Fifth Element of Hip Hop Is Knowledge

PHOTO CREDIT: Envato Elements, Light Field Studios 2024

Deaf-fined by Beats, the Playlist

Hip-Hop is steeped in a multitude of contributing factors, but perhaps the most critical is knowledge.

In the process of relating what is known as the fifth element of hip-hop, knowledge within the context of hip-hop and rap, means that the music applies critical thought, self-reflection, and a daily practice of unity, love, fun, and above all, peace. The following playlist was assigned in a collegiate hip hop culture course as our final. What I learned in Dr. Robert De’Von Jiles’ course will stay with me always: the task of choosing a minimal playlist that spoke to peace, justice, love, and knowledge required that we look deeper into the entirety of rap from beats to lyrics challenging me to do a deep dive into history, context, layer and flow.

I was tasked with putting together a playlist that is centered on a theme of social justice and the implementation of the fifth element of hip hop. To echo the words of Tricia Rose, “Situated at the crossroads of lack and desire, hip hop emerges from the deindustrialization meltdown where social alienation, prophetic imagination, and yearning intersect.” (Rose, Ch.2)

Hip hop culture was born out of a need for youth to find their own identity and social status. Starting in the year 1982, this playlist titled, “Deaf-Fined by Beats” is a walk through conscious rap with a message that is anti-misogynistic, anti-capitalist, anti-privilege, and pro equality, racial and gender justice. 

  1. The Message” by Grand Master Flash and the Furious 5 (1982)
  2. U.N.I.T.Y.” by Queen Latifah (1993)
  3. Eat To Live” by Talib Kweli (2007)
  4. I Can’t Breathe” by H.E.R. (2020)
  5. Hind’s Hall” by Macklemore (2024)
  6. * BONUS TRACK: “The Choice Is Yours” by Black Sheep (1991)

To begin this hip hop playlist, the opening track sets the tone for a journey through time where social and racial oppression take on different forms, yet continue to remain relatively unchanged. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five released their hit, “The Message” in 1982 (Ogbar, Ch.5). That was the year of the race riots in Miami, launched in response to the murder of a Black motorcyclist killed by four white Miami police officers. Subsequently that would be followed by the Rodney King beating by LAPD in 1991, and for the first time, the world would see camera footage that captured it (Langer and Weiner, Washington Post, 2023). The racial tension in the midst of the Cold War was high, Black neighborhoods were being targeted by police, KKK, and government. A revolution was brewing. This was prior to the MOVE bombing in 1985, but the mounting racial pressure was building.

“The Message” was written in response to the rising racial tensions, the way Blacks were demonized and vilified as criminals, and targeted with extreme violence. The 1980s were ripe with systematically constructed poverty that disproportionately impacted communities of color. Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five’s song brought attention to what many Black communities were experiencing and put the spotlight on poverty, social indignance, and rundown neglected neighborhoods, and rising crime (Rose, From The Margins). “Rap music brings together a tangle of some of the most complex social, cultural, and political issues in contemporary American society.” (Rose, From The Margins)

It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder 
How I keep from going under 
It’s like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder 
How I keep from going under 
Broken glass everywhere 
People pissing on the stairs, you know they just don’t care 
I can’t take the smell, can’t take the noise 
Got no money to move out, I guess, I got no choice 
Rats in the front room, roaches in the back 
Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat I tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far 
Cause the man with the tow-truck repossessed my car 
Don’t push me cause I’m close to the edge 
I’m trying not to lose my head

By 1993, streets had erupted in riots instigated by police brutality, the AIDS epidemic was in full force, Philly was still unrecovered from the police killing five children and six adults in 1985, and Dana Elaine Owens, better known by the stage name Queen Latifah (hip-hop’s First Lady), released U.N.I.T.Y. (NBC Philadelphia 10).  The song drew attention to the way men in society, and male rap artists regularly disrespected women, addressing how women and girls are harassed and cat-called on the street, prevailing domestic violence against women, and the way hip-hop culture degrades women and praises sexist ideologies. It invokes and revises stylistic and thematic elements that are deeply wedded to a number of black cultural storytelling forms, most prominently toasting and the blues (Rose, From the Margins). When evaluated using the NOMMO context, Queen Latifah confronts the weight of words, misogyny, racial tropes, and she calls out male artists and their claim to authenticity. The music video is a visual roadmap to the importance and longevity of ending misogyny, while the lyrics confront issues of domestic violence against women and the hyper sexualization of women and girls. She begins the music video with musical roots, sampling a saxophone hook from The Crusaders 1973 hit, Message From The Inner City. It was integrated by design to make a social statement about the injustices happening to women across inner cities around the country. 

