“Like the n***as who own the liquor stores/ crack, cocaine, pimps, ‘n whores/ livin’ up on this earth before/ a n***a like Daddy was born/ but they be makin’ it seem/ that my music ‘n crime a team/ but I’m speakin’ the truth not dream/ so what in da fuck they mean?/ my lyrics ain’t clean!” -Big Boi, “Babylon”
“Rap critics that say, ‘he’s money, cash, hoes’/ I’m from the hood stupid/ what kind of facts are those?” Jay-Z, “99 Problems”
For anyone truly interested in making our community a better place, rap should be a boon of information, since it is probably the only candid glimpse square folks can get into the hearts and minds of society’s dregs. One no longer has to ponder about the “why” and “how” violence, criminality, and delinquency too often take place in our neighborhoods, since the perpetrators themselves are on record telling the public. Black and Hispanic drug dealers, thieves, robbers, even murderers get behind a microphone and tell all, from their upbringing to their sexual fantasies to their regrets. Any good-hearted dimwit would realize that a good way to prevent the things we hate about our environment would be to listen carefully to the songs, then identify and work assiduously at eliminating the catalysts and motivations, cited by the wrong-doers themselves, that induce the unacceptable behaviors.
Instead of this obvious, reasonable approach to the music, we witness two bassackwards phenomena: one, people that blame the musicians for society’s problems, the very problems that shaped the artists’ lives, thereby influencing their controversial lyrics in the first place; and two, people that live with relatively good circumstances, but break their necks to emulate the artists, who come from little or nothing- two sides of one big, dumb ass coin. This piece deals with the former bunch.
Sellouts and armchair critics vainly moralize and point the finger, instead of using their op-ed columns, magazine articles, radio and talk show appearances, and message board space to discuss the problems rappers themselves cite as inspiration for their lyrics:
Rampant unemployment and insufficient wages amidst pervasive materialism-
“I wanna live good/ so shit I’ll sell dope/ for a three finger ring/ one a’ dem gold ropes” (50 Cent, “Hate It Or Love It”)
Easily available, illegal firearms- “used to do da battle wit stones and sticks/ now n***as do it wit’ da Macs ‘n clips” (Method Man, “Method Man Homegrown Version”)
Job discrimination- “I couldn't get a job, nappy hair was not allowed” (Treach, “Ghetto Bastard”)
Feckless schools- “Schools where I learn/ they should be burned” (Nas, “Poison”)
Conspiratorial proliferation of narcotics in inner-cities- “n***az gettin blamed for the crystals/ but we don't grow the motherfuckin coke or weed or make the fuckin pistols” (Kool G. Rap, “Crime Pays”)
It’s not uncommon to read or hear wolf cries like, “Rap is destroying our community!” In fact, Wendell Talley recently wrote a piece for The Baltimore Sun, entitled “How Hip-Hop Drags Down Black Culture.” Such raves give the impression that rap is a significant stimulant for crime and vice in our neighborhoods. People that make statements like these have a fatal flaw in their reasoning though. If rap itself induces sin, then we should notice rap fans from every demographic misbehaving as a result of its influence.
Thing is, that is far from the case. White people account for 70% of rap’s sales, yet their communities display tremendously less violence than the staggering amount that plagues ours. The violence that does occur in suburbs, no one sensible would attribute to hip-hops influence either. White boys, heavy on rap, throw on hoodies and baggy jeans, rap themselves, call each other “n***a,” trick their rides, deejay, make asses out of themselves trying to crip walk, even wear do-rags (though they’ll never have waves), but somehow forget to form actual street gangs. Young Asians are also big, rap consumers. They disproportionately participate in break dancing, but forget to pick up guns and murder each other under rap’s hypnotism. How come white and Asian youth are immune from rap’s insidious messages, but Black youth aren’t? In light of these facts, one must infer that rap by itself has miniscule or no influence on violent and criminal behavior, since the overwhelming majority of its listeners never act on its messages.
In rebuttal, one could definitely argue that rap contributes to already vitriolic circumstances in this country’s ghettoes, or that it exacerbates already existent problems, or, similarly, that it perpetuates already existent ills inner cities are dealing with. Unfortunately, these arguments are moot in critics’ hands because they rightly imply that problem is not the music itself; the problem is the music, coupled with the realities that created it. Rap music is only potentially dangerous in the hood, the same place it comes from; it’s only potentially explosive amongst poor Blacks and Hispanics, the same people that produce its culture. The hood is the control in the experiment and rap is only a variable. We could take rap out of the hood and it would still be poorest, most violent, most hopeless place to live. We could saturate a well-off, well-educated, fairly treated neighborhood with all the M.O.P., G-Unit, 3-6 Mafia, and Mobb Deep in the world and that neighborhood wouldn’t change much either. Any reasonable person could see that.
Too bad so many Black critics aren’t reasonable. Too many of them are so ashamed of their blighted Black brethren that they are completely preoccupied with differentiating themselves from the rest of the lot. They spew rhetoric about morality, hard work, and patience not as viable prescriptions for misfortune, but rather to gloat and contrast themselves with the lesser Negroes. They feel urgent pressure to prove themselves not even from the same stock as “n***as”- i.e. those cats in the rap songs, or those loathsome people that use “ain’t” and “finna” as verbs, the young men that “happily” choose to sell drugs, instead of excelling at school, the darkies that refuse to stop playing “the blame game.” Lord forbid their counterparts in academia, corporate land, and swank society get it twisted and dismiss them as “just niggers in fancy clothes” or “just niggers with good grammar”!
It’s no coincidence then, that you hear uppity, Black folks, like Wendell Talley, using pronouns like “underclass” to describe rappers and their primary fan base. They want to create the impression that they themselves are “normal,” bona fide Black people, while their delinquent brethren are literally “under” or “below” normal; the latter belong to a totally separate “class,” which is beneath their own pedigree. Rappers and their kind are anomalies, rejects, not poor, downtrodden people that have made bad decisions amidst worse circumstances.
This “not one of us” strategy is slick, but eventually undermines bourgeoisie blacks’ goal to deflect discrimination because it still assigns some, or the rest, of Black folks, albeit not them, to the bottom of the social hierarchy; the nadir of society still looks like them, not the people they are trying to impress.
With their big, fancy university educations, Black, rap critics could do so much to change the music they so detest. All they have to do is, as we say around the way, “take it to the streets.” Their contempt, fawning, and elitism preclude them from realizing that though. Perhaps the torment rap lyrics bring them is poetic justice for their shameful neglect and ridicule of their brethren.
Harold M. Clemens is a staff writer for We The Voices Magazine