Performing Politics: Chance the Rapper, Angels, and Black Nationalism

Leonard Bopp

Chance the Rapper is a product of his Chicago heritage. Born on the South Side, his earliest musical inspiration was Kanye West, a fellow Chicago native. In fourth grade, he discovered Kanye’s College Dropout, listened to it on repeat; from then on, he knew that he had to be a rapper. Now, he has emerged as one of hip-hop’s fastest-rising stars. His 2013 opus Acid Rap has propelled him towards fame, earning him festival appearances and a spot on Saturday Night Live, the first independent artist ever to do so. But even with his rising fame, he remains tied to his Chicago roots. Chance the Rapper has a mission: to be a voice for the marginalized black communities of the South Side. He is scared for the community that raised him; “the amount of violence – gun violence specifically in Chicago, “ he says, “nobody’s doing much about it. It’s scary. I want to voice it. I want to talk about it” (Taylor). The primary vessel for Chance’s political advocacy, for his expressions of solidarity, is his music, connecting him to a long lineage of rap artists who have wrestled with, spoken for, and written about the political dilemmas facing America’s marginalized black communities.

Indeed, rap music has always been a political exercise. From it’s origins in the South Bronx of the 1970’s, rap has been a political vehicle for the disenfranchised, a counter-public sphere for a black community that had been marginalized from the cultural and political mainstream (Bonnette 12-13). Fusing the jagged edginess of jazz with the lyric power of Langston Hughes, hip-hop became the dominant medium to capture the ethos of struggle and resistance among black Americans (Henderson 310). For music to be a mode of resistance from the dominant political ideology was nothing new in black cultural history; after all, slaves songs such as “Follow the Drinking Gourd” actually functioned as coded messages for liberation and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” captured painful images of lynching (Bonnette 32). But what began as a mode of expression for the commonality of oppression in the black community emerged as a means for the explicit expression of political goals. Following its ancestry in African American culture, hip-hop’s rise in popularity coincides with the reactionary conservative politics of the Reagan-Bush years and the recessions of the late 1970’s (Henderson 318). Artists from Public Enemy and Tupac to Kanye and Kendrick have taken up the political concerns of the black community, voicing discontentment with economic oppression and political neglect and expressing the desire for liberation. Hip-hop has become a place where social barriers seek to be torn down; it is inherently motivated by the desire for social transformation. Hip-hop that takes seriously its political implications, then, has one big question to answer: what exactly is it fighting for?

If rap music is reflective of a desire for social transformation, then it must advocate, explicitly or implicitly, a certain political solution. Chance the Rapper’s “Angels,” one of his newest singles, does just that. Layered over a Motown-stlye beat and gospel-inspired backdrop, the song’s argument is clear: in a society in which the political establishment has ignored its black citizenry, rap music, its political agenda intact, is the only remaining source of hope and solidarity for the black community. Chance is not just talking about rap as a genre, however, or the black community en masse – this is a song about Chance the Rapper, through his music, personally delivering a sense of solidarity and liberation to his city, Chicago’s South Side. “I got my city doing front flips,” he begins, “while every father, mayor, rapper jump ship.” This is, in part, a direct reference to Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, who has been widely criticized for ignoring Chicago’s black community after fighting to keep video footage of the killing of black teenager Jason van Dyke by a Chicago police officer from being publicly released – indeed, Chance’s message is that the white political establishment has abandoned the concerns of Chicago’s inner city black communities. Against a political system that has disregarded its black constituents, Chance is proclaiming his own allegiance to his city – unlike other rappers, who have left their origins behind in a quest for fame; “I ain’t change my number since the seventh grade” and “I’m still at my old church,” he says, pledging his devotion to his own roots.

Moreover, Chance casts himself as a hero, the “blueprint to a real man,” for the black community’s youth – the kind of idol that Kanye once was to him. Indeed, the rapper-as-hero is the song’s protagonist. This is made abundantly clear in the music video. It opens with an image of a young black child walking through city streets; he looks up to see Chance the Rapper flying – like an angel – above the Chicago skyline. He zips through the sky as he sings the first verse, ultimately landing on the roof of a subway car – which is carrying the same young child from before – as the video shifts to a cartoon-style illustration reminiscent of DC and Marvel comic books. The chorus hits, and the people on Chance’s subway car begin to dance along. It is Chance, like a savior, that personally delivers rap music’s particular brand of liberation to the South Side. The argument is that by engaging in the solidarity of hip-hop, Chicago’s black community can achieve the kind of liberation Chance offers. When Chance states in the chorus “I got angels all around me,” he is presenting a personal promise of hope, offering that his music can provide a sense of liberation in Chicago’s black community – especially for the young boy who, it seems, may as well be the young Chancellor Bennett. “Angles,” then, becomes an optimistic promise of hope for the black community – much like Chance’s “Sunday Candy,” a song about the importance of going to church, places of family and community, on Sundays.