U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (You gotta let him know)
(You go, come on, here we go)
U.N.I.T.Y., love a black woman from (Uh, you gotta let him know)
Infinity to infinity (You ain’t a bitch or a ho, here we go)
U.N.I.T.Y., U.N.I.T.Y. that’s a unity (Uh, you gotta let him know)
(Come on, come on, now here we go)
U.N.I.T.Y., love a black man from
 (Yeah, you gotta let him know)
Infinity to infinity (You ain’t a bitch or a ho)

This song was more than a female-empowering anthem, it was a call to action that the community needed to come together, protect girls and women from domestic and intimate partner violence, and it was a way to speak out on behalf of Women’s Rights.  Violence Against Women Act (VAWA) was circulating in the House and Senate, and despite the rise in domestic abuse against women, police often stayed clear of violent disputes between two people as it was believed to be “private” (Ogbar, Ch. 3; 83). At this time, intimate partner violence was at an all-time high, and hip-hop and rap songs haphazardly referred to girls and women as, bitches and hoes, capitalizing once again on the sexualization and commodification of women and girls through sexist tropes. The song also is a blatant commentary on ubermisogyny with rap artists such as N.W.A. (Ogbar, Ch.4; 108). This was also a time, according to Jeffrey Ogbar, that gave more exposure to the commerciality of rappers, exploiting the music and the artist not for its message, but for its capitalist potential as a profitable commodity (Ogbar, Ch 4; 109).

That’s why I’m talkin’, one day I was walkin’ down the block
I had my cutoff shorts on right ’cause it was crazy hot
I walked past these dudes when they passed me
One of ’em felt my booty, he was nasty
I turned around red, somebody was catchin’ the wrath
Then the little one said, “Ha ha, yeah me, bitch,” and laughed
Since he was with his boys, he tried to break fly
Huh, I punched him dead in his eye
And said, “Who you callin’ a bitch?” Yeah!

Fast forward to 2007 when Talib Kweli drops, “Eat To Live”, a song about hunger, poverty, the denial of resources in Black communities, a rise in substance abuse, and basic survival. This song explores the fact that issues from the 1970s are pervasive well into the next century. Kweli is a Brooklyn based rapper who applies the intersectionality of racism, socioeconomics, and classism to this particular track. At the time of release, it is estimated that 11.9 million adults and children were food insecure in America, meaning they did not have regular access to basic food and water (CBSNews, 2008). 

My little man go to bed so hungry
Get up, go to school with his nose runny
Come home with his nose bloody
His sister laughin’, he like, “What’s so funny?”
‘Til she drowned out by the sounds of hunger pains in his tummy
Nuttin’ in the freezer, nuttin’ in the fridge
Couple of 40 ounces but nuttin’ for the kids
Little man know they to eat to live
But he don’t wanna leave the crib
In order to receive then we need to give
We gotta feed the kids, they gotta eat to live
In order to receive then we need to give
We gotta feed the kids, they gotta eat to live, listen
My rhymes got nutritional value
I get it how I live, it’s critical when the conditions allow you
Do you entrust the critics who doubt you?
Try to write shit about you
But they can’t make a living without you
Go hungry, you gotta watch what the media feed you
And don’t be a poisoned animal, eaten either
It’s harder than it sound, ’cause nowadays, put that swine in everything
The white sugar so addictive, it’s pure ‘caine
They got pork in the toothpaste, soda in the Sunny D
Jello brand gelatin is laced with the lecatin
In Africa, they starvin’, over here the food hurt you
Cows goin’ mad and the chickens crunk with bird flu

In life and hip-hop, artists have an opportunity to use their voices to further equality, social progress, and call to attention institutional suppression and oppression. “Fascination with African American culture is not new, nor can the dynamics and politics of pleasure across cultural ‘boundaries’ in segregated societies be overlooked.” (Rose, From the Margins) Kweli’s lyrics address not only systemic racism, but also the food riots happening throughout Africa caused by forced food cost inflation which led to millions of children suffering from malnutrition (Science Direct, 2013). The opening lays it all out with a simple statement, “This is a ghetto prayer, prayin’ for those don’t got it”. Rather than a simple song about the state of child hunger in the world, Kweli delivers a message of conscious love, unity, humanity, hope and dignity (the tenants of NOMMO) … imagining a better future

