DJBooth’s Top 15 Nelson Mandela References in Hip-Hop
Nelson Mandela is one of the pinnacle civil rights icons of the 21st century. A critical anti-apartheid activist, Mandela served 27 years in prison for conspiring to overthrow the South African government as part of his mission to end institutional racism in the country. Following his release, Mandela went on to be the first elected Black president in South Africa. Mandela was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, and his legacy privileges freedom, equality and a vehement opposition to institutional racism.
To celebrate what would have been Nelson Mandela’s 100th birthday (July 18), DJBooth teamed up with TIDAL to highlight the 15 best Nelson Mandela references in hip-hop history. Check out the list below, and press play to hear some of the best lyrical tributes to a civil rights legend in TIDAL’s Check The Rhyme: Nelson Mandela playlist below.
1. A Tribe Called Quest, “We Can Get Down,” Midnight Marauders, 1993
“We rap by what we see, meaning reality / From people busting caps and like Mandela being free / Not every MC be with the negativity”
A classic cut from A Tribe Called Quest’s classic Midnight Marauders, this Mandela reference is delivered over a bed of scratches by the late Phife Dawg. Here, Phife speaks on the importance of rappers tackling social issues, using Mandela’s history as a prime example of civil rights struggle and moving towards goodness.
2. 2Pac, “Just a Breath of Freedom (4 Nelson Mandela),” The Rose That Grew From Concrete (Book), 1999
A moving poem from 2Pac’s posthumous poetry collection, The Rose That Grew From Concrete, ‘Pac reflects on Nelson Mandela’s resilience and his legacy as a leader. The imagery is gruesome and becoming all at once, with 2Pac ending on a note of optimism in the face of sacrifice.
3. Will Smith, “Tell Me Why,” Lost and Found, 2005
“Tell me why did Mandela have to live in a cage? / Why did my brother Sterling have to die at that age?”
On “Tell Me Why,” Will Smith confronts senseless atrocities in the form of rhetorical questions. There’s a desperation to the stream of questions, and the mention of Mandela’s 27-year-long jail sentence only amplifies the helpless tone of the song.
4. JAY-Z, “Oh My God,” Kingdom Come, 2006
“Lunch with Mandela, dinner with Cavalli / Still got time to give water out to everybody”
Here, JAY-Z is emphasizing his benevolence and impact by placing Mandela in conversation with fashion designer Roberto Cavalli. JAY-Z’s influence and interests know no bounds on “Oh My God,” ending on an image of dispersing water, which is not a far cry from JAY-Z telling us that he gives us life.
5. The Game ft. Nas, “Letter to the King,” Lax, 2008
“I feel the pain of Nelson Mandela / ‘Cause when it rains it pours, I need Rihanna’s umbrella”
The Game frequently alludes to Mandela in his bars, citing and revering his sacrifices. Like most Mandela references, “Letter to the King” focuses on anguish and attempts to contextualize Mandela’s struggles in the present. The lightness of the Rihanna punchline also suggests that The Game could never fully understand Mandela’s pain, but communicates the sentiment with some easy humility.
6. Jadakiss ft. Nas, “What If,” The Last Kiss, 2009
“What if Nelson Mandela could give his time back?”
As heard on previous tracks, Nelson Mandela is a popular mention in songs framed around rhetorical questions. Not only do these mentions underscore his significance, but they also imply that, at present, there is no way for our generation to fully comprehend the scope of Mandela’s suffering.
7. K’naan, “Take a Minute,” Troubadour, 2009
“How did Mandela get the will to surpass the everyday / When injustice had him caged and trapped in every way?”
Outfitted with a winding piano line and steady delivery, “Take a Minute” continues the tradition of standing in awe of Mandela and using his struggles as inspiration to persevere. K’naan raps with a wrenching conviction, sounding like a man possessed by his passions—just like Mandela would have wanted.
8. Cassidy, “Peace,” C.A.S.H.: Cass Always Stay Hard, 2010
“Imagine if Malcolm X would have made it / And Nelson Mandela was never incarcerated”
“Peace” is an ode to curtailed legacies. While Cassidy also employs the rhetorical question technique, he smartly leads the conversation in a fresh direction. Celebrating Mandela’s sacrifices, he also mourns the loss of Mandela’s freedom and muses on his potential impact if those 27 years in prison were lifted.
9. The Game, “Blood Diamonds,” Jesus Piece, 2012
“But nah, Mandela did 28 straight / Without a fucking complaint, put a afro on a saint”
With a more reverent and serious tone than his 2008 Mandela name-drop, The Game ups the ante of contextualizing Mandela’s suffering. Instead of bringing it to the present, he uses the weight of his sentence to remind listeners that it could be much, much worse. The subversion of whitewashed religious icons is a nice touch, too.
10. CyHi The Prynce, “Mandela,” Black Hystori Project, 2014
“Nelson Mandela, get to know your ancestors / Can’t tell me they ain’t jealous of a seven-gram seller”
On an album dedicated to Black history, a Nelson Mandela track is mandatory. Without waxing poetic about struggle, CyHi manages to deliver an engaging history lesson. On the hook, CyHi chants Mandela’s name and equates his role in leading a generation of rap artists to Mandela’s own leadership acumen.
11. AKA, “Daddy Issues II,” Levels, 2014
“Rome took forever to build / No silver spoon in your grill, so Mandela’s could level the field”
Nelson Mandela references will always hold more weight coming from South African artists. On “Daddy” issues, rapper AKA speaks directly on Mandela’s anti-apartheid activism in addition to his struggles. While many of the mentions on this playlist directly applaud Mandela’s fight, few explicitly honor his history of activism in plain language as AKA has.
12. Kendrick Lamar, “Mortal Man,” To Pimp a Butterfly, 2015
“The ghost of Mandela, hope my flows they propel it / Let these words be your earth and moon”
Kendrick Lamar has long been outspoken about the importance of Nelson Mandela’s legacy, opening “Mortal Man” with a desire to further his work through music. Lamar honors Mandela while also using Mandela’s image to humble himself and admit his flaws at the humanizing apex of the track.
13. Run The Jewels, “Everybody Stay Calm,” Run The Jewels 3, 2016
“Presidential suite, got a fuck boy jealous / I’m the Nelson Mandela of Atlanta dope sellers”
Killer Mike uses Mandela’s rise from prison to president to plot out his own trajectory from drug dealer to activist. It’s a nice bit of history-laced braggadocio that also underscores Killer Mike’s passion for activism and his community.
14. Omari Hardwick, “A Star Is Born,” Bad Hair, 2016
“And maybe free us baby, maybe free us baby / I see Mandela, Winnie baby”
Delivering a touching poem on South African rapper Nasty C’s “A Star Is Born,” Hardwick brings Mandela into the music by discussing legacy and lineage. Listeners are left with an image of future generations rising to the occasion as Mandela had, noting that freedom is an intergenerational battle.
15. Lil Wayne, “Talk That” (Unreleased)
“You can ask the bank teller / But my money old like Nelson Mandela”
This reference is fairly straightforward and cheeky, a nice break from the previous mentions of struggle and imprisonment. The gravity of Nelson Mandela’s legacy is difficult to underemphasize, but music is meant to be an escape as well. Shout out Lil Wayne for keeping us grounded.
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