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Monday, June 9, 2008

Rap Music and Society's Ills

Yesterday's Chicago Tribune had a piece in its perspective section that defended rap music against charges that it contributes to the ills of society. Here are some of the main points.

Rap, however, makes too easy a target. And writers such as Cosby, Poussaint and Whitlock confound the true sources of the social problems they lament. Some people who listen to rap music may engage in violent behavior and sexual promiscuity, but the music is not the cause.


But beyond that familiar argument lies a historical context that hip-hop critics overlook. Long-celebrated forms of African-American music, such as jazz and blues, have always been sprinkled with sexuality and measures of violence. Granted, rap music is more lyrically explicit. But sexual double-entendre has been used for nearly a century in jazz and blues.


Does the fact that many whites do not mimic the violence mean whites are somehow immune to the lyrics? Or is it that their daily life realities are not littered with poor-performing schools, a lack of extracurricular activities and limited job opportunities stemming from postindustrial economic changes? Predominantly white communities are not occupied by tacitly accepted open-air drug markets, police brutality, unevenly distributed justice and families enduring the legacy of economic oppression and subjugation.

Such social problems are complex. Yet certain critics find it easier to lash out at a 23-year-old rapper wearing "bling" and a video showing bathing suit-clad beauties than to take on public officials who continually underfund public education. It also is easier to chastise a rapper for his depiction of violence than to challenge the National Rifle Association and support bans on assault rifles or handguns.

Essentially what the article does is lay out a complicated set of things that have caused social ills. Furthermore, the article compares violence, out of wed lock birth rates, and other measures of social ills to periods in which rap music has gained popularity. The article lays the claim that since those period were not necessarily ones of increased social ills, it is unfair to blame rap music for those social ills.

To me both arguements are bunk, if not intelligently laid out bunk. First, there is no doubt that rap music is not the only culprit for all of society's ills. It would probably even be unfair to call it the main culprit. That said, to claim it has no resposibility is simply wrong. What the article tries to do is make the claim that since there are other culprits rap music has no responsibility. That is simply wrong.

This leads me to the second part of the arguement. Since there are a complex set of factors, trying to disprove its effect through correlating statistics is misleading. It may very well be that periods when rap music exploded in popularity aren't necessarily correlated with exploding statistics that measure society's ills. That doesn't mean that rap music doesn't contribute to coarsening of society.

The simple fact of the matter is that rap music's contribution to society's ills can be prove by my favorite Latin phrase, Res Ipsa Loquitor. (the facts speak for themselves) In this case, the lyrics speak for themselves. Let's look at some examples of violent rap lyrics

You can catch me in the hood, up to no goodWith that Mac like right beside meI ain't by no niggaz eyeing my figuresDeprive me of my life, try meI'ma rip up tissue, homie I won't miss youThis'll be the day that ya dyingNigga I'm violentYa hearing the sirens, once that ass silenceFor fucking with me, nigga I'm violentCause I'm so tired of these wannabe riders trying to touch ObieCause nigga I'm violent

here is an example of one where sexuality is at the forefront...

See my pimping never draggedFind me wit’ different women that you niggas never hadFor those who say they know me know I’m focused on ma creamPlayer you come between you’d better focus on the beamI keep it so mean the way you see me leanAnd when I say I’m hot my nigga dis is what I mean

This is the sort of violence and sexuality promoted in rap music. Now, the typical defense, and one employed in the article, is that these lyrics are a reflection of the life that these rappers lead. Well, that may in fact be so, but it doesn't change the fact that these songs in an intense and in your face way glorify violence and sex. So, exactly what sorts of behavior do the defenders of rap music think the music promotes. While this may in fact be a reflection of the world they occupy, they glorify the world nonetheless. Furthermore, it is children who aren't sophisticated enough to process the information that are most affected. They merely treat the rappers as heroes and simply want to pick up a gatt themselves because that's what their heroes do.

In fact, it is exactly those kids that come from troubling home lives where one or more parents is absent that are most susceptible to the negative influences of rap music. Thus, rap's negative influence is most magnified when it is combined with other things that negatively affect society.

Finally, the article tries to do something rather sinister and sneaky. It tries to excuse rap's most sinister themes by drawing comparisons to other forms of music.

For example, jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was not exactly named after a pastry. Scantily clad showgirls were staples of the big-band era. Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" in 1956. She sang of being "oversexed again" and observed, "Horizontally speaking, he's at his very best."

It should not be forgotten that rock 'n' roll, a musical form created by blacks, was originally a slang term for sex.

Now, it's true that music has had drugs, alcohol, and sex as its themes for years. Rap is not the first form to draw inspiration from those things. George Thorogood's, One Bourbon, One Scotch, and One Beer for instance certainly painted binge drinking in a positive light. Let's take a look at those lyrics and compare.

So I go down the streets,down to my good friend's houseI said "Look man I'm outdoors you know,can I stay with you maybe a couple days?"He said "Uh, Let me go and ask my wife"He come out of the house,I could see in his faceI know that was noHe said "I don't know man, ah she kinda funny, you know"I said "I know, everybody funny, now you funny too"So I go back homeI tell the landlady I got a job, I'm gonna pay the rentShe said "Yeah?" I said "Oh yeah"And then she was so nice, loh' she was lovy-dovySo I go in my room, pack up my things and I go,I slip on out the back door and down the streets I goShe a-hollerin' about the front rent, she'll be lucky to get any back rent,she ain't gonna get none of itSo I stop in the local bar you know people,I go to the bar, I ring my coat, I call the bartenderSaid "Look man, come down here", he got down there So what you want?

and here's another one...

Oh I love to go out fishingIn a river or a creekBut I dont enjoy it half as muchAs dancing cheek to cheek(come on and) dance with meI want my arm(s) about youThat (those) charm(s) about youWill carry me through...(right up) to heaven, I'm in heavenAnd my heart beats so that I can hardly speakAnd I seem to find the happiness I seekWhen were out together dancing, out together dancing (swinging)Out together dancing cheek to cheek

Yet, it is silly and misleading to draw any comparisons between rap which promotes sex and violence in such an intense and in your face way, and songs of the past which did it with significantly less intensity.


Anonymous said...

Africans and Chinese were both very ill-treated in the US, though not to the same degree, yet the outcome has been very different for these two peoples. Why?

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above

Anonymous said...

I agree with the above

ConservativeCore said...

The arguments posed here although may be valid are grossly oversimplified...More money for public education will not solve any of the problems outlined in your blog...Community leaders are not the answer either as you cannot legislate morality...the State is not the parent! I am consistently outraged at the misplaced responsibility repressed races put on the State...When will underprivileged stop looking for an outside answer to their societal ills and start looking within themselves to correct the problems which plague them? I cannot stress the importance of departing from this special interest ideology you have proposed in this article...

mike volpe said...

If I said that we need more money for schools, that's news to me. In fact, I don't remember saying much of any of the arguments you attribute to me. So, I'm not sure what the point of your post is since I really wasn't making most of those arguments.