Hip hop is undoubtedly one of the most popular music genres today, especially after the flood of albums released in 2016 by prominent artists such as Kanye West, Chance the Rapper, Kendrick Lamar and many more. Popular rap songs like “Broccoli” and “Bad and Boujee” are now staples for any lit gathering and can be heard blasting through the streets of I.V. on a Friday night. However, despite this popularity, hip hop music retains a reputation in mainstream discourse that characterizes it in a less than flattering light. Naysayers will describe it as explicit, glorifying depictions of violence- a general indicator of the deterioration of modern society.
Those who subscribe to this view have fallen prey to the negative stereotypes commonly associated with black men in our culture. In doing so, skeptics are missing out on the culturally significant experience hip hop offers to those who are willing to put aside these stereotypes. I urge any readers who are still caught up in the mainstream portrayal of rap to realize where your inhibitions are actually coming from, cast your doubts aside and appreciate hip hop as the prolific musical and cultural movement it truly is.
Many people, adults in particular, are concerned with the potential ramifications of young people being constantly exposed to cuss words, guns, gang violence, demeaning descriptions of women and other inappropriate content in hip-hop songs. On a surface level, I completely understand these objections. It seems pretty reasonable for a mom to turn on the radio and become concerned when she realizes her children are consuming explicit content on a daily basis and hearing glorified depictions of behaviors she does not want them to imitate.
However, the greater context must be taken into account before we vilify rappers and claim they have ushered in an unprecedented wave of harmful content that has no meaning beyond its shock value. First of all, the panic of an older generation over the music of a younger one is certainly nothing new. If we look back through the decades, however, there is a clear pattern of “rebellious” musical trends being embraced by youth culture and reviled by the older generations.
When we listen to Elvis Presley’s music now, it conjures images of a quaint 1950s diner with a jukebox in the corner and innocent teenagers socializing over burgers and shakes. However, at the height of his popularity, Elvis was regarded as encouraging sexual deviance in youth and detested by parents who feared for their children’s moral well-being. Once these Elvis-loving teenagers grew up, they too were shocked when their own children began blasting Jimi Hendrix and The Who and questioned how the youth of this generation could have fallen prey to the deplorable movement of Sex, Drugs and Rock n Roll.
Is this starting to sound familiar? Rap critics may argue that today’s lyrics are infinitely more inappropriate than those of the past, but cultural relativity is essential in understanding this divide. There is no qualifier that renders a song inherently explicit or inappropriate. These categorizations are wholly defined by the cultural standards of the given time period and can evolve dramatically over the decades. It would be short-sighted to legitimize the fearful frenzy surrounding explicit content in rap songs as an indicator that the genre has no significant cultural value.
The stereotype of aggression and violence in hip hop isn’t just a stereotype about the musical genre; at its core, it is a reflection of the way our society perceives black men.
Most people also don’t understand the particular impetus behind the provocative nature of hip hop music. The explicit content of rap songs is often chalked up to shock value as well as the idea that rappers themselves are simply violent, unrefined people by nature. Yes, violence and swearing are common in rap songs. To deny that completely would make me just as guilty of oversimplification as the individuals whose perspective I am contesting. Once again, however, cultural context is key to understanding the reasons behind the seemingly excessive use of these motifs. Hip hop originated in the Bronx in the 1970s as an artistic means for African American youth to express discontent for the oppression of their culture, historically and currently, in American society. It became a vehicle for social protest and an outlet to channel anger at their disadvantaged socioeconomic position in society.
This anger, the sense of frustration about a society whose structure favors certain groups and oppresses others, has been grossly taken out of context in mainstream discourse and perceptions. Research has empirically proven that the structural social conditions present in urban environments like the Bronx are strong predictors of aggressive behavior in individuals. In other words, the oppression of black youth in America causes the very behaviors perceived to be extensions of their innate flaws when portrayed in rap music.
The stereotype of aggression and violence in hip hop isn’t just a stereotype about the musical genre; at its core, it is a reflection of the way our society perceives black men. The stereotype of the angry black man is perpetuated in the media and in America’s collective consciousness, but the social context behind it has been erased. Instead of categorizing this stereotypical anger as a product of historical disenfranchisement, society has attributed it to innate qualities within the individuals themselves. Rap music is not explicit simply because the rappers themselves are violent people; the provocative nature of the genre originated as a stylistic tradition to protest oppressive urban conditions.
Gangsta rap is a subgenre of hip hop that perfectly illustrates the point I’m trying to prove here. This new form of hip hop emerged in the 1980s and 90s and was popularized by groups like N.W.A., who viewed music as a way to expose the harsh realities of their lives that were virtually unknown to white America. Gangsta rap constituted the latest Elvis phenomenon; once it became mainstream with songs like “Fuck Tha Police,” the portrayals of gang violence and insubordination shocked and appalled Americans and led some to believe a national crisis of morals was underway. These critics did not understand that the rappers had grown up surrounded by gang violence and police brutality and were using explicit lyrics as a stylistic choice to highlight and bring awareness to these conditions.
