Ms Dynamite, selected by the press to counter the wayward diatribe of Kim Howells, recently declared that the advocation of hatred and violence in hip hop was ‘a metaphor for life in general.’ Neither aggressor nor defender chose, or was able, to engage with the realities of the debate, boiling a complex stock of social, cultural and political ingredients down into an indigestible mush. For a true understanding of the role of hip-hop in society, it needs to be considered in its specific historical and cultural context.
Furthermore – and this is seldom mentioned – it needs to be understood primarily as a sonic force, an aesthetic. Much as its critics might like to dispute it, rap is a musical tradition which, more than any other, explicitly references the past to create a dialogue between old and new. It borrows liberally, and is frequently blue. Though it may ‘all sound the same’ to a middle-aged English white man, it is also a wide church. Yet while someone immersed in the culture such as the rapper Common will ask ‘who am I to judge one’s perspective?’ there are plenty of reactionaries eager to bang the gavel.
In 1988, Los Angeles’ NWA (Niggaz Wit Attitude) sent the suburbs into spasms of rage by inciting their listeners to ‘Fuck Tha Police’. Cultural illiteracy and the age-old fear of out-of-control urban blacks crippled many commentators, who confused the message that the band would no longer turn the other cheek to police brutality with an endorsement of murder. The song attracted the attention of the FBI, police authorities and mainstream media. Crucially, it also found its way onto young suburban whites’ stereos. As Kim Howells implied when he remarked that the most worrying issues of the ‘cultural problem’ were the ‘methods of popularising this stuff’, violent black music is only society’s problem when it reaches beyond a predominantly black audience. However, neither the respectable young white rebels nor their parents really understood the record, which they both read as expressing a hatred of authority per se.
‘Fuck Tha Police’ is the product of a specific situation in postindustrial America. Even before the arrival of crack cocaine in the early ‘80s, LA’s working classes were ravaged by poverty and violence. In 1982 the median income for residents of the South Central district was just $5900, youth employment in LA county stood at c.45% and government investment in recreation, affordable housing, programs for employment and inner city youth were all slashed. Crack turned the inner city into a war zone, complete with police helicopters and tanks. Housing projects were built in the style of minimum security prisons with fortified fencing and an LAPD substation. Fifteen blacks died from police chokeholds, which a police spokesman claimed represented the discovery of a weakness in African-American physiognomy rather than police brutality. In short, the lyrical content of ‘gangsta rap’ and the riots of 1992 are the results of the same environment.
It is an environment that affords little status to young black males, who realise at a young age that respect, success and justice will probably not be forthcoming in mainstream society. Rap offers an opportunity to win respect and influence, while graffiti (one of the four elements of hip hop alongside DJing, MCing and breakdancing) reappropriates an urban terrain which its exponents are not allowed to own. Hip hop is based on competition, whether it’s who’s the best dancer, the best DJ or the hardest motherfucker out there. Braggadocio is an essential part of the culture. Since the days of slavery, African Americans have ‘played the dozens’, boasting about their prowess and insulting that of their peers. It is a test of wits not without significance, for as stories such as Brer Rabbit and the Signifying Monkey suggest, it is by his wits a black man must live if he is to survive and prosper.
If this game of survival appears twisted and misanthropic, that’s because it frequently is. Yet contrary to popular belief, rappers do not advocate killing or glorify drug dealing. Furthermore, many lyricists are quick to point out the parallels between the illegal life and the naked capitalism which pushes them to the margins. America is labelled a ‘gangsta’, committing drive-bys on countries such as Panama and Iraq, facilitating the drug trade through inaction or the CIA. This comparison also rings uncomfortably true with regard to the misogyny in hip-hop, one of its most undeniably unpleasant elements, if not so omnipresent as is often implied. Sexist lyrics should be censured, but not censored. Where the right of free speech conflicts with the right not to be subjected to hate speech, the latter must give way. As JS Mill observed, truth will be reduced to stale dogma if not opposed, and even the wildest opinion must contain a kernel of truth.
As such, misogyny in rap – and the fervour of its opponents – reveals much about Western society. Widespread sexism may be explained partially with reference to the socioeconomic conditions in which young urban black males must negotiate their masculinity, and partially in black vernacular culture. It is not, as Kim Howells might suggest, ‘something new’. Jelly Roll Morton sang, ‘Come here you sweet bitch, give me that pussy’ in 1938, but, of course, it did not cross the tracks. The subject deserves much more room, but it should also be noted that hip-hop has always seen sexism and violence as the price of a reckless life in a society where men feel powerless in public, and turn on their women and children. In addition, it is worth considering that the use of the word ‘bitch’ excites much more attention than the over-representation of men on rape juries or gender discrimination in wages. Sexism permeates all of society, from the way children are raised to depictions in television, film and the mainstream music industry. Furthermore, these industries are partially responsible for the de facto censorship of rappers. While individual institutions from Sheffield University SU to the government of New Zealand may limit airplay or sales, considerably more is done by marginalisation and the major labels’ stranglehold on the music industry. In America particularly the homogeneity born of the monopolisation of music radio and television is startling, with airplay going only to those who can afford it. BBC Radio 1 is little better. And which rappers get the exposure? For the most part, ‘modern-day Sambos’ such as Nelly whose ‘message’ boils down to consume, have a party, and then consume some more. His embrace of the American Dream may be more damaging than a thousand small-time crooks talking like pimps on the mic. ‘Forty acres and a mule – fuck that! Nellyville – 40 acres and a pool!’ he rhymed on ‘Nellyville’, and over 5 million Americans rapped along. Nelly preaches love, of Mammon and of self. No one will blame him for any atrocity, as Marilyn Manson was blamed for Columbine, but his influence may well be far more disturbing, more debilitating to the individual soul and the community.
Nelly’s success, of course, has little to do with his lyrical content and maybe much to do with the lack of it. Good looks, force of personality and canny marketing have all played their part, but the at its heart lies the The Neptunes – a production team who have revolutionised mainstream hip hop, and, some would argue, the face of pop music. Hip-hop is music first, energising, neck-snapping noise aimed squarely at the dance floor, as well as at the car stereo and personal headphones. It is music rooted in the black tradition, always paying respect to the innovators of the past. To understand it, to judge whether each song preaches love or hate you often need to know your history. When Large Professor chopped up Gwen McRae’s sublime love song ‘90% of Me’ for Mobb Deep to spit aggressive street tales over, he knew his audience would be struck by the contrast. Love and hate cannot be neatly separated; they are not diametrically opposed emotions. Their complexity is captured by culture, by hip-hop. If David Blunkett, Kim Howells et al want to change its lyrical content they should first learn to how to listen to it. Then, perhaps, they might focus on the true causes of the problem.