As California’s Reparations Task Force — the first statewide body created to study the harmful and residual effects of slavery in the United States — moves toward creating legislation around reparations, musicians in the Bay Area like Kev Choice, as well as many others across the country, are using their art to make the case for compensating descendants of enslaved people.
Choice says the topic of reparations has been on his mind for decades.
But it’s only been in recent years that the Oakland-based hip-hop and jazz artist has used the word explicitly in his music.
In “Rebel,” a song that heavily references Public Enemy, the rap group that shined a spotlight on the exploitation of Black recording artists and called for reparations on the 1990 album “Fear of a Black Planet,” Choice raps: “I’m thinking ’bout solutions, reparations, housing and education.”
Meanwhile, the song “No Worries” contains an urgent demand for payment: “When the government write them checks/Add reparations while the ink wet.”
“The conversations that have been happening nationwide politically have sparked me to include that word specifically,” Choice, who wrote both of the above songs in 2020, told KQED. “I’m saying, ‘OK, maybe this is a possibility. So let me speak it into existence.’ The more we speak things into existence, the more possibility they are going to happen.”
The call for reparations is nothing new in popular music, particularly in hip-hop, a genre that has been documenting inequities since its birth almost a half century ago.
“We need to use our music to help amplify the voices of the people who have been fighting for this for a long time — the legislators, the community activists,” said Choice. “How can I use my music to support those who are on the front lines of this battle?”
Hip-hop leads the charge
In “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” Public Enemy’s 1991 protest anthem against the Arizona governor’s decision to cancel Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the song reaches its climax when rapper Chuck D demands reparations: “A piece of the pick, we picked a piece of the land that we’re deserving now/Reparation, a piece of the nation.”
Daphne A. Brooks, a Yale University professor who was raised in the Bay Area, described hip-hop as a “deeply fruitful and prolific space” to present the case for reparations.
“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,” said Brooks, a professor of music, African American studies, American studies and women’s, gender and sexuality studies. “And because of that, it’s a useful scaffold to critique the ways in which we think about race and sociopolitical structures of power, and how Black people operate within and against those sociopolitical structures of power.”
Not all hip-hop tracks focused on demanding reparations use that actual word. Songs like Saul Williams’s “List of Demands,” released in 2004, are as explicit in their call for the U.S. government to pay Black people damages as any of the more than 950 songs that show up when you type “reparations” into the search box on lyrics websites.
On “You Owe Me,” a 1999 single, Nas raps, “Yeah, owe me back like you owe your tax/Owe me back like 40 acres to Blacks.”
The reference to “40 acres” is shorthand for Special Field Order 15, the military order issued in 1865 by Union General William Tecumseh Sherman, which arranged for 400,000 acres of property confiscated from Confederate landowners to be redistributed to emancipated Black families in 40-acre plots. President Andrew Johnson, an enslaver, quickly overturned the order after the assassination of Abraham Lincoln by a Confederate sympathizer.
The concept of 40 acres — or 40 acres and a mule — has become a particularly powerful way of talking about reparations — not just in songs, but also in American pop culture. It’s the name of filmmaker Spike Lee’s production company. Choice said the slogan was written across many T-shirts and sweatshirts when he was growing up in Oakland.
Many songs about reparations have been fueled by America’s broken promise, from Oscar Brown Jr.’s 1965 proto-rap spoken-word track “Forty Acres and a Mule” to, a little over half a century later, T.I.’s “40 Acres,” released in 2016.
“Forty acres and a Mueller/I spent my reparations on the jeweler,” the song’s chorus begins before ending with, “40 acres and a mule, 40 acres and a mule/These n— actin’ f—’ fools, for 40 acres and a mule.”
Artists working in other musical genres also have contributed to the reparations repertoire.
Released two years ago on June 19 to celebrate Juneteenth — now a federal holiday commemorating the emancipation of enslaved people — Beyoncé’s “Black Parade” named Black activists and her mother before calling for reparations: “Curtis Mayfield on the speaker/Lil’ Malcolm, Martin, mixed with momma Tina/Need another march, lemme call Tamika/Need peace and reparation for my people.”
Reggae artist Damian Marley’s pungent 2001 song “Educated Fools” demands that colonial forces stand trial for the evils committed “until dem send di reparation dollars/Warning to all di political scholars/Political thieves and political liars.”
“Time for Reparations,” released in 2021 by the Grammy Award-winning R&B-and-soul ensemble Sounds of Blackness, has a hypnotic chorus with one of the most insistent messages of any song on the topic released in recent years: “Time for reparations/Right now time for reparations,” the group repeats.
While hip-hop may be the most prominent musical genre in this country today, Choice said it’s important for the call for reparations to be heard across other genres to ensure as broad an audience hears it.
“I’m able to get into these spaces where I’m bringing with me the values, the energy, the mindset, the issues of my community,” said Choice, who has collaborated with the Oakland and San Francisco symphonies, as well as the SFJAZZ Center, among other local institutions.
How explicit calls for reparations emerged
There’s currently little scholarship on the specific topic of reparations in music. Academics interviewed for this story said they think of it as a strand within the larger field of Black music studies. A line from the hip-hop tracks of today that explicitly reference reparations can be traced to older songs that speak to the deep-rooted wrongs committed against Black people in this country.
