In light of a certain current event in politics, it’s more known now than ever that in America, real racism moves in silence. When we think of the words “rap” or “hip hop,” does it evoke the same divine legacy as genres like rock n’ roll, jazz, or any of the other landmark genres of American culture? Is it safe to say after the anthems that lifted the disenfranchised, the commercial force from “Hypnotize” to “Hotline Bling,” and the social poignancy from Straight Outta Compton to To Pimp A Butterfly, that hip hop has earned its place as the defining music of our generation? For some reason it feels like history hasn’t paid as much respect to Grandmaster Flash as it has to Peter Gabriel. It seems the quiet conclusion in the common mind is that hip hop is a disposable rendition of “real” music, a mere ornament to more legitimate artistry. Is hip hop truly a secondary art form, or is that just a fallacy founded on old-head skepticism and underhanded racism?
Of course, multiple genres can coexist as cultural paradigms in a given era, but hip hop has consistently been the most socially and culturally impactful to this generation. Moreover, it should be clear that contemporary artists like Kendrick Lamar, J. Cole, or Drake will hold more profound cultural substance in their discography than The Lumineers, Skrillex, or Maroon 5 decades from now. This is not to pit different styles of popular music against one another, but rather to recognize the vitality of hip hop, despite its funny name and reputation of being unwholesome. One quick glance at history will reveal that this country’s most celebrated genres of music were built upon counterculture—a glorious overthrowing of the social climate that breathes new life into a complacent population. This was jazz in the Harlem Renaissance, and rock n’ roll during the Vietnam War. Actually, come to think of it, it seems all the greatest American genres of music were spawned from black communities seeking some cathartic respite in desperate times. Rock n’ roll obviously stems from the blues, and it doesn’t take a music historian to understand why those black musicians were feeling blue. Pop music today is all derived from R&B, and in fact, it seems the only reason Justin Bieber is called “pop” while Usher stays “R&B” is a racial distinction. White pop singers are pop, but black singers are R&B. Even today’s electronic music is deeply indebted to Chicago house and Detroit techno. The tragic exploitation and cultural smudging in the history of black music is no recent phenomenon. So when one wonders why someone with the title of “rapper” is more likely to be chuckled at than taken seriously as a musician, let us factor centuries of music racism into our analysis.
Any avid hip hop fan has heard a world-famous rapper actively refuse the title in their lyrics. In his trap ballad “Apple Pie,” Travis Scott exclaims “I am everything except a rapper,” and explains in interviews that “artist” is his preferred label. In his debut album Section.80, Kendrick Lamar viciously delivered the lines “Matter of fact, don’t mistake me for no fucking rapper.” Both these lines were, in fact, rapped. What makes these rappers so abhorrent of their given career title? Perhaps it is because when a young black boy expresses dreams of becoming a rapper, he is often laughed at. It doesn’t feel likely that a young white girl with dreams of being a singer would be met with the same response. In American culture, rappers are known as criminals, degenerates making a quick buck off cheap tracks, indoctrinating the youth with their deplorable agendas. After Kendrick rapped his opus “Alright” from atop a police car on the BET Awards, Geraldo Rivera responded by saying “Hip hop does more damage to African Americans than racism.” While an entire master thesis could be written on the idiocy of this statement, it promptly proves the magnitude of American hatred for hip hop. Indeed, sales are sky high for rap tracks, but commercial performance and actual cultural respect are not the same things. Remember that like our electoral map, the sentiments of the metropolitan coasts are far different from those further inland. As we navigate this treacherous political climate, hip hop can serve as a microcosm of our divided nation. “Panda” may have reached number 1 on the Billboard Hot 100, but it’s improbable that the half of the country that voted for Donald Trump is made up of Desiigner fans. In sum, it is safe to say that “rapper” is a label with baggage.
Those who deny the prevalence of racism in hip hop might argue that it is a genre so littered with corrosive content that it deserves its reputation. Indeed, sex and violence have become lyrical staples in raps over the years, but first we must address the hypocrisy of any rock n’ roll fan in the world that attempts to point fingers at oversexed or misogynistic content. Might I offer some “Brown Sugar,” or “Cherry Pie” as potential refreshments here? Moreover, to address violent content, let us recall that music is artwork. Has Martin Scorsese been publicly scorned for depicting the violence of New York City? NWA’s “Fuck the Police” was an account of the inner city reality of 1980s Los Angeles. Perhaps before blanketing every rapper who mentions a gun in a song as a sociopath aimlessly rampaging upon our public servants, one should consider that they speak of their environment, and ponder how their environment reached such anarchy in the first place. In other words, American society historically reduced black communities to drug-fueled war zones, and when the black communities expressed their perils through music, the music faced the same widespread discrimination that created the environment in the first place.
