The deeply philosophical and humanist side to KRS-ONE

Your favorite rapper’s favorite rapper has been inspiring and hypothesizing for decades

Mrs. Venuto, RV Librarian

Hip Hop’s original purpose was to reflect political awareness and to inspire activism and social protest. An element, “knowledge of self,” is sometimes added to the list of rap’s characteristics, particularly by socially conscious hip-hop artists and scholars. 

One of the “originators of politically conscious efforts of hip hop,” Lawrence ”Kris” Parker, aka KRS-ONE, believes rap is a revolutionary tool to change racist America and raise consciousness.  In a 1989 New York Times editorial on education, Kris claimed, “Rap music, stigmatized by many as mindless music having no artistic or socially redeeming value, can be a means to change.” KRS-ONE, whose stage name stands for “Knowledge Reigns Supreme Over Nearly Everyone,” produced “Edutainment,” a 1990 CD which remains true to the purpose of hip hop.

Rap music, stigmatized by many as mindless music having no artistic or socially redeeming value, can be a means to change.


KRS-ONE spent part of his youth living on the streets of New York and in homeless shelters, taking odd jobs, hanging out and reading in public libraries. While he supports libraries (he appeared on a American Library Association’s READ posters and will appear at Wilmington’s Public Library’s Juneteenth celebration in 2021) he also criticizes libraries in the verse, “We’ve found a place to bury the lies and the false histories / Where is this place? What shall it be called? It’s in every inner city / and we’ll call it the library where we’ll bury the lies.” Ironic since, according to his biography, libraries are where “Independent reading formed the basis of his doctrine of self-education.” Perhaps he was commenting on the eurocentric content of most publishers available to libraries during his youth. 

Today we have Ibram X. Kendi’s best-selling book “Stamped from the Beginning” to provide “a timely history of racist ideas in America,” but in the early nineties, KRS-ONE’s words were many people’s first exposure to a more inclusive view of the world’s history, as evident in his song, “Blackman in Effect,”


Well, I want science, not silence but science

Scientific fact about black

The board of education acts as if its only reality

Is talking about a Tom, Dick and Harry

So now you learn your black history it’s questions and answers


Let’s take a trip way back in the days

To the first civilization on Earth, the Egyptians

Giving birth to science, mathematics and music

Religion, the list goes on, you choose it

Egypt was the land of spiritual blessing

Egypt was the land of facts, not guessing

People from all over the world had come

To learn from Egypt, Egypt number one


Scattered among the tracks are what the rapper terms “Exhibits.” These include samples from lectures he gave at Yale and other universities as well as other sources, their origins not cited, but one can guess they are speeches by black activists and clips from films. These provide thought-provoking messages like the words in “Exhibit E,”


Now understand one Point: the African is not a slave, that’s one point that they didn’t

Realize when they were writing this. The African is not a slave. The

African has a history far more advanced than this nineteen-ninety

History we’re in right now. He’s not a slave. Lincoln’s ultimately saying now

you were born a slave, you’ll always be a slave,

and all I will ever see you as is a slave, and I free you.


Typical of rap, his songs contain a fair amount of self-promotion, posturing, and battling:


But don’t let a sucker try to take me out

‘Cause male or female, I will strangle

If it’s a crew, they’ll have to untangle

Adidas, Nike’s, arms, mics

Turntables suckers in the wheel of my bike

Step right up if that’s what you like

But watch your head cause it’ll fly like a kite

In the night at a height right for flight

Way out of sight, you bite, I recite

My style is bright, still you’re sellin’ out to white


His rhymes and word choice are not repetitive and boast creativity and profound commentary, and of course feature well-crafted beats, particularly in the the beginning and end of “Breath Control II” and “Edutainment.”  Unlike many of today’s artists, his techniques require unique skills with a fair amount of scratching and beatboxing; these fascinate, motivate and inspire movement.

While through his poetry, he uplifts women and promotes self-acceptance, one aspect of his music which is terribly disconcerting is the lyrics that contain homophobic ideology evident in “Ya Strugglin.” Given the album was cut over 30 years ago when this mindset of hate was socially acceptable in many forms of media, it would be curious to hear Mr. Parker’s views on the topic today. 

Ahead of his time with songs warning of the dangers of antibiotics in meat, over 30 years ago Parker also called attention to the rarely discussed issues of gun trafficking, racism and police brutality. In “30 Cops or More” a sample of police with dogs chasing a black man on the run is raw, terrifying, unforgettable and fittingly ends with a moving segment of a spiritual. Similarly “The Racist” outlines five types of racism, encouraging reflection and worthy of a listen,


Whitey this and Ching-Chow that

Is not how the intelligent man acts

You can’t blame the whole white race

For slavery, ’cause this ain’t the case

A large sum of white people died with black

Tryin’ hard to fight racial attacks

The media wants you to think that no whites

Really fought and died for Civil Rights

But once we have a true sense of history

You’ll see this too as a mystery

If black and white didn’t argue the most

They could clearly see the government’s screwin’ ’em both.


Parker rejects materialism, capitalism and selling out and remains loyal to his mantra, “I am the manifestation of study, NOT, the manifestation of money. Therefore I advance through thought, Not what’s manufactured and bought.” In “Love’s Gonna Get You,” he warns,


You fall in love with your chain, 

You fall in love with your car, 

Loves gonna sneak right up and snuff you from behind,

So, for future reference remember it’s alright to like or want a material 

Item, but when you fall in love with it and you start scheming and carrying 

On for it, just remember, it’s gonna get’cha


Most appealing is the music’s quality of humanism and metaphysics, “the science of life and how to live free from strife” (from his song “Ya Know the Rules”). His lyrics “stress dignity, self-worth, the acquisition of knowledge, and otherwise advance his humanistic views.”

In “Exhibit F” the final track, he professes,


When you realize you have this army or one concept, one thought, one

Movement one action; you have what is called a revolution. But the

More we stay separated and the more we don’t understand the concept

Of the eye that is within all of us then we will constantly constantly

Lose every single battle.


And likewise, in “Give it to Em” he encourages individuals to become self-aware and follow his purpose,


I am a poet not a phoney.

Fear and ignorance, I’m down for stoppin this

But the bright day is your consciousness,

I am poet, my words will heal you

I’m not a phony I’ll really feel you


While he has inspired Eminem and other rappers, the social consciousness and activism of original rap is scant in today’s productions and something our society needs. KRS-ONE is a master of the hip hop artform, but has received less critical acclaim than many. Among today’s performers who would be worthy of collaboration with this original artist? Who would he consider worthy of collaboration? Truly his style and words are worth the time of this generation’s ears and minds.