The fourth song in the Deaf-Fined By Beats playlist is a departure from traditional rap, and into conscious hip-hop. Musical artist H.E.R. released, “I Can’t Breathe” in June of 2020 as a callback to police brutality and the senseless killings of Black men. In particular, George Floyd, who died unnecessarily and became the catalyst in the Black Lives Matter Movement. The song consists of flow, rupture, and layering that produces a sense of urgency as the beats build to match the power of the lyrics. At this time, the pandemic had shut the world down and racial hate was polarized and identified as a systemic and institutional injustice. Not to say, racial injustice hasn’t been ingrained into Western culture since the colonizers, but rather to say that now the nation was glued to the television and watching news. In 2020, the rise in the shooting of Black men by police increased exponentially (Statista, 2024). With most people confined to their homes, the media had a dedicated audience, meaning stories of racial injustice were not going unnoticed. The names of Black men, women, and children—George Floyd, Ahmed Aubrey, Breonna Taylor, and too many more—killed by white police drew a stark line of white supremacy and more racial tension in America. From the formation of Black Lives Matter, to the KKK showing their faces at rallies in favor of ending police brutality, the song, “I Can’t Breathe” demystifies American ideals and highlights racism in America. The lyrics and flow of the song create an emotional experience that makes the horrors of racism in America undeniable. 

Starting a war, screaming, “Peace” at the same time
All the corruption, injustice, the same crimes
Always a problem if we do or don’t fight
And we die, we don’t have the same right
What is a gun to a man that surrenders?
What’s it gonna take for someone to defend her?
If we all agree that we’re equal as people
Then why can’t we see what is evil?

The fifth song on the playlist brings us full circle to the injustices wreaked onto the marginalized through acts of oppression, capitalism, racism, classism, violence and war. Macklemore’s latest release, “Hind’s Hall” is a call to action in response to the genocide of Palestinians in Gaza. The song recognizes the courage of students across the world speaking out. Students across the world have protested on their college campuses demanding their schools divest from financing Israel and not support the ongoing violence. Macklemore, the rap artist most known for his hit, “Thrift Shop”, released a brand new track on May 10th, 2024 called, “Hind’s Hall” referencing the Columbia University Hall renamed in honor of Hind Rajab, a six-year-old Palestinian girl who was killed by the Israeli military in Gaza on January 29th. In his latest release, Macklemore doesn’t hold back on spouting conviction like fire, holding the police accountable (including a nod to N.W.A.’s “Fuck the Police”) for the harm and violence inflicted onto students across the country daring to protest peacefully, and the inhumanity institutions of higher education have willingly committed against their own.  

The people, they won’t leave
What is threatenin’ about divesting and wantin’ peace?
The problem isn’t the protests, it’s what they’re protesting
It goes against what our country is funding (hey)
Block the barricade until Palestine is free (hey)
Block the barricade until Palestine is free
When I was seven, I learned a lesson from Cube and Eazy-E
What was it again? Oh yeah, fuck the police (woo)

As college students peacefully protest, police have violently assaulted and arrested thousands of students and faculty. Their tactics included beating students with batons, flashing them with water hoses, pulling them by their hair, and assaulting faculty regardless of age. The song plays devil’s advocate to a global outburst of violence, encouraging the youth to keep fighting, that they are the hope we need for a brighter future (fifth element). In contrast to Ogbar’s analyzation of N.W.A.’s, “Straight Outta Compton” that launched the genre of gangsta rap, Macklemore returns to the stripped down sounds of old school rap and fuses it with intentional calls for peace, love, and an end to senseless murders in Gaza and an end to violence against peaceful protestors. 

Actors in badges protecting property
And a system that was designed by white supremacy (brrt)
But the people are in the streets
You can pay off Meta, you can’t pay off me
Politicians who serve by any means
AIPAC, CUFI, and all the companies
You see, we sell fear around the land of the free
But this generation here is about to cut the strings
You can ban TikTok, take us out the algorithm
But it’s too late, we’ve seen the truth, we bear witness
Seen the rubble, the buildings, the mothers and the children
And all the men that you murdered, and then we see how you spin it
Who gets the right to defend and who gets the right of resistance
Has always been about dollars and the color of your pigment, but
White supremacy is finally on blast
Screamin’ “Free Palestine” ’til they’re home at last (woo)

While this playlist could end with track five, a bonus track has been included to identify the foundation of hip-hop with a profound call for people to make a choice to do better. Black Sheep released, “The Choice is Yours” in 1991 as a call to action for Black communities to choose peace over violence, love over hate, authenticity over racial tropes, and not play into the stereotypes inflicted onto communities of color by white supremacy. This playlist is about honoring the past, the progress, the pain, and the promise of a better future. 

