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Black Eyed Peas Trade Pop For Politics In Powerful Visual On American Racism

When you sell 40 million records and enjoy the kind of crossover appeal Black Eyed Peas have, it usually comes at the cost of street cred. But in "Street Livin'," a dark, haunting new visual, the hip-hop group trades pop success for political commentary on the systemic ills plaguing the streets today.

"Street niggas, caught in the trap / guns or books, sell crack or rap?" will.i.am starts over a bluesy horn riff in the first verse. "Be like kings or be like pawns / they called us coons now they call us cons."

Directed by will.i.am, the video uses iconographic photography — including shots of civil rights icons Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X — to indict the systemic racism behind mass incarceration, from the Jim Crow era to the crack era, and prohibitive immigration policies. Released the same week that President Trump reportedly referred to Haiti and African nations as "shithole countries," its truths speak volumes.

"'Street Livin'" was written to show that today's struggles in the inner city is no different from Jim Crow, civil rights issues, heroin and jazz, crack and hip-hop, black-on-black crime vs. black lives matter, prisons vs. education, apartheid and DACA," Will.i.Am writes about the song and video, which is part of a new graphic novel project, Masters of the Sun. "The difference between then and now is the distractions of today. The purpose of 'Street Livin" is to play our part in waking people up and keeping the #stayWOKE movement alive."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Rodney Carmichael is NPR Music's hip-hop staff writer. An Atlanta-bred cultural critic, he helped document the city's rise as rap's reigning capital for a decade while serving on staff as music editor, culture writer and senior writer for the defunct alt-weekly Creative Loafing.