Why is Rap Music God's Soundtrack for Black People?

A month ago I watched an hour of They Made America on DVD, at the recommendation of my friend Michael Simmons, and walked away feeling pumped about the entrepreneurial history of our country and in awe of Ted Turner’s oozing enthusiasm. But it got me thinking back to ghangta culture.

Russell Simmons of Def Jam Records was profiled and he said something which stuck with me: "People say they don’t want to listen to rap, to which I say, man, rap is god’s soundtrack. You gotta listen to it."

Maybe so back when rap truly was a poetry form that talked about the struggle. But now, I think rap culture – or ghangsta culture – is holding back black culture. It’s corporatized bullshit dressed up as social justice free speech that promotes violence, sexism, and homophobia.

The documentary mentioned Simmons’ rise to fame and his near collopase: he almost missed a new trend in the industry, in an industry where spotting the next trend is paramount. What was it exactly? Rappers rapping about violence, sex, and drugs instead of brotherhood were moving to the top of the charts. Simmons realized the turning tide and quickly moved to get his ship in order. A great entrepreneurial how-to: be ready for change!

Um, what about sticking to some principles?

Eminem isn’t poetry. It isn’t class warfare. It’s just about another nigga trying to get by, trying to bang more hoes, trying to kill his wife, his mom, whoever. Don’t get me wrong – I like some of his music, like "Lose Yourself," – but poetry it is not. I like a bunch of rap because of the beat and music, not the lyrics.

Is it condecending for me to say that guys like Clarence Thomas, Cornel West, and Stanley O’Neil should have more influence on black teenagers than 50 Cent? After all, it’s not like white teenagers look up to George Bush or some white intellectual.

Was it any surprise that Kayne West went on TV during Katrina and declared that George Bush hates black people? Is that what a cultural icon (leader?) is supposed to do to bridge a divide – accuse our president of not caring about a whole race?

Black people love laughing at white people who dance and bop to black rappers. What fools, they say, to think they can be us. But they forget that the whites are also laughing, at their own inside joke, and it goes like this: "I’m white. I can listen to rap, put on a black person’s coat, and just act like another nigga from the streets. But when daddy gets me a job interview at an investment bank, of course I’ll speak in plain tongue, of course I won’t say ‘fo sho’ or wear my ‘white tee’. That’s the difference."

For the most part, rap music and its culture perpetuates the racial divide.

13 Responses to Why is Rap Music God's Soundtrack for Black People?

  1. Nick B. says:

    Are you, by listing to “Lose Yourself,” perpetuating the “racial divide?”

  2. Ben Casnocha says:

    I have no problem with people listening to rap music so long as they don’t glorify the lyrics or if they are upfront about the spirit embodied in rap (most people aren’t). I like “Lose Yourself” because its beat, and its lyrics aren’t that scandelous….as opposed to other Eminem songs which talk about killing girlfriends and whatnot.

  3. I don’t think it “perpetuates the racial divide,” not exactly–I mean, Jeff Chang’s Can Stop Won’t Stop makes some pretty persuasive artistic and political connections among hip-hop and all sorts of other 80s/90s movements, and it did at one time have a whole lot of potential to to bridge gaps as much as to underscore them, which maybe is the word for what it does now. I listened all the time when there was this whole “conscious rap” movement from c. 1988-1992, when Chuck D said rap was black people’s CNN and you could really feel like you were part of something that was going to change something somewhere, in some way you couldn’t quite explain. And then Dre and Snoop swept everything before them (blame who? white kids? black kids? the artists? the companies? all of the above?), leading to a lot of this bling-n-hoes stuff out there now. I do think the attitude of white listeners, which can be more or less blackface, is really ugly, but blaming rappers for that seems like blaming the victim. It would be cool for some of those white kids to learn something more than slang words and how to sag their jeans, but maybe no mass-produced art form can really do that.

    And sure, Kanye West is hardly a deep thinker–he’s a pop musician–but I’m going to go ahead and say that pretty much every single revelation that has come out about GWB’s response to Hurricane Katrina more or less points up the essential truth of that remark. I mean, his staff had to make him DVDs to show him what was going on. So if a pop musician has the guts to piss people off productively–what exactly has Bush done to “heal the racial divide” besides try to make his tax cuts permanent, which is going to do exactly zero–then I say thanks that somebody is.

  4. erik says:

    I think rap used to be more “underground”, and now it’s seeped it’s way into the pop mainstream. If you listen to those cheesy Top 40 radio stations, it’s mostly Rap and R&B. There’s nothing wrong with this, but rappers need to ‘fess up, and realize that their genre is now no different than justin timberlake and kelly clarkson. Fo’ shizzle.

  5. Ben Casnocha says:

    Thanks.

    I think “underscore” may be a better word choice than “perpetuate” and referring to the evolution as “conscious rap” to “bling-n-hoes rap” is also a good distinction. As for blame, as in everything I think it’s all-of-the-above but my little experience with Russell Simmons is a good specific. Here’s a big influencer on the ropes, instead of having a spine he caves in and starts producing Compton bang-bang shit. On the other hand, he’s a businessman, could he alone stop market forces?

    White kids’ reactions are interesting. What are we to make of Nation of Thizzlam? I’m convinced that there are two levels of listening for whites – surface appeal for being cool, and then a deeper feeling of superiority over such a “dirty” culture. Black listeners dig it all the way through as THEIR culture.