I am not endorsing violence in any way by bringing up these points, nor am I claiming that every single rapper who spits explicit lyrics is doing so with the express purpose of social protest. However, I do think it’s important to understand the tradition behind these trends and realize that a universal condemnation of the hip hop genre would be too simplistic to account for the variety of social factors at play. We don’t need to completely agree with and endorse everything an artist says in order to appreciate the value of their music.
Even if you still aren’t convinced that the use of explicit language and themes in hip hop music is justified as a stylistic form of social protest, I would like to point out that not all hip hop artists even use this sort of content to an extreme degree in their songs. Most people readily agree that just because two artists fall under the same genre, the content and quality of their music are not necessarily analogous. You would probably laugh out loud if I attempted to draw comparisons between, say, Pink Floyd and Nickelback on the basis of both of them falling under the category of rock music. Each genre encompasses a wide array of styles and subgenres, a distinction which is recognized in most cases.
Why then is it so frequently not recognized in the case of hip hop? I would argue that this tendency to generalize also relates back to the social stereotypes regarding black men. White people are not saddled with an imposed racial identity that dictates how others perceive them. Therefore, white artists are not perceived through the lens of race and their music is able to speak for itself rather than being grouped together with the music of other white artists. Rappers, however, are grouped together under one racial umbrella. Racial stereotypes and assumptions inform the public’s perceptions of these artists and their music, whether or not it is explicitly stated.
If the mention of hip hop invokes a feeling of distaste and an image of an irreverent black man with gold chains and tattoos but you are unable to name specific artists and the reasons you dislike their songs, it is likely that this distaste has been informed by stereotypes.
It would be difficult, perhaps impossible, for me to definitively prove this claim, since racial bias often operates on a subtle and subconscious level. With this being said, all I ask is that hip hop detractors look inward and assess the root of their biases toward the genre as a whole. If the mention of hip hop invokes a feeling of distaste and an image of an irreverent black man with gold chains and tattoos but you are unable to name specific artists and the reasons you dislike their songs, it is likely that this distaste has been informed by stereotypes.
As I mentioned before, the genre began as a medium for urban youth to speak on the social problems surrounding them in a way that had not been possible before. It gave a voice to a historically silenced group and allowed them to explore complex social themes through a form of art.
This socially conscious tradition continues on into the present day, with many artists using their music to comment on current issues like mass incarceration, gang violence and police brutality. One example of effective social commentary through hip hop music is my personal favorite album of all time, good kid m.A.A.d city by Kendrick Lamar. Upon first listen, the album appears to be a glorified depiction of substance use and street crime, filled with grossly inappropriate lyrics. Many skeptical listeners would probably make it to the third song, “Backseat Freestyle,” and promptly yank out their headphones upon hearing the lyric, “I pray my dick get big as the Eiffel Tower / So I can fuck the world for 72 hours.” I assume this was the thought process of the judges at the 2012 Grammys, who famously passed on good kid m.A.A.d city for Best Hip Hop Album and granted the award to Macklemore instead.
If these skeptics had continued listening and actually given the album a chance, they would have discovered the introspective first-person narrative of a conflicted inner-city youth who struggles to reconcile his violent, crime-filled lifestyle with his internal perception of himself as a good person with good intentions. The album’s title captures the central conflict of the story: Lamar wants to believe he is a “good kid,” but his tumultuous environment — the “m.A.A.d city” of Compton, California — has led him to perform so many questionable actions that he is no longer able to discern where he falls on the spectrum of right and wrong.
Through telling the story of his own life, Lamar brilliantly takes on one of the most important and complex social questions of our time: to what extent should individuals growing up in structurally disadvantaged urban environments be held accountable for the crimes they commit and for other personal failures? He does not spoon-feed the answer to listeners, but rather explores the question through the songs themselves and snippets of narrative dialogue between them.
Good kid m.A.A.d city is only one example of rich social commentary in rap music. Many other artists like J. Cole, Chance the Rapper and Kanye West have released music that questions the status quo and raises important points about the society we live in today. These artists may throw around cuss words and talk about guns in some of their songs, but the meaning behind their lyrics far transcends the explicit words stated in them.
I could go on for days about my favorite rap albums and the themes they explore, but I urge readers to log onto Spotify and make this discovery themselves. Rap songs are more than catchy beats to dance to at a house party; they are part of a long tradition of social protest through art. Don’t let generalized racial stereotypes get in the way of you discovering the most prolific and culturally relevant musical movement of our time.
Laurel Rinehart wants you to expand your mind and your music taste.