*Recently, Jazz Musician Wynton Marsalis made the pointed remark which called hip-hop and rap “more damaging” than a statue of the Confederate commander Robert E. Lee. Remarks like these aren’t new.
Hip-Hop and Rap music have been the target of social criticism from the very beginning. Some of these have come from black musicians like Marsalis. This constant scrutiny of rap music’s morality leads to one question; why do these criticisms persist?
So what are the charges against Rap culture? Sexually explicit lyrics, violence, drug references. These negative themes are part of today’s rap music not because these are inherent to rap but because they are part of rap artists’ own truth.
Fundamentally, rap has always been about expression. When those who have performed in and developed the genre come from a difficult situation then the music is going to be a reflection of that.
Discussion of difficult subject matter in rap songs gives a window into a life experience that the listener wouldn’t have access to otherwise. Even the most “damaging” of music can be experienced objectively as a cautionary tale. That said, not every piece of rap music contains an element of criminality. To treat rap as “music for criminals” is the same as treating black people as inherently criminal.
Before levying this charge, the person making it should do their research. There are works of political consciousness and female empowerment within the genre. The music that they find lewd and crass is the product of white music executives who wanted to make rap music dangerous and alluring for white audiences.
Then there’s the charge of rap music keeping the N-word alive. Policing black artists’ lyrical content while their bodies remain under threat is like missing the tree for the forest. Use of the word in rap music is seen as reclaiming the word and giving it a new context. The way it is used is supposed to bring a level of authenticity to a black artists work – it recreates the kind of talk that happens when black folks aren’t code switching in a white world. It is supposed to signify that the work is meant for a black audience. It’s not an invitation for others to start using the word. For everyone else who is not black, the word is still verboten.
Other art forms aren’t expected to show model behavior. Films like Dirty Harry, Taxi Driver and Scarface depict angry, violent anti-heroes that are a product of a cold, harsh society. These works of art are celebrated, put on a pedestal and given cultural importance. Then why are fingers pointed at black artists when their work reflects difficult truths? Is the work’s blackness makes it worthy of censure?
Thankfully, this anti-black attitude is being trumped by a healthy recognition of rap’s contribution to the culture. Jay-Z is an American mogul respected in the business community. Female MCs like Nicki Minaj and Cardi B are seen as models for empowerment. Most importantly, a rap poet Kendrick Lamar won the coveted Pulitzer Prize for his album “DAMN.” As per Nielsen Music, the genre makes up one fourth of all music consumed in the US. With the emergence of a new generation that embraces culture and self-expression, it’s safe to say that this limited view of the genre is coming to an end.