I forget the reason, but about three months ago I read this article by Toure about rap music, in which he claims that modern rap has gone downhill from its peak in the 1980’s—when MC’s were still politically focused—to the glorification of black repression we see today. White people currently constitute the majority of rap’s audience. He sees this as a problem. I don’t.
“When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness…. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminalblackman.”
Why is hip-hop the only genre judged entirely on its ability to offer didactic political messages? Books, music of any genre other than rap, paintings, poetry—all these are allowed to capture human emotion without any focus on morality. Art can wallow in depression, or paint pictures of hope; it can be as constructive or as destructive as it wants and we will love it just the same. Rap, on the other hand, must act only as a motivator for black men to escape the ‘hood.
We can of course disprove this argument simply, using the art itself. Here’s some Freddie Gibbs to break the stereotype, like he so often does:
Lord I mean well,You gotta let me in heaven cause I done seen hell
Barrels of three-fifty-seven’s up in a nigga wife mouth
Cause he ain’t got all my cash
We should lay this nigga down or he might come back and blast
That’s the dilemma
A sinister sinner and cold killer
The piece of shit my momma pushed out before the placenta
Gangsta G.I.B.B.S. fuck all the rest.
I am white, and I almost cried when I heard this shit. Not because I sold dope, but because I recognize that I am listening to something sad as hell. Art is about empathy: I’m not a veteran but I read Tim McCarthy; I’m not a medieval Englishman but I read Shakespeare (which, by the way, is just as obscene and just as violent as anything I’ve heard in a rap song); I don’t go sailing much but I really like Homer. If you’re a good reader, you don’t put a book down because you didn’t go through the same shit the characters are going through. You read it precisely because you never went through that shit.
Judging rap as some kind of message, or assuming that rap works in the tradition of black nationalist poetry of the 1970’s (what it is most often compared to), is a mistake. Rap is music. It does not need to even cross a toe into politics to be good. I can hear a rapper talk about rape, murder, sexism, racism, all on the same track, and I won’t care. Because I am not downloading a mixtape to hear someone talk about the plight of African Americans and to root for their recovery. I’m downloading it to listen to a guy who’s good at rapping talk about whatever the hell he wants to talk about.
We give this freedom to every other artist alive. Why can’t we give it to MC’s?
I feel attached to Prodigy. I’m sad when I hear about Killa Black having to dip out of town; I think about my own drinking and drug use when he raps with Q-Tip about the snares of intoxication. At times even I—in my cozy college dorm—feel like “there’s a war going on outside no one is safe from.” Can I say the same thing about poor people in Africa? Can I empathize with sweatshop workers in Asia like I do with criminals from Newark? I doubt it. Rap music is a political force—but only because it is the product of a fundamental change in the way black people are viewed. Not because of its social consciousness.