If 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.