In Defense of Hip Hop Culture

Rap3If you watch Fox News, you’ve seen it. If you listen to conservative politicians, you’ve heard it. There is a huge, ongoing outcry against hip hop/rap music, and more specifically the culture that surrounds it. Critics of hip-hop culture claim that the music incites violence, glorifies crime, and perpetuates negative stereotypes about women. Some take the criticisms a step further. Fox News anchor Bill O’Reilly is one of the most vocal opponents of rap music: this year, he went so far as to blame hip hop/rap for the decline of organized religion in the US. 

Hip-hop music indeed receives a lot of negative backlash in mainstream society. And while O’Reilly’s idiocy always manages to expose itself, the dialogue about rap music, and whether it is a healthy art form, is a relevant topic of discussion. The lyrics in modern rap music can be quite violence-laden and off-putting, especially to the outside ear. Rappers like Chief Keef and Bobby Shmurda are just a few of many recent artists who built their careers on music that describes drug-dealing, gang activity, and gun violence. Criticism against rap music has also emerged from within the hip-hop world itself, as more socially conscious rappers claim that mainstream rap negatively influences young listeners and the ever impressionable American public.

But hip-hop/ rap music, from the “gangsta” rap described above to the more mellow sounds of Common or J Cole, is as valid and necessary an art form as any other genre of music. The purpose of music is to relate an experience or to tell a story–more often than not a story that is personal to the music’s creator. Taylor Swift, for instance, writes music about her love life and her past relationships because those are her life experiences that she wants to share with others. The late Amy Winehouse wrote music about her struggles with substance abuse. Music is, put simply, an expression of our personal selves that others can then relate to.

In the context of hip hop/ rap, young urban youth tell their own personal stories, within the context of their environments. Many rap artists are from communities where violence is an everyday norm. Who are we to try to moderate their self-expression simply because most of us fail to relate to the environment they are from?

Take Chicago, Illinois, for example. Chicago has been a recent hotbed of popular young rap artists. The city has been dubbed “Chiraq” in reference to the astoundingly high rates of violence, especially homicides, that plague the city. A handful of neighborhoods in Chicago have higher rates of violence than the most dangerous countries in the world. The rap music coming out of Chicago reflects and expresses this reality.

One popular artist, Lil Durk, hails from the Englewood neighborhood of Chicago, an area with a higher per capita homicide rate than Belize, El Salvador, and Guatemala. Accordingly, Lil Durk’s music is rife with mentions of the violence and crime that is so common in his neighborhood. A sample of one of his more popular songs, “500 Homicides”, is a fairly standard look at urban rap. The lyrics include lines such as,

“load up the block, and reload the 8, do a drill on the op, no clones I see dots…”

“silver spoon, you don’t know how hunger feel, dreaming bout 100 mill, step on that curb with 100 pills…”

These lyrics may not be considered profound, but they communicate some of the realities that Lil Durk faces. If he can’t make music about what he has experienced and seen, then what can or should he make music about? One could even argue that Lil Durk’s success as a rap artist is keeping him off of the streets, and keeping him from committing the same crimes that he raps about. I would argue that it is better for urban youth to make music about negative activities, and perhaps achieve success doing so, than for them to actually go out and engage in said activities (although of course, as we have seen with the high-profile arrests of many of rap’s hottest stars, the two are not mutually exclusive).

People who argue that”gangsta rap” encourages violence are actually making an error in causality. The violence is not occurring because of the music; the music is being made because of the violence. As an essay called The Social Significance of Rap & Hip-Hop Culture from Stanford University explains, “….hip-hop music is a symptom of cultural violence, not the cause.” People are crafting lyrics that in some way, exaggerated or not, relate to what is actually taking place in their communities. Our outrage and horror should be directed more at the socioeconomic ills that lead to gang banging and violence than it should be at the music that merely describes it.

Rap music has a long history of being used as a form of resistance, through which oppressed groups can speak out against the powers that subjugate them. The music gives a voice to people who otherwise might not have one. If we want to change what most young rap artists are saying in their songs, then perhaps “…we must provide them with the resources and opportunities to view the future with hope.”

More generally, it is both unfair and unrealistic to suggest that rap artists have a social responsibility to create only positive music. Every artist is simply not destined to be an activist. We have a tendency to place celebrities on an unfairly high pedestal, demanding that they serve as our role models, or assuming that they are somehow inherently morally superior to the average person. Famous musicians gain stardom for their talents as entertainers, not for their humanitarian feats. Let’s enjoy the music and the art for what it is. If we are continually disappointed in the content of our music, or the behavior of our musicians, it is only because we have set unnecessarily high expectations for people who achieve celebrity, even beyond the rap genre.

I think our country would do well to cease the rampant idealization of celebrities–rap artists included. Of course they are responsible for their actions and words, but we defy logic when we demand that they sacrifice authenticity for the purpose of easing our public conscience.