Geraldo targeting Kendrick Lamar’s “Alright” as an example of harmful music is a tragic irony in itself. Indeed, “Alright” is a modern homage to “Fuck the Police,” with a chorus that ends with “We hate ‘popo,’ wanna kill us dead in the street for sure,” but also ends with “If God got us, then we’re gonna be alright.” We could have guessed that Fox News would walk right into this one, but given Kendrick’s role in revolutionizing the mastery of hip hop as an art form, it’s amusing that he of all people fell between the crosshairs. Let it be understood, however, that not all hip hop is wholesome. Some rappers do inspire more harm than help. But do we denounce all of rock n’ roll because of the music of Nickelback? Not usually, and so the same logic should apply to the blunders of some of today’s less respectable rap and trap artists. “CoCo” by OT Genasis should not discredit the work of Nas. Yet still, the sweeping remarks of condescension toward the art form continue across our culture.
The third and least recognized factor that shackles the image of hip hop is the deadlocked stigma that rapping and composing hip hop is just easier, that it doesn’t contain the artistic subtlety of other musical disciplines; the idea that real musicians learn an instrument and develop their artistry while rappers just rhyme words together along with the beat. While I have no census bureau statistics on this stigma to cite, I have found myself conversationally defending a rapper’s right to be considered a musician too many times now. Here, it becomes somewhat clearer why skilled rappers tend to hate being called one. Take a moment to identify how hesitant our culture is to call rappers musicians, and it all begins to connect. Keith Richards once told Rolling Stone magazine that he thinks hip hop is “for tone-deaf people,” and “all they need is a drum beat and somebody yelling over it and they’re happy.” While this man’s brilliance as a rock n’ roll pioneer is incontrovertible, he speaks of hip hop like the genre’s equivalent of Reverend Shaw Moore from Footloose. Ask a high school jazz band instructor what they think of hip hop. The overwhelming majority of them will give the same elitist eye-roll. This is why To Pimp A Butterfly strikes the ultimate irony, as a rapper has resurrected jazz music through his album’s sound palette singlehandedly, a genre whose players often do not respect hip hop nearly as much as one might hope.
Moreover, Kendrick’s palpably virtuosic rhythms and rhyme schemes gave the genre consummate evidence of artistry in hip hop. The way today’s rap scene intertwines deft production and melody overall proves that its legacy is just beginning. Artists like Kanye West, Chance the Rapper and Frank Ocean are sonic alchemists, weaving their raps into instrumentals that evade the confines of genre altogether. That being said, however, the sanctity of a rap record should have been obvious decades prior. How many years after “Keep Ya Head Up,” after “It Was a Good Day,” after “Juicy,” will it take for the greater sum of this country to admit that hip hop is the enduring vessel of truth in times of stagnation and despair? Does Snoop Dogg need to rip a guitar solo? Does Jay-Z need to sing like Adele to earn his due respect as a true musical icon?
It’s baffling that the ultimate marriage between music and poetry would be so criminally marginalized over time. Further, it’s believed that simple English and blunt subject matter is unworthy of literary praise, as if artistic quality is restricted to complexity and technical skill. Pop art, or the method of repurposing an existing work in a foreign context, is fully recognized in visual art, but when a musician first discovers the role of sampling in hip hop, words like “cheating” and “stealing” begin to fly… because albums like Late Registration practically produce themselves, right? Was Warhol slighted for using pre-existing images, or for not being able to paint like Monet?
And finally, there are those that will optimistically argue that hip hop just isn’t old enough for classic status, and that the time will come. After all, the biopics are only beginning to roll out now. So for any reader who perceives hip hop as any less meaningful, artistic, subtle, or culturally vital as other historic genres, anyone who chooses to ignore the thousands of beats and verses that brought this world a little joy, please understand the ever-so-poignant weight of discrimination. It tends to obstruct one’s happiness. Hopefully in due time, these stubborn skeptics will hear Outkast’s “SpottieOttieDopaliscious,” or Jay Electronica’s “Better in Tune with the Infinite,” or Kanye West’s “Ultralight Beam.” In the 1950s, Elvis Presley took songs like “Hound Dog” from poor black musicians and prospered on their work. In 2015, Taylor Swift was awarded the Grammy for album of the year, instead of Kendrick Lamar for To Pimp A Butterfly. Progress may move at a glacial pace, but if there’s one thing this country has shown, it’s that oppression only makes a community’s culture stronger. I guess they just never thought hip hop would take it this far.