(It goes without saying when writing about rap, there will be swearing; rap without swearing is like Mel without Sue)
I’ve wanted to write a blog on hip-hop and rap for a while but have so many mixed emotions about it that I’ve found it hard to form a coherent opinion; I guess I’ll just approach it from all of the contradictory angles.
From one perspective I have a real respect for rap artists, because of their manipulation of the English language. Not only do they include more words in their raps than the average pop song due to the speed of their rhymes, but if written well, the lyrics can be so full of meaning they become poetry. One of my favourites is Keep Ya Head Up by Tupac, not only because of lyrics like “Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice/ I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots” but also because it’s all about equality, yay.
The best rap, like any form of expression, comes from real emotions. Unfortunately for many black rappers, that means confronting inherent racism, inequality in society and mass incarceration. I think rap is incredibly powerful when it conveys a political statement, and the relationship between young black males and the police is hotly documented throughout rap history in songs such as Fuck tha Police by N.W.A . Rap has become an effective way to tell your story to the masses and stand up for those who do not have a voice. I would probably describe Kendrick Lamar as my favourite rapper due to his ability to do just that. His highly evocative Blacker the Berry (perhaps in itself an ode to Tupac) discusses race and what it means to be black. Lyrics such as “You’re fuckin’ evil I want you to recognize that I’m a proud monkey/You vandalize my perception but can’t take style from me” highlight an intense anger that survives in the so-called ‘Land of the Free’.
However one of my concerns is the tendency to focus on the U.S. when looking at rap and hip-hop, its original home. I think it’s really important to consider subgenres of the English garage and dancehall scenes too, culminating in grime, which although stylistically different, has inherently similar political desires. Indeed some of grime’s biggest names say they have been influenced by rap from over the pond. I’m intrigued to see the impact that grime will have now on hip-hop itself, with Drake already signing to Boy Better Know (Skepta and Jme’s record label) and Kanye West a fan.
Yet as much as I love all of the elements of rap and hip-hop I’ve discussed so far, as a female I can’t ignore how sexist the lyrics can be. And whilst you may argue it fits in with the male bravado of the genre, I say no. Think of sexism in rap as biting into a chocolate chip cookie to find out it’s raisin instead: it leaves a disappointing taste in your mouth. You expected more from this cookie; it had so much to offer, but no. The stakes are too high for lyrics like “Slut, you think I won’t choke no whore/Til the vocal cords don’t work in her throat no more?!”. Yep, thanks Eminem for writing a rap called Kill You and attempting to justify assault to your listeners. Even my darling Drake is guilty of prying too much into his ex’s life. Mate, back off, it’s not for you to decide in Hotline Bling what a woman can and cannot do. And I trusted you and your highly publicised emotions. What happened to the days of Lauryn Hill and Salt-N-Pepa?
This is where my dilemmas lie. I am uber aware as a privileged (yay everyone’s favourite word), white, English, rural-dwelling female, my life is not that comparable to the rappers I’m writing about. Does that mean I don’t have the right to enjoy the music, or am shamed by ‘authentic’ listeners for being ‘too white’? One interesting comment I remember hearing somewhere is we’re more than willing to appropriate black culture when it comes to music and dance because of its richness, but not support black people when it matters.
I’m conscious that rap shouldn’t be ‘pretty’, but raw, brutal and honest, often home grown from troubled childhoods and prejudice. Therefore, I don’t have a problem, with rap’s prolific swearing, as long as it’s not misogynistic: life isn’t always pretty. Yet the N word really gets me, as from my perspective, it means something different from one black rapper to another compared to the commercialised, international, mainly white, audience the genre is attracting. I feel uncomfortable when I see white teenage boys rapping about ‘hoes’ and ‘niggas’. Last I checked you’re middle class, white, and from rural England and frankly you look a bit of a dick. Is it my fault that I find the N word offensive or should rappers be more proactive in cutting back their use of the word considering its politically charged nature? I can see the empowerment argument, with rappers championing a derogatory term to make it obsolete, no longer an insult. But after being told it’s a dirty word, do their lyrics undermine an effort to move away from the overcasting shadow of slavery? It all leaves me very confused.
An interesting concept discussed in Hip Hop World News (BBC Four) was the transition of rap from the ‘golden age of hip-hop’ with acts like Public Enemy and Run D.M.C to ‘gangsta rap’ which still permeates the genre today. Speakers on the programme argued that there has been a move to focus on glorifying violence and drugs, with P.IM.P by 50 Cent and Jay Z’s Friend or Foe examples. I’m inclined to agree, and what struck me was the focus on the impact that this glorification may have on the perception of black people. The programme argued that an emphasis on criminal activity does nothing to stress that the majority of black people stay within the law, unfortunately adding another layer to racism and misconception within the USA. I disagree with politicians’ arguments that this kind of rap actively encourages criminality, just as I would argue that reading Frankenstein doesn’t necessarily make me want to sew up body parts and create a monster. Yet when rappers are some of the most vocal representatives of the black community, do they have a moral responsibility to explore topics other than drugs? It’s a fuzzy line and I don’t know the answer.
You may now be as confused about rap as I am, but it’s important to remember that nothing exciting in life is ever simple (apart from food). In my eyes rap and hip-hop isn’t just a genre of music: it is a political movement, a culture and for some a way of life. Regardless of your personal opinion on its provocative nature, the creativity needed to make good music is at the heart of the genre and I am in awe of it as an art form.
Interesting things to watch on hip hop culture and racism in the U.S… Straight Outta Compton (2015), Hip Hop World News (BBC Four), 13th (Netflix)