Six great invocations of Martin Luther King Jr. in rap music

August 26, 2011
Young Jeezy, “My President” (featuring Nas), 2008Jay-Z, “What We Talkin’ About” (featuring Luke Steele), 2009

Jay Wayne Jenkins, a.k.a. Young Jeezy, hopped right on the bandwagon during the last campaign and announced, “My president is black!” at the end of his album “The Recession.” The song — which celebrates “Mr. Black President” and boasts, “Stuntin’ on Martin Luther, feelin’ just like a king / Guess this is what he meant when he said that he had a dream” — appeared in the summer of 2008, casting Obama’s victory as a foregone conclusion. By January 2009, Young Jeezy and hip-hop icon Jay-Z performed several D.C. area concerts together just before Obama’s inauguration. By then, Jay-Z had released a single, “What We Talkin’ About,” in which he eventually dismisses a long list of diversions by declaring, “And now that that’s that, let’s talk about the future / We have just seen the dream as predicted by Martin Luther,” alluding to Obama’s election.

Common, “A Dream” (featuring Will.I.Am), 2006

In between tuneful choruses, in which Black Eyed Peas icon Will.I.Am sings on top of samples from King’s dream speech, Chicago rapper Common tries to come to grips with how King’s dream applies to his own struggles. “Hold the same fight that made Martin Luther the king / I ain’t usin’ it for the right thing,” he worries, acknowledging rap music’s “fatherly role” as well as his own efforts to take it “from a gangsta to a godlier role.”

Othorized F.A.M., “First Amendment,” 2001

This Staten Island quartet, launched as one of many rap groups under the nebulous umbrella of the Wu-Tang Clan, barely made a blip with this song, the title track to their debut album. But it’s a great weave of King’s “dream” speech into a lengthy rant about the dangers of remaining silent. The lyrics are a litany of then-current, pre-9/11 social concerns (as is the case with so much topical rap, it’s terribly dated now, citing “Dutch scud missiles, Elian Gonzalez”), but it’s all neatly connected to the past and to King’s inspirational text, which they sample liberally.

Three Times Dope, “Increase the Peace/What’s Goin’ On,” 1988

The debut album for Philadelphia trio 3XD included this hard beat, which samples not the Marvin Gaye masterpiece suggested in the title but speeches from King and Malcolm X. We hear King saying, “The substance of the dream is expressed in these profound words” as each verse gets underway, with rapper EST (Robert Waller) reaching conclusions such as “Unity throughout community is what I be tryin’ to see.”

Run-DMC, “Proud to Be Black,” 1986

New York’s Run-DMC pioneered the crossover of rap to the mainstream — all it takes is one video with Aerosmith — but hardly diluted their sound to do so. Their third album includes this schoolroom lesson on important black figures, such as Harriet Tubman and George Washington Carver, but strongly invokes King twice: first as a token of freedom for the Rev. Run (“Like Martin Luther King, I will do my thing!”) and then as a triumphant closer for the whole trio in unison (“What’s wrong with ya, man? How can you be so dumb? / Like Dr. King said, we shall overcome!”).

Thomas Conner

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