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Black August: George Jackson's Radical Influence on Hip-Hop
Examining the impact of imprisoned Black activist George Jackson and the Black Guerilla Family through some of hip-hop’s most iconic lyrics.
In 1971, the death of George Jackson, a San Quentin State Prison inmate and Black Panther Party member, sent shockwaves throughout the United States. His tragic demise at the hands of a prison guard highlighted injustices within the prison system and sparked a social movement, Black August, that infiltrated the culture as well as music.
Black August originated in 1979 by imprisoned Black activists known as the Black Guerilla Family, which was founded in 1966 by Jackson, George Lewis, and W.L. Nolen. The group used the month of August to commemorate the sacrifices and achievements of Jackson and his younger brother Jonathan, whose own death was a symbol of political rebellion.
In 1970 Jonathan demonstrated his disgust for the criminal justice system after George’s arrest and conviction for robbing a gas station resulted in an indeterminate prison sentence of one year to life. In a heat of frustration and contempt, Jonathan, who was 17 at the time, took over the Marin County Superior Court to demand the release of his brother along with Fleeta Drumgo, and John Clutchette, who were accused of killing a correctional officer at Soledad State Prison in 1969. Jonathan held several courthouse staff hostage and managed to free three inmates before they were killed while trying to escape.
Later the next year, George’s own death, the details of which remain relatively mysterious inspired the month-long observance. Black August now holds a special place in the Black community, not only to remember the sacrifices of political prisoners of the past, but the continued struggle of Black people living under a police state.
Hip-Hop’s Black August Connection
The month of August also encompasses a bevy of Black historical happenings including the assassination of Huey P. Newton, the March on Washington, The Watts Uprising, The Haitian Revolution, and the Nat Turner Rebellion — not to mention, the accepted birth of hip-hop.
Since the genre’s inception, hip-hop artists have used music to educate and raise awareness about Black history and have even directly paid homage to Black August in their music. Talib Kweli, Dead Prez, Nas, and Tupac are examples of influential artists who have contributed to hip-hop and championed social and political change by utilizing the storytelling elements of music to share a history that is often erased from textbooks. One of the five pillars of hip-hop is knowledge, solidifying political and social messaging as an integral part of the culture.
Tupac often spoke about his admiration for George Jackson and how his death affected him personally. In his song ”Soulja's Story,” Tupac chants, "All he wanted to be, a soldier, a soldier." In this track, Tupac tells the fictional story of two brothers, one who attempts to break the other out of jail, resulting in them both being shot. The song is a direct ode to the story of the Jackson brothers and their refusal to be silenced or unfairly confined, even if their resistance meant death.
In “How Can We Be Free,” Tupac referenced Geroge Jackson's imprisonment and subsequent death as a symbol of the fight against systemic oppression and racism. Shakur gives a historical analysis of injustices against Black people from Africa to the United States. He ends the song with, "Now I bet some punk will say I'm being racist/ I can tell by how you smile at me/ then, I remember George Jackson, Huey Newton, and Geronimo/To hell with Lady Liberty."
Tupac saw Jackson as a martyr for the cause and drew inspiration from his story along with his familial roots to the Black Panther Party by way of his mother Afeni Shakur and godmother Assata, to fuel his own activism. Being raised in the Black Panther movement, Tupac's 'Soulja-like' persona upheld the tradition of resistance for justice that George Jackson and many before him started.
Prison Realities: New York's Ongoing Struggles
Nas' song "Get Down," from his 2002 album God's Son, highlights the profound impact George Jackson's death had on the Queens-bred rapper and speaks for those unjustly targeted by the criminal justice system. Nas uses George Jackson's story to shed light on the systemic oppression and societal issues plaguing the Black community. He blasts a powerful verse:
"Triple-homicide, I sit in the back aisle /
I wanna crack a smile when I see him /
Throw up a fist for Black Power, 'cause all we want is his freedom /
He grabbed a court officer's gun and started squeezin'/
Then he grabbed the judge, and screams out, 'Nobody leavin'.'"
This line encapsulates the dichotomy of life and death, capturing the harsh reality faced by many Black and imprisoned individuals who navigate between hope and despair.
Throughout the song, Nas narrates vivid stories of people caught in the throes of poverty, crime, and systemic racism. He underlines the recurring cycle of violence within the Black community and society's tendency to criminalize them. Nas' incorporation of George Jackson's story in "Get Down" serves as a call to action, urging listeners to recognize the inherent injustices and work towards change.
Since the inception of Black August, progress has been made in some areas of Black life. But the plight of Black people — and especially among those living out unfairly harsh prison sentences — has not changed much. Black people are incarcerated at a rate five times more than whites. In New York, where hip-hop recently celebrated its 50th anniversary, imprisonment continues to grow dramatically, and the state has one of the largest imprisoned populations in the world as well as the soon-to-be home of the world’s tallest jail.
According to the Prison Policy Initiative (PPI), Black people comprise 16% of the New York population and 53% of the prison and jail population. As we continue to ease out of the COVID-19 pandemic, PPI gave New York a failing grade for its response. New York was one of few states to parole fewer people in 2020 than in 2019 (pre-pandemic) and, in 2021, remained one of the few states to have less than 60% of the prison population vaccinated against COVID.
The statistics of Black people confined across the board is exactly why there is such a need for the outspokenness and fearlessness that can influence and educate society despite how inconvenient these truths may feel to some. That tool continues to be hip-hop.
Ashley Cobb, a Washington, D.C. native, is a freelance writer, author, and middle school math educator.
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