17 April 2007

Censorship vs gangsta rap (re: Imus essay)

  • Apr 17, 2007

Censorship vs gangsta rap (re: Imus essay)

I recently saw a MySpace "survey" which included the question "Is Rap music disrespectful to women?"
My thought was "Of course.  All of it.  Even the songs and artists which aren't.  Especially rappers such as Public Enemy, Underground, and TuPac, and current artists OutKast, RasKaDee and Dead Prez with their "Mind Sex".  Oh and the lyrics of the Fugees, Queen LaTifa, and Lil Kim, very offensive to women."
A little on the sarcastic side, obviously.
Point is, that is a really stupid question.  Rap is not one song, one artist, or even one style.  There are artists who objectify women in rock and country, and there are artists who do in rap as well.

The important question is, when there are so many political, and/or positive, and/or fun and upbeat, and/or meaningful rap songs and artists, why is it that NWA and Snoop Dogg are considered representative of the entire genre.  Why are gangsta rap, hyphe (the glorification of stupid for its own sake), dirty south and crunk, the dominate styles in their respective times?

While there may be many complex reasons, it is important to remember that the promotion of a song or group is controlled by major record labels, radio stations, and concert venue owners.  The vast majority of these happen to be white. 
I'm not saying it is a deliberate conspiracy, but it is interesting that NWA got more air time than Public Enemy, when the former was hardcore gangsta rap, promoted violence in general, was disrespectful of women in particular, while the latter was purely political, and rapped about such things as the aftermath of slavery, alcohol abuse in the black community, and the use of the word "n***er" by ignorant black americans.

I used to dislike the entire genre for the same reasons; until I started to find the numerous exceptions to the generalizations expressed here.
Fact is, it is a style of music, not a type of content.  Beyond the question of who chooses what style becomes popular, the question remains, why are so many rappers the way described?  And in that, there is the same chicken/egg question raised by all of the media influences people arguments.  Does the community build its morals based on the music they listen to, or do they choose to listen to music that matches their morals?  Does art imitate life, or life imitate art? I think the question of why the community thinks this way is more important than why rappers do.  If youth were offended by the lyrics, they would stop buying the albums, and the rappers would stop writing that way. I think internalized racism is very relevant, but not exactly accurate. It is more that many black people have bought into the idea that the black community is in some way fundamentally separate from society at large.  While many sub-cultures in the US make some effort to assimilate, in a way blacks try to move away from the rest of society.  Of course this is true to a large extent of youth in general.  But when a punk or a goth or a skater white kid writes a note to a teacher, they generally do not use the sub-cultural words they use with their friends.  Some black children seem unaware that they aren't speaking proper english, and use slang even in formal settings.  Black youth are told that math, history, english classes are not relevant to their problems, to their community.  This is an extremely destructive, but widespread belief.  While the intention may have been valid, the result is not that kids do independent research and learn the history that classrooms leave out, the result is they don't try, or drop out, and continue a cycle of ignorance when they have children and fail to encourage them to perform well in school.  I think we should consider it a problem that many blacks consider another black person who is educated and articulate to be "acting white" or a sell-out or not really black.  This is a promotion of ignorance just as hyphe is a promotion of stupid.

The debate over ebonics is another example.  
The fact is that for generations blacks were denied formal education, and like in every culture where a group is separated from mainstream society and denied education, a slang of broken english developed.  And instead of emphasizing teaching, many people, including educated blacks (who, incidentally, don't speak that way), supported children's 'right' to remain ignorant. There is little chance that some one who spoke 'ebonics' would get a job as an executive or governor, so the unintended consequence of supporting deliberate cultural segregation would be to not only keep people separate, but also to maintain the status quo, or even reverse the positive changes that have developed over the years. 
It is my opinion that the best, possibly only, way to negate the still lasting effects of slavery is to tax the hell out of inheritance and provide free education, funded at the federal level, up to a bachelors degree, for everyone.  The effects of poverty and lack of education are inherited just as surely as money is, and there has never been any steps to level the playing field.  Reparations never came, and so, with the cumulative effect of inheritance, it is no surprise that blacks on average are poorer than the average american.  It should come as no surprise either that poor people, of any color, commit more crime, and particularly more violent crime.  They have less to lose, and more to gain from, for example, armed robbery, than someone whose parents paid for their college education.

As offensive as some lyrics or comedy sketches may be, I think the absolutely last thing anyone needs is another push towards censorship.  It is a dangerous and slippery slope.   We have come a long way, and any move towards censorship, no matter how well intentioned, is a step backwards for all of democracy.  Tipper Gore already got us those "parental advisory" stickers on albums, we have the movie and now TV ratings with all new TVs having the ability to lockout individual shows.  The Grand Theft Auto video game was a M (mature) game, despite its extremely graphic and extreme violence, potentially offensive racial stereotypes, drug use, and glorification of crimes of all sorts.  When it was discovered that an un-authorized hack of the software could unlock a small, clothed, soft-core simulated sex game, the rating was changed to  AO (adults only) and most major retailers pulled it from their shelves - despite the fact that the Sims 2 could be hacked just as easily to be far more graphic, and that Playboy: the Mansion game had equally graphic actions as mainstay of the game play; both of which games had only M ratings.  Point is, when society finds it acceptable to ban certain words or ideas, there is no way to control who decides what is offensive and what isn't.  Free speech applies to everyone, or it applies to no one.   Including rappers - even the bad ones.  And  to Imus as well, and those like him.
I also want to point out that "ho" does not mean "black woman".  There are white hos.  It is derogatory to women in general - and then only if it is meant to apply to all women.  There really are prostitutes, and if that is the context in which the term is used, it isn't necessarily offensive.  A lot of songs and media seem offensive because a key word or phrase stands out to the causal listener, who is unable or uninterested to hearing the overall context of the song, the album, or the artist.  I wrote my last blog on this subject (though Trent Reznor is white, it is an example of what I mean). Also not black, but a prominent figure in Hip-Hop, Eminem sounds at first listen (and 2nd, 3rd and 4th) to be horribly offensive, until you realize that 90% of it is tongue-in-cheek, that he is making a point to be over the top offensive.  You also see personal growth from one album to the next - artists are people, individuals, before they are musicians, no matter how big they get. They are only representatives of society because (and as long as) radio stations play their music and Tower stocks their latest album. In many ways, having an older generation insist that such-and-such is offensive, or bad, or unacceptable only makes it more appealing to youth.  I guess my overall point is it would be far better for us to focus on promoting positive messages, rather than attempting the censor negative ones, whether they be from white commentators, black rappers, or anyone else.  The enemies are mind set and culture, ones which include a internalization of ignorance and poverty.  Fighting messages we don't like is pointless at best.

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