Are high profile rappers responsible for marijuana legalization? Killer Mike seems to think so. The rapper, real name Michael Santiago Render, is also classified as a social justice advocate. According to Mike, it is important for Americans to understand and recognize that rappers have helped pave the way for weed reform. The question is: Does he have a point?
It was during a Washington Post segment called ‘Free to State’ that Mike outlined his belief that rappers should get a level of credit for aiding the legalization cause which is disproportionate to that received by politicians and other activists.
“A Straight Line”
The topic in question was Freedom of Speech, and Mike spoke about the double standards in society when it comes to musical genres such as country and rap. Although it is always dangerous to make assumptions or to stereotype, it is accepted that country music fans are predominantly white, while African-Americans tend to be more drawn toward rap music than country.
According to Mike, it is imperative that artists who produce ‘controversial’ music have their freedom of speech protected; especially since many of these artists create music with potentially major policy implications. There is no question that marijuana is a staple of rap music, yet this influence seems to be overlooked when discussing how weed reform hit the mainstream.
A quick Google search on ‘rappers and marijuana’ reveals a litany of results; ranging from ‘rappers who are unapologetic cannabis connoisseurs’ to ‘rappers who’ve turned their love for weed into a business.’ Dozens of rap artists have included odes to weed in song lyrics, and the likes of Snoop Dogg have become the acceptable and cool face of cannabis use.
Mike went on to say that plenty of activists have received credit for the national decriminalization of marijuana. However, he said it was possible to show a straight line that led back to artists such as Cypress Hill, Snoop, and Rick James. Yet if this influence is not publicly acknowledged, if the media continues to treat rap artists differently to their country music counterparts, you will see a “galvanization of the prejudices that we already see.”
This discussion was far from being the first time that Killer Mike spoke out on the poor treatment of rappers. In March 2019, Mike, and fellow rappers Meek Hill and Chance the Rapper, submitted a brief to the United States Supreme Court. In it, they defended another artist who was convicted for apparently threatening Pittsburgh Police officers in a song.
In 2012, Mayhem Mal, real name Jamal Knox, was arrested by the Pittsburgh police on drug and gun charges, along with fellow rapper, Rashee Beasley. Later, the duo wrote a song about their experience which contained lyrics such as “Let’s kills these cops cuz they don’t do us no good.”
Ultimately, both men were charged with a variety of crimes, including terroristic threats. Knox unsuccessfully argued that the song was protected by the First Amendment right to free speech. Incidentally, the song was actually posted on Facebook by someone else, so neither Knox nor Beasley intended for the police to see it.
Interestingly, while Killer Mike mentioned Cypress Hill in the discussion, a member of the group, B-Real, campaigned against full legalization in California in 2016. B-Real was concerned about how the bill was drafted. Once the bill was passed into law, he changed his tune and opened a dispensary in 2018!
Is Killer Mike Right?
It is important to look at the evidence before coming to a conclusion. There is no question that the herb is closely linked with hip hop culture. By the end of the 1980s, the hip-hop revolution was well underway and had produced ground-breaking albums such as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back by Public Enemy, Straight Outta Compton by NWA, and Tougher Than Leather by Run D.M.C.
What’s odd about this era was that hip-hop artists did not declare their love for the herb. It was quite the opposite, in fact. In ‘Express Yourself’ by NWA, the group discussed the need for abstinence from drugs. Several hip-hop artists released music with anti-drug lyrics. Many of these musicians changed their stance in the following years.
It is important to remember that America was in the grip of the Reagan Administration’s ‘War on Drugs’ at this time. Perhaps the nation was exhausted and frustrated by the puritanical ramblings of the B-Movie actor and his First Lady; because the 1990s felt ‘freer.’ It was a time when MTV came to the fore, and it began devoting airtime to hip-hop music.
It could be argued that Cypress Hill changed the course of hip-hop history with its 1991 self-titled debut album. The band’s debut LP featured a skull adorned with a marijuana leaf. The link between hip-hop and weed grew from there. When Dr. Dre released The Chronic in 1992, which featured pro-weed lyrics, the die had been cast.
The Lollapalooza festival of 1992 was a significant event. It featured numerous hip-hop acts including Ice Cube and Cypress Hill. Even at this early stage, marijuana use in the genre was now not just acceptable but celebrated. In the early 1980s, only four rap songs contained drug references. By the mid-1990s, an incredible 45% of all hip-hop tracks had references to drugs!