    For the first time yesterday I heard “white tee” in a rap song. I was stunned – THAT’S where it came from, I thought a friend started that trend. So I asked people: who’s mimicking who? Did the rapper riff on a cultural trend, or did the culture follow the rapper? Of course everyone says white tees were big before the song, and of course that’s total bullshit. I have business friends whose sole purpose in life is getting a rapper to hold their product for one second, take a pic, and put it online.

    It’s appalling you would lend credence to Kayne’s remark, and then to bring up taxes. My my my. Is this the state of political discourse in San Francisco? We accuse our president of not giving a shit about black people? I agree that the Katrina response was a disaster and incompetent and Brownie is a fool, but please, don’t add to the drivel about GWB racism. Were all the black people left behind, or were the poor left behind, who happened to be black?

  6. Nick B. says:

    If there are two reasons that white people listen to rap, “surface appeal for being cool, and then a deeper feeling of superiority over such a “dirty” culture” which do you see yourself fitting into?

  7. Ben Casnocha says:

    They’re linked. If a white person listens for just surface appeal, I think he almost always will feel the superiority over a dirty culture. There are probably white people who have a deep connection as if it’s their authentic story. Me personally? I listen to some rap because I like the music, but I’m not afraid to play rock or pop in the car with friends. I’m raising this issue because I think the superiority factor is largely unconscious.

  8. Chris Yeh says:

    Unless you listen to Christian Rock, all popular music would give the family values crowd an aneurysm.

    White rock is all about sex, drugs, and more sex. Maybe it’s not as violent, but that’s like putting lipstick on a pig.

    Music, especially for teens, is about transgression. If music didn’t give parents fits, we wouldn’t listen to it.

    I agree that the gangsta culture is a pernicious influence (as do many African-American leaders), but we have no more right to censor it than the mullahs of Iran should have to keep Desperate Housewives out of their country.

  9. Ben Casnocha says:

    I don’t think the current rock and pop that’s being produced has nearly as much sex, drugs, or violence as the current rap that’s being produced.

    You have a point about transgression.

    I don’t hear black leaders advocating a return to “conscious rap,” but maybe that’s because I’m not listening closely.

  10. BM says:

    I really enjoyed your post on gangster rap, but I believe that there is a cultural shift starting across racial boundaries with respect to this particular genre of rap music. There are just as many white thugs with no direction and/or education that can’t “turn on” their white voice as you state. I also am of the belief that there are many black fans of Hip Hop and/or Gangster Rap music that do not agree with every misogynistic/brash/violent/criminal attitude displayed in their favorite music and who also accept caucasian fans of the genre for what they are.
    Also, drug dealing and abuse are still huge concerns in the black community that hold people back. The Game, for example, in “The Documentary”, accurately portrays his struggle to change his life, and how he, an uneducated fatherless youth, ended up embracing Gang Culture.
    He describes the camaraderie and excitement, the poor choices he made, the fast money, and the life-altering experiences that ultimately caused him to rise out of the chaos and become something more. Yes, he still seems to display anger and poor judgement in his business dealings and public image, but you must consider the “gutter” he lived through and his personal experience as a catalyst for his current state of affairs.
    Hip hop, in general, is not all about the themes you discuss though. The most popular music is. Violence, crime and sex are exciting and intriguing themes for artists. They grab the listener’s attention and aggrandize their humanity, while taking the listener to a fantasy lifestyle . I think violence and sex crosses many musical genres in popular culture now. Popular television and movies are much more graphic as well. Look at The 40 Year-Old Virgin or Saw. The themes in these movies are far more graphic than you would ever have seen, not even ten years ago.
    Overall, Americans are becoming anesthetized to sensory experiences. In order for artists to make the millions they have to give the consumer what they want, which, as sales show, is more violence and more sex. You really can’t begrudge the artists for wanting to get rich by overstating their machismo. And, most people buying at the retail level are a large group of races, primarily white teens and twenty-somethings.
    I also see the trends of “getting more people on” most prevalent in rap music. You are seeing blocks of artists coming out of cities like Saint Louis (Nelly), New Orleans (Cash Money), Mississippi (David Banner), Houston (Mike Jones, Paul Wall). I think this is enriching those communitites, if only in an indirect way, by means of publicity and national attention. Tell me what you think.

  11. Ben Casnocha says:

    BM – I agree that the average/general case does not apply to all. Not ALL rappers fit this bill, nor do ALL listeners, black or white. I think your point about becoming anesthetized to sensory experiences is interesting – they keep having to ratchet it up to meet an ever rising bar of what’s stimulating. Just a few swear words doesn’t do it anymore; just a little sex doesn’t do it anymore.

  12. Arafat Mohamed says:

    It seems to me that you are holding “black culture” to a higher standard than american culture. Hip hop is supposed to be poetry and conscienceness raising, but it’s ok for other forms of music to talk about sex drugs and rock and roll.

    There will always be less popular forms of art in every medium that do the job of raising awareness and challenging perspectives. Corporations however, will always push the less challenging forms to the masses because it’s free of controversy and will make money.

    Russell Simmons is ultimately a businessman who is where he is to make money. While he pushes the acts that make money, he also signs and encourages less popular but more “activist” acts. He cannot be responsible for, nor be expected to change, the tastes of the American public for mindless drivel. I think he has done a commendable job of sticking to his principles without losing everything he has in the process.

    It is the consumer who decides what they want. I choose to refuse to support artists just because of the beat. I choose to support artists who have something to say and have a good beat because to me the two are inseperable.

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