I’ve loved rap music for most of my life, but when I was younger I was ashamed to admit this to anyone. For a kid trying to get good grades, be liked by teachers, and stay out of trouble, rap music seemed like it would be problematic. I often wondered if the figures of authority I admired would lose any respect they had for me if they found out I listened to rap music. Would I be taken less seriously?
Now, almost ten years later, though my love of rap is not hidden in any way, similar questions often arise. And this is due to the fact that when you’re an explicit fan of rap music (or a fan of explicit rap music) you can’t just simply enjoy the music. As Chris Rock famously stated, you have to defend it. It’s reasonable to expect that people won’t always share your taste in music. Yet with rap, the accusations thrown at the music often go beyond matters of taste and have serious political connotations. These accusations usually fit into two categories.
The first category is the pseudo-artistic critiques which seem to come up in casual conversations about rap music. An example is the “legacy” critique. Will rap music be able to last the test of time? I’ve been asked this question – the intent being insult – on numerous occasions. The most memorable, however, was last summer at a barbecue. An iPod was playing Notorious B.I.G over the speaker system when an older white man threw the question my way. The song playing at the time was “Big Papa,” which is nearly twenty years old. Rap music has lasted the test of time in cultures where it plays a prominent role. It may not be important to fifty-year-old white rock fans, just like Led Zeppelin means nothing to me, but for many populations which are pushed into the “other” category, hip hop is crucial.
A second example is the “slang” critique: “At least with rock music you can understand what they’re saying!” When I hear this, I respond with “In rock music YOU can hear what they’re saying.” Rock music and rap music alike use forms of slang. Slang in rap is no less legitimate than in rock; it simply exists in communities those who criticize the slang don’t engage with or participate in. So critiquing rap for using slang is really just attacking it for using slang that doesn’t adhere to certain WASP standards.
Far more examples of these pseudo-artistic critiques exist, but the more problematic arguments against rap fit into the second category, which is comprised of explicit political critiques of rap music. Rap music without a doubt has many issues. A great deal of rap is filled with sexist, homophobic, and shadeist lyrics. Just like any other medium which perpetuates oppressive content, rap deserves to be criticized and numerous valuable critiques of elements in rap music exist, such as Tricia Rose’s text The Hip-Hop Wars.
However, a lot of the political criticism of rap music has troubling connotations. For example, Rose describes some critics of sexism in hip-hop as people who “use hip hop’s sexism (and other ghetto-inspired imagery) as a means to cement and consolidate the perception of black deviance and inferiority and advance socially conservative and anti-feminist agendas.” When conservatives like Bill O’Reilly attack hip hop for sexism, they are expressing the same sort of fear white men in America have expressed throughout history toward black men acting ‘unruly’ – they appear unaware of critiques of the sexism prevalent in ‘mainstream’ culture. They do not care about women’s rights; they’re more concerned with the supposed lack of respect from black males.
Additionally, critiques of rap which focus on violence are usually paradoxical. Rap music is at once blamed for glorifying violent cultures while at the same time credited with actually creating the violence portrayed within the content. While rap music certainly can glorify violence by portraying it as a necessary component of masculinity, rap music does not cause violence. Idealists who make this claim ignore the fact that rap music often is created by the most disadvantaged and oppressed members of society, who come from areas where crime and poverty are rampant. Those who blame rap for violence miss the chance to offer more important structural critiques of capitalist society that survives through violence, and makes violent crime-ridden communities inevitable.
Essentially, like anything else, music is political, and it is not created in a vacuum. As such, the widespread disapproval of rap music cannot be written off as simple disagreements on musical elements. Critiques of a form of music which arises mainly from people of colour in lower income brackets can certainly be valid, but they should be scrutinized. Especially when they come from above, whether it be through those with more wealth, or those who enjoy the privilege afforded to them by their ethnicity.
Davide Mastracci is a U2 History and Political Science student. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.