Politics & Policy

Bad Rap

Celebrating hip-hop degrades urban communities.

This week, we learned via the New York Times that hip-hop culture is largely misunderstood. Columbia University assistant professor Miguel Munoz-Laboy told the Times that, after three years spent “studying” how people dance in hip-hop clubs, he now believes: “We need to try to see how youth understand their own culture without imposing our own adult judgments.”

Bakari Kitwana — according to the Times, the author of the “leading scholarly work” on rap’s ideological underpinnings — agrees with Munoz-Laboy: “Hip-hop is a generational phenomenon that has united young people. If that’s not understood, you’re going to miss a lot.” But perhaps Kitwana is the one missing a lot. Hip-hop may be a music variety that appeals to millions of young Americans’ tastes, but it surely doesn’t unite youth communities as much as it divides them.

Hip-hop does not, for instance, play a big role in the lives of most affluent kids, who may just listen to rap while traveling to and from school, or at weekend parties, or while playing sports. This group of young Americans does not see truth in hip-hop’s messages nor strive to emulate its “lifestyle” of (as the rap group N.W.A. once defined it) “nothin’ but bitches and money.”

Sadly, the same cannot be said of lots of poor, black kids. For these young Americans, hip-hop’s lyrics are too often real reflections of life; too often they come to embody goals, and aspirations. The public, to its immense discredit, is less honest than it should be about rap’s pernicious influence. Those who foist upon hip-hop a legitimacy it doesn’t deserve, act carelessly at best, and insidiously at worst.

Paeans to hip-hop’s supposed noble origins and message of black empowerment notwithstanding, the sensible person would be hard-pressed to find anything but discouragement in most rap libretto.

Hip-hop producer Russell Simmons, who has made many millions in the industry, contends that hip-hop’s aggressive and distasteful lyrics are merely an expression of life in crime-ridden, depressed neighborhoods. If this were the case, however, rap wouldn’t glorify the conditions of those neighborhoods — it would hope and seek to change them.

But positive change seems the last thing on rapper T.I.’s mind, when he shouts:

A lot a p***y ni***s talk like broads, love runnin’ they mouth

That is till I run in they house, put the gun up in they mouth

Tell a n***a talk s**t now, and then you know the gun go BLAO

I ain’t scared of the law, naw.

T.I., also known as Clifford Harris, Jr., was arrested last month when, about an hour before a scheduled performance at the BET Hip-Hop Awards, he tried to buy unregistered machine guns and silencers. Oddly enough, Harris has, over the past several years, done some good in his old neighborhood by renovating crack houses and building new low-cost homes. But he doesn’t rap about that, of course, and so poor kids only get the stuff about guns.

Songwriters have long peddled explicit and inflammatory lyrics. And music often accurately describes the less-admirable parts of its writers’ lives (certainly the Grateful Dead was not a pharmaceutically abstemious bunch). But hip-hop’s message is one that advocates extreme social pathology on a mass level. Elvis’s hips may have scandalized 1950’s America, but surely they didn’t glorify stealing cars, selling drugs, and shooting one another.

Louis Farrakhan recently spoke about Harris. He told an audience that the rapper was nabbed by the police, not because he attempted to illegally purchase guns, but because people are scared that his music is influencing white kids. But the crime data (among other things) belie Farrakhan’s skewed logic: if Harris’s violent lyrics are influencing any one group, it isn’t whites — it’s surely young, black men. Young, black men are now more likely to go to prison than to graduate college with a four-year degree, or to serve in the military.

Hip-hop’s bald-faced misogyny finds a corollary in the fact that some 48-percent of black children live without their fathers in the home — nearly double the rate of any other ethnic group. Hip-hop’s disparagement of school and academics finds a corollary in the fact that the achievement gap between black and white students gapes — on national tests in eighth-grade math, for instance, it is 31 percentage points.

The worst of hip-hop isn’t changing and isn’t going anywhere, at least as long it has an audience that will pay. But let us not be under any illusions about hip-hop’s message — it’s a negative, unhealthy one — and let us not give hip-hop a place in polite society that it does not deserve.

In February 2006, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of American History unveiled plans to dedicate a special exhibit to hip-hop music. Curator Marvette Pérez said, “Born out of poverty and the need to draw attention to social conditions, hip-hop is amazingly creative and embodies innovation and invention.”

Rapper Ice-T (who once wrote a song titled “Cop Killer”) had this to say at the Smithsonian event: “I decided I really wanted to try this pimp thing, so I went into the street and started getting me some ‘hos.’”

Enough. Such antics may be humorous or intriguing to college professors and museum curators. But they only make light of the often terrible situations in which many poor, young blacks find themselves. Hip-hop artists who do their part to further degrade urban communities should be treated as the social menaces they are, and their product should be received similarly.

– Liam Julian is associate writer and editor at the Thomas B. Fordham Foundation and a fellow at Stanford’s Hoover Institution.

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