Culture | Fighting fire with words

Rap Battles for Social Justice speak out against police brutality

In 1982, the pioneering hip hop group Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five released “The Message,” a six minute track that vividly depicts the struggles of life in inner-city America. The song quickly rose to iconic status, not just for its indelible beat, but also because it was one of the first to mobilize the expressive force of hip hop to tackle police brutality against Black people in the U.S – and that shit picked up.

Four decades later, the haunting lyrics of being “close to the edge” and of trying to keep one’s head up despite generations of marginalization have a continued relevance. Police violence against Black people has escalated in number and resulted in more fatalities in recent years. Although many of the most publicized cases are from the U.S., Canadians – especially those in Quebec – would be amiss to think that the problem is less severe here in the north.

The Rap Battles for Social Justice are a collective of local Montreal artists, musicians, activists, and organizers who use music to turn the limelight on these realities. On February 15, the Battles challenged the very existence of police violence in their event, “Rap Battle Against Police Brutality.” Here, activists and survivors of police brutality battled fiercely against this unjust form of systematic oppression with clever rhymes, smooth beats, and even some comedy. Hundreds came out to Le Belmont that evening, making the venue a full house. While most performances were rhyming face-offs, performers also expressed themselves through spoken word poetry, group performances, and towards the end of the night, freestyling.

Canadians – especially those in Quebec – would be amiss to think that the problem [of anti-Blackness] is less severe here in the north.

The atmosphere was welcoming, as was the program, and members of community groups like Montréal Noir came on stage between acts, offering brief but sobering reminders of the need for such events by talking about their organizations efforts for the community, and what remains to be done.

Topping off the night was veteran Montreal emcee Scynikal, battling on a ‘pro’-police front for the final showdown of the night. Complete with a plastic badge, leather jacket, and verses that revealed the darkest side of police brutality, Scynikal’s flow was impressive and jarring in its revelation of the deep hatred and fear of racialized bodies entrenched in state institutions and the minds of authorities. The performers who took the mic against him expressed intense frustration with police violence and racism.

To be clear, no professional police officers were rapping that night, nor were any of the costumed ‘pro-police’ performers actually trying to defend police brutality. Some used their blue hats to bring some comic relief to the night, like Marley C’s ‘Officer Cocopuff’ who claimed he had “never heard of” police brutality. According to organizer Vincent Stephen-Ong, who also founded the local musical collective Urban Science, part of the purpose of the battle was for the musicians to “play a role” in order to keep in line with the “theatrical side to the Rap Battles for Social Justice.”

Activists and survivors of police brutality battled fiercely against this unjust form of systematic oppression with clever rhymes, smooth beats, and even some comedy.

Everything about the event was focused on engaging with and empowering the community of listeners. To foster an atmosphere of unity, the vivacious emcee Meryam Saci encouraged audience participation in the performances and even coming on stage. Some performers turned the space into an intimate setting by sharing testimonies of their personal experiences with police brutality. It was clear that the goal wasn’t only to have a good time or showcase local talent, though both were successfully accomplished. The event’s atmosphere carried an impassioned mission for performers and audience members to take their songs, stories, and battles beyond the walls of Le Belmont and into their daily lives.

Raising awareness for cycles of injustice drives many of the artists who performed. Mags, a member of the all-woman trio Strange Froots, explained how seeing other artists share socially-conscious music at a previous Rap Battles for Social Justice event served as a wake up call for them to do the same. “Now we have more of a grasp on how important it is that we are visible in the scene as three Black women; that in itself is a statement that should be reflected in our songs. And that is something we did.”

Everything about the event was focused on engaging with and empowering the community of listeners.

When asked about the connection between police brutality, social justice, and hip hop, Stephen-Ong recalled: “A friend of mine once said something like, ‘you’re not that valuable as an artist if you don’t make use of your position to bring about social change.’” Stephen-Ong believes that lyrical content and musical genres hold great responsibilities. They are the “gateway drug” to what he serendipitously calls “the message” – something that has been embedded within hip hop since its birth. “The message,” as Vincent and so any other artists see it, is not bound to a single definition, or to a particular time or context of struggle. The message is hidden within the act of reclaiming one’s voice when it is being forced into silence, and each rhyme carries a definition that is a piece of the artist as much as it is a part of the message.

Despite the fact that hip hop and police brutality both share racialized histories (albeit with very different expressions), “the message” is not just about revealing this link, but also involving everybody in its dissemination. The message has been consciously and purposefully carried on by artists and collectives like “The Rap Battles for Social Justice,” whose experiences in the music industry and the activist landscape help involve the community in their fight. These artists, collectives, and community-driven events encourage audiences to actively take part in spreading, contributing, and inspiring change.


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