Major artists such as Jay-Z, Snoop Dogg, and Notorious B.I.G openly admitted that they sold drugs before they hit the big time. Afroman’s memorable song ‘Because I Got High’ both celebrated weed and provided a clear example of what happens when it goes wrong. The track was nominated for Best Single at the 2000 Grammy Awards.
2007 saw the release of ‘Sour Diesel’, a collaboration between Styles P and N.O.R.E, which praised the marijuana strain of the same name. Lil Wayne released a track called ‘Kush’ the following year and paid homage to what was his favorite strain at the time. In the last 10-15 years, almost every important and popular hip-hop album has contained references to Mary Jane in at least one track.
The growth of vaping has also featured in numerous hip-hop songs. Lil Pump is often credited with playing a major role in the rise of product placement electronic cigarettes. These days, prominent rappers such as Snoop, Wiz Khalifa, and Waka have their own branded strains. Dozens of hip-hop artists have invested their earnings in marijuana businesses, and continue to hail the herb in their music.
Going WAY Back
It should be clear by now that Killer Mike has made an excellent point. Hip-hop has played a big part in the ‘normalization’ of the herb, and the genre should receive more credit. Mike mentioned a straight line that went back to Rick James, but in truth, it goes back even further. Race and weed are inextricably linked.
It is now believed that prejudice against Mexican immigrants into the United States in the aftermath of the Mexican Revolution led to the prohibition of the herb. Before the arrival of the Mexicans, weed was often prescribed as a medicine. However, the new arrivals used cannabis recreationally.
The anti-Mexican feeling at the time meant that everything the immigrants did was viewed with suspicion. Once the herb was linked with the ‘foreign threat,’ it was doomed. Within a generation, marijuana was federally illegal in the United States.
This situation didn’t prevent certain artists from using Mary Jane. Indeed, some historians believe that jazz was invented by New Orleans musicians with the aid of weed. Louis Armstrong is one of the greatest jazz musicians of all time and was a lifelong advocate of pot.
Harry Anslinger drove the prohibition of weed and was a known racist. He tied the herb to jazz music, which he loathed because of the prevalence of black musicians. After Nixon declared his failed War on Drugs in 1971, cannabis-related arrests increased fourfold in a year; with a disproportionate number of black people on the wrong end. Even today, African-Americans are arrested almost four times more often for weed possession than whites, despite using the herb at approximately the same rate.
If you don’t believe the War on Drugs was racist, you haven’t been paying attention. John Ehrlichman, who served as Nixon’s Chief Domestic Advisor, openly admitted that the drug war was prejudiced from the beginning. In 1994, he told Harper’s that the Nixon Administration saw African-Americans and anti-war activists as their two main enemies.
Since it wasn’t good politics to be openly racist or prejudiced against anti-war individuals, they concocted a diabolical plan. The goal was to get the public to associate black people with heroin and anti-war activists with marijuana. Then, the government would criminalize both substances heavily and disrupt both communities.
The next step was to arrest the leaders of the communities, raid their homes, and vilify them every night on the news. Ehrlichman even admitted that the government was well aware it was lying about drugs. Sadly, almost half a century later, things haven’t changed that much.
It could also be argued that Bob Marley helped bring positive international attention to marijuana during his brief but memorable career.
Final Thoughts on Hip-Hop, Race & Marijuana Legalization
It should be clear by now that Killer Mike arguably hasn’t gone far enough. Certainly, hip-hop’s role in revolutionizing the public’s view of marijuana is greater than that of any other genre. Therefore, Mike is correct in what he said. Most people are aware of the influence hip-hop has had on the cannabis industry, but it seems as if we’re too afraid to give rappers credit for anything.
This point brings us neatly back to the days before legalization. The truth is, African-Americans have been disproportionately targeted for marijuana ‘crimes’ for generations. The War on Drugs was a deliberately racist campaign, and its awful effects remain today. Black people continue to be arrested in huge numbers.
Now that there are several recreational programs in place and the legalization campaign has potentially unstoppable momentum, it is time to turn our attention toward the inequalities suffered by black communities in the United States. Legalization will reduce the number of arrests, but something must be done to help expunge the unfair criminal records obtained for the ‘crime’ of possessing a small amount of marijuana.
Cities such as Oakland, San Francisco, Sacramento, and Los Angeles are leading the way with equity programs. These programs expunge charges related to marijuana and also include business incubation, technical assistance, and no-interest loans. While such programs can’t make up for the disgraceful Drug War policies that ruined communities, they are a step in the right direction.
Meanwhile, rappers have at least made the most of their link with marijuana by investing in businesses. It is the least the genre deserves for helping with legalization; it’s not as if it is getting the credit.