Growing up white in a largely white suburb just outside of Washington DC, rap had never been in my listening wheelhouse. Although I have recently become a fan and have listened to more and more, I genuinely grappled with whether I had a right to even write an article on this topic, given that I can never truly know the cultural implications of this genre for black communities or understand the weight and complexity of facing systemic violence, often at the hands of white oppressors. With that being said, I invite you to challenge me on my thoughts and use this as an opporutnity to express your own.
When mulling over this I remembered a documentary film I had seen about a year ago called “Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes”. It is an incredible forum for this debate on violence as a form of empowerment or a glorification of cruelty. In the documentary people of color in the hip hop world are able to speak on their own experiences and opinions, rather than someone disconnected to such a world, like a white academic or media executive, ‘explaining’ this phenomena clinically.
This documentary, released in 2006, was written, produced, and directed by Byron Hurt, a self-proclaimed hip hop enthusiast and a gender issues activist. The documentary explores the issues of masculinity, violence, homophobia, and sexism in hip hop music and culture through interviews with artists, academics, and fans. The film features interviews with many of hip-hops big names, including Busta Rhymes, Chuck D, Mos Def, Fat Joe, and more, as well as academics from Pennsylvania and Spelman College.
Hip-hop often acts as a response to systematic violence and therefore encourages the existence of a whole lineage of persecuted black men to try and deny their own frailty. This already toxic undercurrent becomes even more damaging when control over women is understood to be a way to display this masculinity and power. Much of the violence prevalent in rap is focused towards women – the genre often perpetuates patriarchal values by presenting women only as background or secondary objects, rather than as genuine artistic contributors themselves.
Even though most hip-hop artists are black themselves the terminology often used is pulled from negative stereotypes and narratives that stem from slavery and Jim Crow-era prejudice. Activist and rapper Chuck D, of the rap group Public Enemy, is quoted in the film as stating: “BET (Black Entertainment Television) is the cancer of black manhood in the world, because they have one-dimensionalized us and commodified us into being a one-trick image. We’re shown throwing money at the camera; we’re flashing jewelry that could give a town in Africa water.” The frustration at being appreciated only in the Black creative Industry, is clearly felt by many performers, as it seems cut off from the real world, and doesn’t solve the issue for genuine respect and acknowledgement of black artists. Chuck D also suggested a link between the sales of hip-hop music to young white Americans, and the amount of pressure on black artists to fulfill a certain stereotypical content: sex and violence.
Commentary in the film boldly suggests that the KKK could have invented modern hip hop to manipulate the narrative surrounding your black men. In mainstream rap there are often damaging caricatures of black masculinity, rather than a reflection of current and genuine attitudes towards the ideas of sexuality, gender, and race. However, it is important to understand that hip-hop is not the source of these ideologies, but a part of a broader media and societal toxicity circulating around these beliefs. Not only is it unfair, but also unproductive to make hip-hop culture, and consequently black artists, a scapegoat for this greater ideological battle. The American media across the board could be accused of being a gendering institution that pushes hegemonic ideologies like white supremacy, patriarchy, and materialism.
An example of these tropes present in popular culture today can be seen in Kanye West’s song, and music video, “Monster”. Often accused of carrying themes of misogyny and violence against women, it portrays a dead female body as an erotic object for men to control. Jay-Z includes some explicitly violent and misogynistic lines:
“I kill a block I murder avenues
rape and pillage a village, women and children
everybody wanna know what my Achilles heel”
West, admittedly one of my personal favourite artists of all time, sought to address the accusations of the lyrics trivialising sexual violence against women and glorifying misogyny, through a disclaimer, “The following content is in no way to be interpreted as misogynistic or negative towards any groups of people. It is an art piece and it shall be taken as such.”
This leads to a question that can be applied to all artistic mediums, does the artist have the right to make a decision on how his work is received? (misogynistic or not) And does art therefore have a responsibility to promote a moral message? Or something which acts to provoke a response, even if it triggers and is indicative of greater societal issues? In an age where political correctness seems to be on everyone’s mind, is it right for artists like West to quash genuine concerns about violence against women with a banal a statement like “it is an art piece and should be taken as such”? Art, in all its forms, reflects the society it is created in. And while this is not a groundbreaking concept, in this case, it is obviously a troubling one.
Of course there is no way for one person, especially not me, to definitively answer the question of whether the presence of violent verse in rap music is empowering or dangerous in the way it glorifies violence. It can be claimed that it is a mix of both, and of course it is dependent on both context and audience. If violence in rap music is done in a way where it is about artists expressing their journeys, their challenges, and their triumphs, and as a way for them, and their audience members, to channel some of life’s greatest trials and pain, then it has an empowering and positive force. However, if it is a way for the broader media or production companies to pigeon-hole black artists into a narrative of violence, destruction, and basic disrespect, I think we need to be very wary and realise who really is being offered a forum to express themselves and the message that is really being heard.
I leave you with this quote by Austrian artist Ernst Fischer, “In a decaying society, art, if it is truthful, must also reflect decay. And unless it wants to break faith with its social function, art must show the world as changeable. And help to change it.” As a medium that touches so many, let’s hope that rap, and hip hop in general, continues to use its powerful verse and performance quality as a way for genuine artists to express themselves and connect people to something inherently positive: music and humanity.