But in offering liberation, Chance’s music must explain how it plans to do so – by what means and towards what ends the people of the South Side can transform their social circumstances. The answer lies in the music video’s replacement of traditionally white cultural icons with black characters. Indeed, the song casts Chance, a black man, as an angel – and in the traditional cultural notion of this religious allegory, black angels cannot exist. The realm of the heavenly is nearly uniformly portrayed in popular media as a white paradise, to the extent that exceptions to the rule must have serious implications as an alternative; in this case, the music video is presenting a savior, through a religious allegory, that is black rather than white. It does the same by turning Chance into a superhero, a role that through its various incarnations – Batman, Superman, and the like – has been uniformly reserved for white people. It is these dissident characterizations, the black angel and the black superhero, that deliver the promise of liberation to the people on the subway car – all of whom are black. These portrayals of black characters in traditionally white roles is fundamental to Chance’s offer of liberation. The political agenda it advocates depends on the replacement of society’s normative authoritarian whiteness with black characters; liberation, it argues, cannot be achieved in a social and cultural framework dominated by whiteness. Rather, for a community that has been abandoned by a white political establishment, liberation can only be achieved through distinctly black social and political systems. “Angels,” ultimately, is a song about the political agenda of black nationalism, the cultural and political independence of black Americans (Bonnette 54). And if we can tie this to a tangible political solution, we could say this: it imagines a distinctly black polity on the South Side of Chicago.

There is indeed a historical trend of hip hop artists promoting the black nationalist ideology. After all, the immediate predecessor of and primary inspiration for early hip-hop was the Black Arts Movement, which had as its primary goal the creation of an Afrocentric culture as a means of liberation; it was essentially an artistic representation of the political agendas of Malcolm X and Stokely Carmichael (Henderson 315). With Public Enemy, one of rap’s earliest political advocates, black nationalism became central to hip-hop’s cultural identity. With “Shut Em Down” and “Can’t Truss It,” Public Enemy conveyed an alternative to the popular models of integrationist politics conveyed by the white media and Martin Luther King, which, as Errol Henderson argues, constrained thought and analysis on models of liberation (Henderson 327-328). Nas and Tupac later took up this political agenda; in “Thug’s Mansion,” for example, a verse from the late Tupac is explicitly utopian, presenting a black alternative to heaven. And today, as America continues to see its black population subjected to police violence and economic oppression, the black nationalist strands of Public Enemy have resurfaced in hip-hop’s cultural sphere, with Kendrick Lamar and Kayne West, current icons of hip-hop culture, both addressing the oppression of African-Americans and advocating racial solidarity.

Indeed, pop culture, and hip-hop specifically, has often been a matter of envisioning a utopian society, in which, by addressing a political problem and advocating a solution, it advocates a political agenda. This utopian vision, however, can be indicative of varying strands of political thought. In rap and hip-hop, artists have often advocated liberation by representations of the black nationalist ideology – whether explicitly in the lyrics or implicitly in the song’s representations of black nationalist attitudes of self-reliance of solidarity (Bonnette 58). Chance’s “Angels” may not present the black nationalist ideology as explicitly as, for example, Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright,” an anthem of solidarity from To Pimp a Butterfly, or Beyonce’s “Formation,” which makes explicit references to Malcolm X in the context of America’s police brutality epidemic. But through its vision of a black nationalist utopia, it’s implicit advocacy of distinctly black political and social structures, “Angels” presents the attitudes of black nationalism as the solution to the politics of racial oppression. At the end of the music video, Chance dances on the streets of Chicago along with a group of black dancers; the video concludes with the same young child it showcased in the opening looking up at the Chicago skyline. The only way that the black community can tangibly claim their city, it argues, is through the attitudes and policies of black nationalism. This is a song not just about solidarity and liberation, but about achieving those ends by the means of radical political change.

Works Cited

Bonnette, Lakeyta M., Pulse of the People: Political Rap Music and Black Politics. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015.

Henderson, Errol A.. 1996. “Black Nationalism and Rap Music”. Journal of Black Studies 26 (3). Sage Publications, Inc.: 308–39. 2784825.

Malone, Christopher and Martinez, Jr., George, “The Organic Globalizer” in Hip Hop, Political Development, and Movement Culture, ed. Christopher Malone and George Martinez, Jr., 1-17. New York: Bloomsbury, 2015.

Taylor, John, “Chance the Rapper Drops Acid,” Interview Magazine, April 30, 2013, accessed April 24, 2016, the-rapper-acid-rap/#_