Clash of the Titans LXXXIII: Rap Music

May 30, 2008, 11:00 am; posted by
Filed under Debate, Kaitlin, Mike J  | 2 Comments

In this corner, opposing rap music, is Kaitlin!

And in this corner, supporting rap music, is Mike!

While the phrase “rap music” may not necessarily be an oxymoron, the genre and the ethos of the culture it perpetuates directly contradicts many of the values dear to the consumers of mainstream media who would champion it.

Rap music, and most notably gangsta rap, is powered fundamentally by provocative content. Divorcing the form from its content divests the music of its force and intent. In 1997, Dr. Dre attempted to tone down his message. “I have kids and wanted to get away from the ”˜b—–s and ho\’s\’ and the violence,” he said. But the resulting album generated less than half of his usual revenue. “I had to come back to the real. Back to the gangsta,” he said.

This “gangsta” culture, however, is merely a poor and potentially detrimental caricature of urban life. Spike Lee, in the film “Bamboozled,” satirized the portrayal of African Americans in contemporary media, arguing that rap propagates the harmful stereotypes that most would want to see eradicated. Performers such as rap artists, he contended, play into mainstream prejudices, glorifying the ghetto lifestyle at the expense of the people they purport to represent.

Byron Hurt, who directed a film that identified the misogyny and skewed masculinity inherent to the genre, would agree. “We need to have artists second-guess creating lyrics that are anti-woman in the same way that they would second-guess writing something that is anti-Semitic,” Hurt said.

Rap music gives many consumers a false sense of familiarity, a fake compassion. Said Hank Shocklee, a prominent producer in the rap industry and half of rap ensemble Public Enemy: “If you\’re a suburban white kid and you want to find out what life is like for a black city teenager, you buy a record by N.W.A. It\’s like going to an amusement park and getting on a roller coaster ride ”” records are safe, they\’re controlled fear, and you always have the choice of turning it off. That\’s why nobody takes a train up to 125th Street and gets out and starts walking around. Because then you\’re not in control anymore: it\’s a whole other ball game.”

By creating the conception of such a blatant and unfounded racial divide, rap music denies consumers the opportunity to discover for themselves how few differences actually exist between seemingly disparate people. Journalist David Samuels sees in rap music “a voyeurism and tolerance of racism in which black and white are both complicit.” Somehow, he said, the deviant behavior characteristic of the culture seems appropriate or even acceptable. “The values it instills find their ultimate expression in the ease with which we watch young black men killing each other: in movies, on records, and on the streets of cities and towns across the country.”

Rap music essentially undermines the entire endeavor to recognize the equality of all, regardless of racial, gender, or socioeconomic differences. Unless the genre, and the culture associated with it, undergoes a thorough overhaul, it should be thoroughly avoided.

I luv rap music
Always have, and I always will
There’s no other kinda music in the world
makes me feel quite as chill

“I Luv Rap Music” — DC Talk

I love rap music too. First, because it says something. When I was growing up, rap was symbolic of all that was wrong with the world, all that had gone haywire. Dutifully, I avoided it through my adolescence. But then I discovered it — Public Enemy. Arrested Development. And I found music that unapologetically said something. It wasn’t like country music, a paean to an old way of life that could never return; it wasn’t like pop, all painted and gummy; it was real, it was about issues, it was about life. Of course, much rap says nothing worth saying; but when you have heard rap that speaks to the black community about issues especially important to that community in a language that naturally rises from that community — then you have heard music with meaning.

I also love rap from a professional perspective. Preachers and rappers both make their living with words. Each of us has a stock of standard stories to draw upon and our professional reputations are staked upon being able to tell those stories well, using communication appropriate to our community. Some of the most clever wordplay and arresting language is used — regrettably — not in the pulpit, but behind the microphone. As a preacher, rappers actually give me something to look up to as there is such focus on the moment of communication and communicating in a memorable way.

Finally, I love rap because it brings this suburban white male into contact with a culture that is different from my own. I don’t mean to romanticize gangsta rap; I recognize that much of it is not pure artistic response to harsh realities but created by and for a listening market. But listening to it — even the worst of it — keeps me connected to an urban society different from my own.

At times, contact with that different culture challenges me to change and ask provocative questions; for instance, we should ask why inner-city America is still overwhelmingly religious while the suburbs are increasingly secular, if not atheistic. That challenges me, makes me think about what is deficient about the brand of Christianity I practice. At other times, contact with that different culture challenges me to think about how I can address deficiencies and needs in that culture, even coming from outside of it.

Regardless, it does me well to listen to rap because it takes me outside of what I know and challenges me to think differently.



2 Comments to “Clash of the Titans LXXXIII: Rap Music”

  1. Mike J on May 30th, 2008 12:54 pm

    Kaitlin–wanted you to know I enjoyed your side of things very much. Just a couple responses (and I hope you’ll respond to my thoughts too):

    First, I think to talk about rap music as a whole is pretty general. I totally agree with your sentiments that much rap music creates exploits an unhealthy image of blacks that appeals to whites. In other words, whites feel better when they listen to some rap because they reassure themselves that blacks in general are indeed deviant and thus not on “our level.” But to listen to Public Enemy call for the youth to listen to a “Hannibal lecture” (using Silence of the Lambs to educate young blacks about the ancient African military leader) is to realize that some rap is indeed a plea for blacks to respect themselves and learn their history. Same for Arrested Development, whose song “U” is a paean to marriage and laments its breakdown in the black community. This is hardly the stuff of b—-es and hos. So perhaps we need to define the terms better.

    Perhaps the essence of our disagreement is that you feel like the worst forms of rap should be “thoroughly avoided.” I don’t. Having gone to a seminary that was almost 1/2 black, 1/2 white, I can tell you that rap still carries an enormous currency in the black community. Ministers are ambivalent about it–just like some white preachers decry rock music and some try to take advantage of it to appear relevant, black churches do roughly the same thing. I agree that we should listen to rap with a discerning ear and not accept that we are hearing an exact description of average black life. But I don’t think it follows that we should avoid it altogether. But to avoid it altogether leaves many whites without any input at all from black communities, and furthers our isolation rather than helping it.

    Just some thoughts–


  2. Kaitlin on May 31st, 2008 12:14 pm

    Hi Mike,

    I agree with you in a lot of ways. My main objections in this area stem from the misrepresentation of African-Americans. If the rap ethos is their primary voice, what the mainstream culture is hearing is, by and large, inaccurate and ill-drawn. This increasingly manufactured culture draws distinctions along racial lines that do not exist, or do not need to exist. And while I have to speak secondhand in terms of race, I think that as far as gender goes, I can speak personally. The misogyny that pervades rap is enough in itself to merit serious and thoughtful criticism.

    That our cultural and ministerial dialogues need to be completely inclusive is undeniable. I think I can plausibly say that the underlying catalyst that drives rap is derived from a sincere and ultimately universal longing for something that will heal and fulfill. We need to acknowledge and embrace this fact, but not necessarily the medium through which it happens to be conveyed.

    Thanks for an engaging discussion!


Leave a comment!