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The reparation conversation has long been part of Black music

[POST-BROADCAST CORRECTION: In this report, we incorrectly refer to Corey Antonio Rose as Corey Antonio Jones.]

SCOTT SIMON (HOST): The call for reparations to compensate descendants of African slaves is slowly gaining momentum in this country. California is developing statewide reparations legislation. Some cities, including Evanston, Ill., and Providence, R.I., are working on various local initiatives. But the push for reparations isn't just coming from activists and some politicians - also musicians. Chloe Veltman of member station KQED reports.

CHLOE VELTMAN (BYLINE): California is leading the way for reparations. Its task force is currently working on a series of reports examining the impacts of slavery and systemic racism on Black Americans to figure out how the state should respond. Task force chairperson Kamilah Moore says music, and hip-hop in particular, is an integral part of the process.

KAMILAH MOORE (CHAIRPERSON, CALIFORNIA REPARATIONS TASK FORCE): To the extent that more Black American artists began to talk about reparations in their music, the more the conversation will hit the mainstream and then will lead to the material reality of reparations actually being enacted.

VELTMAN: Moore says she's used songs like "Dedication" by the late Nipsey Hussle at task force meetings.

(SOUNDBITE OF NIPSEY HUSSLE SONG, "DEDICATION")

MOORE: I played the song kind of as a reminder of the long history of reparations advocacy in this country, starting with enslavement.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DEDICATION")

NIPSEY HUSSLE (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Rapping) How long till opportunity meet preparation? I need some real (expletive) reparations before I run up in your bank just for recreation. Dedication.

VELTMAN: Reparations advocacy is nothing new in hip-hop. The OGs of the genre have been pushing for it for decades in songs like "By The Time I Get To Arizona" from Public Enemy back in 1991.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BY THE TIME I GET TO ARIZONA ")

CHUCK D (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Rapping) A piece of the pick, we picked a piece of the land that we’re deserving now. Reparation, a piece of the nation.

VELTMAN: Public Enemy's Chuck D didn't only sing about the need for reparations. He also talked about the topic in interviews.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK D: That's a glaring error of 250 years of free labor, slavery. We as Black people can't ignore it.

VELTMAN: Here's the rapper in 1990 on Dutch TV.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CHUCK D: Play fair. You know what I'm saying? Pay us.

DAPHNE BROOKS (PROFESSOR, YALE UNIVERSITY): Hip-hop is fluid enough to be able to capture the immediacy and the intimacies of our everyday lives and in particular Black working-class people's everyday lives, historically.

VELTMAN: That's Daphne A. Brooks. She's a professor of music and African American studies at Yale University.

BROOKS: It's a form that has been a useful scaffolding for being able to mount critiques in the ways in which we think about how Black people operate within and against sociopolitical structures of power.

VELTMAN: But the call for reparations in music predates rap. Its roots can be traced back to the end of the civil rights era, in songs by such acts as the Staple Singers...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL WE BE PAID")

THE STAPLE SINGERS (MUSICAL GROUP): (Singing) When will we be paid for the work we've done? When will we be paid for the work we've done?

VELTMAN: ...And Gil Scott-Heron.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHO'LL PAY REPARATIONS ON MY SOUL")

GIL SCOTT-HERON (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) Tell me who'll pay reparations on my soul? Who’ll pay reparations 'cause I don't dig segregation?

VELTMAN: Los Angeles-based composer and producer Adrian Younge says it's hard to find songs specifically about reparations written before the 1960s. Younge says that's because Black Americans in previous generations were fighting more immediate injustices like the right to live in certain neighborhoods or attend particular schools.

ADRIAN YOUNGE (COMPOSER): How you going to ask for reparations, but you can't even drink out of the same water fountain, you know? It's baby steps.

VELTMAN: In recent decades, since songs about reparations have become part of the musical mix, the messaging has evolved. Artists have gone from focusing heavily on the need for reparations, as in Tupac Shakur's "White Man's World" from 1996...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHITE MAN'S WORLD")

TUPAC SHAKUR (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Rapping) Help me raise my Black nation. Reparations are due. It’s true, caught up in this world I took advantage of you.

VELTMAN: ...To considering questions like how reparations should be paid. For instance, in the song from 2013 "40 Acres," Pusha T says it's about giving people land.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "40 ACRES")

PUSHA T (MUSICAL ARTIST): (Singing) I’d rather die than go home. And I ain’t leaving without my 40 acres.

VELTMAN: And a new generation of artists who've never written songs on the topic of reparations before are getting busy figuring out how to do it. Among them is Nef the Pharaoh.

NEF THE PHARAOH (MUSICAL ARTIST): It's such a big word to even rhyme with - temptations, educations, evaluations, elations, salutations, mastication. Do you know the definition of mastication? It's to chew your food.

VELTMAN: The Vallejo, Calif.-based rapper says it's on him to make his mostly teenage fanbase understand why reparations matter.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL WE BE PAID")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) We picked all your cotton and laid the railroad steel.

VELTMAN: For NPR News, I'm Chloe Veltman.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN WILL WE BE PAID")

THE STAPLE SINGERS: (Singing) Worked our hands to the bone at your lumber mill.

SIMON: Corey Antonio Jones contributed reporting to this story. And if you want to find out more about reparations and music, KQED has an online article at KQED.org

Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Corrected: May 18, 2022 at 11:00 PM CDT
In this report, we incorrectly refer to Corey Antonio Rose as Corey Antonio Jones.
Chloe Veltman
Chloe Veltman is a correspondent on NPR's Culture Desk.