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5 thoughts on “In Defense of Hip Hop Culture

  1. Completely agree with your analysis here. In your article you argue that we shouldn’t necessarily see celebrities as role models; in this way they can exist as private citizens with lives outside of their jobs. Many see teachers as role models, and this affects their actions outside of the classroom (i.e. a teacher who frequents strip clubs, or writes a racist blog would face a severe backlash). Do you think that if a teacher is good at their job, but morally questionable outside of the classroom, they should be allowed to teach our children? I.e. are teachers role models in the same way you argue celebrities shouldn’t be? Or is it categorically different because of the influence they wield (which I would argue, might be comparable to the influence of celebrities in today’s day and age)?

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  2. I like the idea about how entertainers are simply entertainers. Yet, while their job is to entertain, they should be held accountable for what their entertainment invokes. Popular culture drives a great number of norms in our society. The general point you make about how music content should not be criticized is focused on a single example – drugs and violence. Sure, rappers might be telling stories about their struggles in the ghetto and that is debatably acceptable. Yet, you are making a one-size-fits all fallacy. What if a number of artists wrote songs demeaning black people? According to your blog this is something you are passionate about, and rightfully so, it is an important and prevalent issue. What if they sung about how they think black people are inferior, should those artists remain unscathed? You say that they should not because they are just entertaining. I think that criticism should be encouraged because it holds artists accountable for appropriate messages. While you could argue that if you do not like an idea an artist has and spreads, you can simply not listen to their work, is that truly satisfactory to the person that is offended by that artist’s message? I do not think so. Such ideas should not be circulated in society because they plague the minds of those people that are ignorant and immature. They teach and instill bad messages and perspectives. We depend on criticism to diminish the influence of those artist sending bad messages.

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    1. The issue of how we select our mainstream role models is so integral to your argument and is just a whole other blog post waiting to happen. I was just commenting on World of Wu’s post where she talks about Disney’s monopoly over princess stories and how the appearance of protagonists and antagonists spreads harmful stereotypes. I mentioned that corporations *could* simply be businesses, instead of entities that direct our attention more than any other institution, but they aren’t. They drive a lot of aspects of our culture. And they are unlikely and unable to drive societal changes because they exist, by law, to make money.

      It’s similar with artists. They *could* just be entertainers, but at a certain level of fame, our culture turns them into huge social influencers. Artists are in a unique position where their brand is often in between being a corporate project and their own self; they command our attention, but because they are people, they are sometimes flexible enough to send non-mainstream messages to their audience.

      With corporations, movements don’t happen from the top-down because their legal purpose is to make money. Corporations don’t change unless the grassroots do something about an issue. Artists are people, so they are more flexible (unless they are total pawns). That means that sometimes they are going to address/champion an issue, and sometimes they are not. And hopefully they’re going to approach an issue in different ways. The diversity of messages is key; I think as long as there are rap artists that conspicuously comment and critique the problems in hip-hop, or that approach the issues of their upbringing with a variety of sentiments, we can’t denounce an entire genre.

      Moreover, we should figure out how to popularize the messages of non-corporate entities. The communities that might be most under the influence of rappers also have activists, educators, etc whose profession is to change society. Because corporations are far too visible, they exert undue influence on us and don’t allow the voices of these activists/educators, and other institutions to have their voices heard.

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  3. I agree with a lot of what you say in this article. Entertainers are meant to entertain and should be free to be themselves without being pressured to be role models. However, the truth is that it comes with the job. Entertainers hold a responsibility to their fans and to the people. Sure, they have the freedom to express themselves however they like, but they should also understand that it comes with a high price.
    I agree when you say that if we don’t like certain songs then we don’t have to listen to it, but to a certain extent. Sure, if I don’t like hip-hop then I won’t listen to it. Or, if I prefer J-Cole over JayZ, I’ll play “Light’s Please” instead. This issue cannot be solved by avoiding musicians that rap about content that you may disagree with. It is a larger issue than simply, choice. Music has the power to influence large groups of people.

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  4. While ideally entertainers are just entertainers, we cannot just make this assumption and ignore the influence of media on behavior and opinion. I love hip-hop. It’s my favorite kind of music, but the subject matter is pretty deplorable at times, and a lot of songs seem to glorify crime and violence rather than simply bringing these issues to public attention. Those who defend violence in video games and films often argue that children know that these works are fictional and children know that the violence isn’t real. The problem with using this argument for rap is that rappers often base their entire public persona on their “rap identity,” and if a rapper talks about illegal activity, he is likely promoting crime as a way to achieve power. Since rappers often imply that their rap career was a product of their criminal activity, a rapper’s success proves that crime CAN be a good thing. However, I don’t thinks it is fair or rational to expect rappers to change their subject matter simply because it might perpetuate violence. Hip-hop has been a source of controversy from its beginning, and demanding rappers change their topics will not solve this dilemma.

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