different kind of freedom fighter and hip hop was born. “Pain, oppression, and art, and in this case hip hop, came not only from the Vietnam War, but from the oppression of the streets…the oppression of not being able to have a stake in your own future. It came from the oppression of not getting a proper education created their own language of the streets.” This quote emphasizes the pain that hip-hop was birthed out of, the emotional beginnings of rap. Individuals were looking for self-determination, and the youth began telling their story to those who would listen.

In the song Knowledge of Self (Determination) or K.O.S., Talib Kweli opens up the song with a call to take hold of self-determination, “So many emcees focusin’ on black people extermination. We keep it balanced with that knowledge of self, determination.” The song illustrates the reality of the poor communities, “I feel the rage of a million niggas locked inside a cage.” All while pushing self-determination, “At exactly which point do you start to realize, that life without knowledge is, death in disguise? That’s why, knowledge of self is like life after death.” Showing the urgency of the here and now struggle for self-determination, the duo raps, “You get out of jail with that knowledge of self-determination.”

In the Nas song “I Can,” he raps while emphasizing prestigious jobs that you could have if you work hard because, “It takes much practice.” He tells the children who accompany him in a choir chorus, “Nobody says you have to be gangstas, hoes.” Reminding them to read and do more, to change the globe, “Ghetto children, do your thing. Hold your head up, little man, you’re a king.” By reminding the children of noble African history, he reminds them that they can have self-determination, “then learn to survive until they gain control…you can be anything in the world.”

In The Roots song “The Fire,” the group pushes for power of choice and to continue on an individuals path for a better life, “I realize I’m supposed to reach for the skies, never let somebody try to tell you otherwise…I never show signs of fatigue or turn tired cause I’m the definition of tragedy turned triumph.” This song emphasizes the control and power that one should have in their life, specifically in the line “never let somebody try to tell you otherwise.”

These three songs illustrate the historical struggle for self-determination, empowerment, and the struggle to release those in need from outside compulsion and violence. The human desire for self-determination is a libertarian struggle that must be met everyday, and hip-hop is a legitimate expression of those fighting in that struggle.


“We can’t afford to be spectators while our lives deteriorate. We have to truly love our people and work to make that love stronger.”  Assata Shakur

About Judith Ayers

Currently a double major in Political Science and Mass Communications with a minor in Sociology at York College of Pennsylvania, Judith is involved locally in many "liberty minded" organizations. This includes holding the position of President for the York College Libertarian Club.
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2 Responses to Self-Determination in Hip-Hop

  1. Nicholas Shankin says:

    Nice piece. I’ve never been too into hip-hop, personally, but I must say that the lyrical content fascinates me quite often. There’s a lot of truth in many hip-hop tracks, for sure.

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