Rap music is everywhere: in the entertainment we consume, as background music in the shops and restaurants in which we go about our daily lives and even in advertising for mainstream brands like Pepsi or Gap. It has become a global phenomenon, one of the most popular and lucrative music genres in the world, creating worldwide superstars and legions of adoring fans. Surely a force for good? Well yes, if your idea of positivity is explicit language, glorification of gang violence, the perpetuation of racial stereotypes, misogyny, drugs and a fixation on money and materialism. Are these values we really want to encourage? If it was just to cater for a minority taste this wouldn’t be such a big deal, but since rap is now the most popular music genre in the United States, part of the mainstream in western culture and is rapidly increasing in popularity around the world, isn’t it time for some types of rap music to change their tune?
It wasn’t always this way. I struggle to understand how something so poetic in origin, rooted in the story telling culture of Africa and often used so successfully by early artists such as Grandmaster Flash, as a vehicle for highlighting issues of injustice, oppression and poverty has to such a large extent become so corrupted in its values, hijacked by the corporates and turned into a global money making machine. Nowadays the mere mention of the words “rap music” conjures up too many negative images.
The objectification of women is a huge issue in some types of rap music, particularly the hardcore and “gangsta” sub genres (which also happen to be the most lucrative ones). To my mind the lyrics and the visual representation of women in these rappers’ videos is more often than not offensive. What kind of example is this setting for young women today? How many rap videos portray a strong, independent, intelligent woman asserting her authority over men? Instead all we ever see is a succession of submissive, scantily clad women portrayed as sex objects. If that’s all you’re exposed to when you’re young, you’ll start to think that it’s normal. In the twenty first century we are surely beyond the point where the sort of goals women set for themselves is to see who can be the most “bootylicous”. Particularly in the wake of the recent Harvey Weinstein scandal, it can only undermine the message of the #MeToo movement to glamourise the exploitation of women. There’s enough misogyny around already: the last thing we need is it being constantly blasted in our ears and shoved in our faces.
I also don’t get how, in a time where we are encouraging tolerance in so many other areas, many rap artists seem to get away with expressing sentiments and using words like, ‘hoe’ and ‘n***a’ which, in any other context, would be considered racist, sexist or offensive to the point of being totally unacceptable.
Another area where some rap music seems to create controversy is the manner in which the lyrics glorify violence and glamourise criminal activity. Think of all the rap songs that latch onto the same depressingly recurring theme of scoring drug deals, knife crimes, drive-by shootings and aspiring to be the next big gang leader. As Eazy-E quotes in his song, Boyz-N-The-Hood; “Little did he know I had a loaded twelve gauge/One sucker dead LA Times front page”. For some artists this does in fact represent the reality of their lives, as a few have found out to their ultimate cost e.g. the east/west coast gang rivalry which claimed the lives of rappers Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur. The irony, though, is that other rappers, Drake being one example, will happily create a “gangsta” alter ego for themselves for the purposes of commercial success when in fact they come from backgrounds a million miles removed from the deprived neighbourhoods of South Central LA. What angers me is that this is not only misleading but irresponsible. Many people idolise these artists and see them as role models, thinking that sort of lifestyle is something to aspire to and imitating their behaviour in the belief that it’s the cool thing to do.
So many artists in this genre seem to obsess about appearances and materialism, as if quoting designer brands, high-end luxury goods and top of the range sports cars gives them some sort of kudos. Maybe if more rap was not about getting the latest Rolex and more about getting a decent set of values it would set a better example for its audience. (But then, Kanye West didn’t get to be a billionaire by promoting the values of modesty, selflessness and caring for others: he got to be a billionaire by promoting his music and his trainer brand, Yeezy’s.) Yet this unhealthy fixation on designer “bling” can only serve to emphasise the gulf between rap’s megastars and their audiences, many of whom can’t afford to dream about the luxury Caribbean holidays and endless bling enjoyed by those they idolise. As Chuck D, leader of the group, Public Enemy, and one of the most prominent voices in politically and socially conscious rap music, cleverly observed: it is hardly the stuff of Robin Hood that the route for many of today’s rap stars to achieving success and funding their own lavish lifestyles seems to be to exploit their own fan base, much of which lives in relative poverty.
It would be an over simplification to suggest that all rappers subscribe to the language of crime, violence and misogyny. Yes, there are the socially conscious rappers who denounce violence, whose messages are inspirational and who seek to challenge, instead of perpetuate, the stereotypes. There are those voices promoting a message of love, peace and understanding rather than one of hate, tension and intolerance but they are at risk of being drowned out. If rap is to return to its historical roots as a force for good on its ever growing audience, it’s time to give more airtime to the likes of Frank Ocean and Stormzy and to call time on “gangsta” rap and its negative influences.