Perhaps history will never praise Common, Mos Def, or Nas in the same light as Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Robert Johnson. Nonetheless, rap shares a commonality with jazz and blues that ought to prompt America to reconsider the genre as an art of storytelling. In the early 20th-century, many white Americans condemned jazz and blues as Satan’s music. Influenced by slavery, racism, and poverty, blues music communicated the incredible pain and plight of the black American. Like these other genres that emerged from African-American culture, rap is best understood as an explosive expression of decades of oppression.
Rap faces a double standard unparalleled by other music genres. Hip-hop legend Common Sense put it best when he rapped that “[America] want[s] us to hold justice but ain’t givin’ us none.” Common’s lyrics attempt to enlighten all Americans to the struggles of the ghetto. Yet when President Obama invited Common to the White House for a poetry reading in 2011, Fox News criticized the President of not understanding the “sensibilities of many regular Americans.” If the concerns of “regular Americans” don’t include awareness of the political, social, and economic subjugation of many black Americans, then we truly have not learned from our nation’s racial history.
Certainly, rap music content includes violence, intimidation, and rage. Fear and contempt of rap is an understandable reaction, but to reduce the genre merely to this is naïve and shortsighted. Those who disapprove of the genre for these simplistic reasons alone ignore the harsh realities of many American communities, nurturing a subliminal obliviousness to an already-ostracized culture. These critics must recognize that rap was birthed by black American culture and inspired by hatred for the power of white authority and ignorance, an authority that has robbed many black Americans of economic stability and education. In a BigThink interview, Wyclef Jean urges Americans to go “to the environment and talk to these kids and ask them when’s the last time they came and built a school here.” Jean touches on something rooted in African-American history. In 1829, black abolitionist David Walker argued that, “they [anti-abolitionists] are so happy to keep us in ignorance and degradation,” criticizing a widespread lack of access to education as a tool to keep his race from prospering. Anti-abolitionists viewed his appeal as violent, progressive, and controversial. While America’s racial relations have come a long way since the 19th century, many African-Americans are still limited in their access to both good education and fair job opportunities. Like Walker’s 200-year-old appeal, rap is a riotous expression highlighting the black American condition and attempting to educate America about its racial subjugation. By dismissing rap wholesale, we overlook a prominent voice from the black American community. While modern critics of rap do not respond with the same cruelty, racism, and violence as Walker’s opponents did, both groups overlook the complaints of a large majority of the black American community. The sweeping cultural critiques of rap that emerge from outlets such as Fox News are reminiscent of the knee-jerk reactions of the anti-abolitionists of Walker’s time, condemning a genre that has the potential to tell stories about the truths of impoverished communities and black history.
However, in rejecting a dismissal of the entire genre of rap, we must not overlook its flaws either. The most reasonable objection to rap is the genre’s frequent tendency to reinforce negative stereotypes about African-Americans. It can push many listeners who don’t understand the genre to imagine that most black people are violent, uneducated, poor, and unambitious. Rap might reinforce stereotypes, but it did not create them—their roots lie in American culture. To reflect on these racial roles, we must consider the unfortunate American history where African-Americans were enslaved, murdered, deprived of civil rights, and robbed of education. This is a history that still informs the contemporary black American culture.
Rick Ross’s lyrics are a prime example of a type of rap that thrives on stereotypes. Rick Ross tells his listeners that he’s “whippin’ work”—selling crack—and that he’s “always getting’ money” because “crime pays,” promoting a flashy, attractive, and fake image of the poor, subjugated, and beaten black man who got rich off the dope game. His lyrics may push some of his young black listeners to start adopting stereotypes, but music is not the only influence that inspires vulnerable youth to turn towards crime. A stronger impetus is the harsh, ignored, and impoverished state of the inner-city ghetto life. Even Ross’s lyrics sometimes reflect the hardships faced in these areas, depicting young men as dealing drugs for a means of survival, “just tryna’ pay the light bill [and] phone bill.” Fortunately, major players of the rap world have been heading in a positive direction. For years, artists like Common and Mos Def have used their music to constructively expose the political injustices faced by the African-American community. More recently, new-age rappers like Lupe Fiasco, Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Childish Gambino are beginning to emphasize and popularize this theme in their music. While Rick Ross flaunts his false image, these popular artists urge young black men to “stop and redefine black power.” They beg their listeners to understand that by turning to crime, black men are bending to the expectations of their stereotypes.
For instance, Kendrick’s recent hip-hop masterpiece, Good Kid, M.A.A.D City, explores the negative influences of a ghetto environment on the youth. In Good Kid, Kendrick raps, “What am I supposed to do when the blinking of red and blue flash from the top of my roof?” Kendrick links the colors red and blue not only to the high police presence in his neighborhood, but also to the illicit activity of the Bloods (red) and Crips (blue) gangs. He makes the salient point that it is difficult to maintain your innocence and ethics in a neighborhood filled with crime, murder, and poverty. In this same song, he mentions that the police ask him to lift up his shirt in search of a gang tattoo. He argues that this type of racial profiling fosters a justified dislike of authority. Ultimately, Kendrick reveals that while young blacks in a “mad city” are vindicated in hating authority, they should share an equal dislike for the crime in their neighborhoods. Despite recognizing existing stereotypes, these popular lyrics push rap’s influence on young black Americans in a more constructive direction.
Similarly, the often-controversial Kanye West’s Watch the Throne, his 2011 collaborative album with Jay-Z, alludes to lower life expectancy among black men in part due to black-on-black crime. He attributes this to the fact that “the system’s working effectively.” This is the same system that gives “Jerome more time than Brandon.” These lyrics from Kanye’s acclaimed My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy reference the fact that, for 25 years, crack-cocaine users faced harsher sentences than users of regular cocaine. This policy had a propensity to target African-American drug users, as they were more likely to smoke crack-cocaine than white drug users, who typically snort regular cocaine. Only in 2010, under President Obama, did Congress alter these unfair laws in the Fair-Sentencing Act. Ultimately, Kanye’s lyrics, though often filled with his ego, bring racial injustices to light and encourage African Americans to avoid crime as a means of survival in the ghetto.
Behind the caricatured and conflicting faces of rap music, there lies an important cultural voice that continues to evolve to this day. Yes, rap is often obscured by the violence, misogyny, vice and worship of wealth. However, when considered in its cultural and historical context, the genre is rooted in greater virtue and purpose. Despite its notorious reputation, the genre has proven to be an art form capable of powerful storytelling. Many new-age rappers are pushing the genre in a revolutionary direction by asking their target audience to defy the expectations of an often-unjust authority. Kanye implores young African-Americans to stop committing gang murder, while Gambino and Kendrick ask them to acknowledge and break away from typical black stereotypes. More than ever, rap is empowering its listeners and urging change instead of only expressing the pain of impoverished communities. This is a direction that we cannot ignore.