Songs from the civil rights era like Nina Simone’s 1964 song “Mississippi Goddam” and 19th-century spirituals, such as the anonymously published “No More Auction Block for Me,” protest racial inequality.
“‘No More Auction Block’ seems, to me, very much in line with this broader genealogy of popular representations of bondage,” said Shana Redmond, a professor of English and comparative literature at Columbia University, who has written extensively about music. “Because the song really is about the sale of people and entire futures, and this is why we’re owed a debt.”
Bay Area musician Samora Pinderhughes, who’s currently working on a doctorate in music at Harvard University, makes a similar case for placing tracks like Curtis Mayfield’s “If There’s a Hell Below, We’re All Gonna Go” and Tupac Shakur’s “Keep Ya Head Up” in the tradition of reparations songs. He also includes many of the tracks on his own recently released album, “Grief,” because the songs present a clear case for why Black Americans need reparations in the first place.
“I think they point back to these systemic issues that would be at the heart of what a real reparations conversation would look and sound and actually be like to me,” Pinderhughes said.
It’s challenging to pinpoint when artists began to call out the need for reparations explicitly. The earliest songs KQED found date back to Gil Scott-Heron’s 1970 track “Who’ll Pay Reparations on My Soul,” which asks how the cost of racism in America can be accounted for. A request for historical sources from the Library of Congress’s Music Division was still pending at the time of publishing of this article.
“The turning point was Gil Scott-Heron putting the word ‘reparations’ front and center,” Redmond, of Columbia, said. “The kinds of access points and community investments that he’s speaking to in that piece were already in circulation.”
Los Angeles-based composer, producer and vintage vinyl buff Adrian Younge said the lack of songs explicitly referencing the concept of reparations before the 1960s can be explained by the fact that Black Americans in previous generations were fighting for other things, like the right to live in certain neighborhoods, attend certain schools and eat at certain restaurants.
“There were other forms of injustice that seemed a lot more immediate and within reach than reparations,” Younge said. “I mean, how are you going to ask for reparations when you can’t even drink out of the same water fountain? It’s baby steps.”
Accordingly, the first great wave of songs explicitly addressing reparations came during the 1990s and 2000s by artists like Shakur, Wu-Tang Clan, Public Enemy, Kanye West and Lil Wayne. Many of these tracks highlighted the problems underpinning the need for reparations.
“Help me raise my Black nation, reparations are due/It’s true, caught up in this world I took advantage of you,” Shakur raps, from the perspective of a Black man in jail writing a love letter to a Black woman, in the 1996 song “White Man’z World.”
“Many of these artists who came of age as Gen Xers recognized that the next battlefront was being able to reckon with the afterlives of slavery — the ongoing catastrophe of Black subjugated life not having fully repaired, let alone ultimately addressed, the fiscal and sociopolitical problems linked to slavery,” said Brooks, of Yale. “These artists were standing on the scaffolding of civil rights and Black Power struggles, creating a space in their music to talk about these material and existential problems affecting Black life.
“And reparations becomes just one of the ways to try and address that emergency.”
Around the time of the publication of “The Case for Reparations,” Ta-Nehisi Coates’s landmark 2014 essay in The Atlantic, songs about reparations blossomed anew, with artists like Nipsey Hussle, Jay-Z and others fueling the debate around the topic with their music.
“Coates is part of a broader kind of collective movement thinking in a multifaceted way about all of the different terms of repair that Black folks deserve,” Brooks said.
Some of the more recent songs, which gained an even greater urgency because of the Black Lives Matter movement, go beyond the question of why reparations should be paid to Black Americans to also address the how and the when.
Nipsey Hussle’s 2018 song “Dedication” makes it clear that time has run out on waiting:
How long should I stay dedicated? How long ’til opportunity meet preparation? I need some real n— reparations Before I run up in your bank just for recreation
In his 2013 song “40 Acres,” Pusha T makes it clear he wants land:
No change of heart, no change of mind You can take what’s yours, but you gon’ leave what’s mine I’d rather die, than go home I’d rather die, than go home And I ain’t leaving without my 40 acres.
In “Rebel,” Choice says reparations should take the form of equity in housing, health care, education and other social structures.
“I think it has to be more than just, ‘Here is a certain dollar amount,’” Choice told KQED. “Because it’s bigger than money. It’s the ability to live, sustain and uplift these communities that have been harmed.”
Choice said he plans to write more songs about reparations, but he’s not the only Bay Area artist with this intention.
In an interview with KQED, Nef the Pharaoh also expressed this desire. But even though the 27-year-old, Vallejo-based rapper is the creator of political songs like “Still I Rise,” released in 2019, he said he’s been struggling to figure out how to make the subject of reparations resonate with his mostly teenage fan base.
He almost created a reparations-themed project titled “Forty Acres and a Mule,” but changed his mind.
“I felt like my listeners weren’t ready to pay attention to the topic,” he said. “And that was my fault.”
Nef said it’s on artists like himself to make their fans pay attention. “We’ve got to give way more people game,” he said.
Listen to “40 Acres and a Playlist” on Spotify and Apple Music.
Corey Antonio Rose contributed reporting to this story.