Where’s the Black Sheep, here’s the Black Sheep
Even if we wanted to the flock could not be weak
Watch me swing like this, why should I swing it like that?
Because in fact, on me it might not attract
Therefore I ignore, do as I feel inside
I live with me, I’ve got my back tonight
Ya know what I’m saying? Yo Black, I’m not playing
Need to go with this, or go with that with no delaying
See, in actuality, one be can it be
I made it look easy, because it is to me
Any time capacity was filled, try to rock it
Any time a honey gave us play, tried to knock it
Never was fool, so we finished school
Never see us sweat, and you’ll never see us drool
Out to rock the globe while it’s still here to rock
Don’t punch girls, and we don’t punch a clock
Gotta go, gotta go, see you later by the cat
And you can’t beat that with a bat
You can get with this, or you can get with that …



The theme of this playlist is rising up against those who attempt to silence those they aim to oppress. It begins with the beats in “The Message” that are a slow build, with intentional breaks that allow the lyrics to resonate above the beat. The hook, “Don’t push me cuz I’m close to the edge” is about being fed up with people choosing negativity or positivity, violence over peace, capitalism over humanity, and taking responsibility by contributing to something better. Following it with Queen Latifah’s “U.N.I.T.Y.”, a song that begins with the saxophone from a 1970s sampling of The Crusaders 1973 hit, “Message From The Inner City”, this choice continues the narrative of creating a direct interconnectedness with the literal message of communities, especially Black and Brown communities, coming together in unity. The rawness of the song and the simplicity and poignancy of the video, Queen Latifah becomes the voice of the matriarchy in an effort to bring awareness to the proclivity of sexism and does so honoring the African diaspora of her ancestral roots (Rose, From the Margins). The midpoint song, “Eat To Live”, crescendos from the basic beats that sound more to the ground and gritty over being pristine and dramatic, and then layers it with soundbytes of children’s voices that brings our attention to the manifestation of child hunger prompted by capitalist greed. 

As we listen to track four, the lull of H.E.R.’s voice is interlaced with a simple beat that gives off 1990s R&B vibes. That choice of subtle bass and acoustic guitar, background vocals that have a church choir feel, and the rupture that happens midway, the words are laced with purpose, activism, and a sadness that bellows with the hook, I can’t breathe. By using spoken word, the song and the beat is a revolution of words meant to expose colorism, racism, and police brutality enabled by an institution built on white supremacy. Track five by Macklemore begins with a sound that can best be described as a 1970s action film soundtrack. The lyrics lean heavily on injustice, war, violence, greed, genocide, and calling other musical artists cowards for not speaking out. The undertone of rage and human indignance is evidenced in the flow and layers of intentional lyrics meant to stir revolution and protest. The bonus track by Black Sheep is included to remind listeners that they have a choice to participate in productive and positive systemic change, to engage in unified-driven conversations, or they can continue to cater to divisive racial tropes that keep communities of color in an endless cycle of oppression and poverty. 

Barazneva, Julie and Lee, David (2013). Science Direct, Explaining the African food riots of 2007–2008: An empirical analysis. Accessed May 10, 2024.
Claus, Kyle Scott (2015). Boston Magazine, Throwback Thursday: How racist was Boston in 1982? Accessed May 8, 2024. 
Langer, Emily and Wiener, Aaron (2023) The Washington Post, Who was Rodney King? His 1991 beating by L.A. police roiled America. Accessed May 8, 2024. 
Lynch, Cherise (2023). NBC Philadelphia News 10, Philadelphia unveils new educational exhibit about 1985 MOVE Bombing. Accessed May 10, 2024.  
Nord, et al. (2007). USDA, Household Food Security in the United States, 2007 Report. Accessed May 14, 2024. 
Ogbar, Jeffrey (2007). Hip-Hop Revolution: “Real Ni**as”: Race, Ethnicity, and the Construction of Hip-Hop Music; Between God and Earth: Gangstas, Militants, Media, and the Contest for Hip-Hop; Locked Up: Police, the Prison Industrial Complex, Black Youth, and Social Control. University Press of Kansas.
Rose, Tricia (1994). Black Noise, From the Margins; All Aboard the Night Train; Prophets of Rage; Wesleyan University Press..
Statista Research Department (2024). Rate of fatal police shootings U.S. 2015-2024, by ethnicity. Accessed May 11, 2024.