It’s all about the Art

“The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behaviour. That sinks into the minds of some young people – the group that is most likely to reject religion.” – Bill O’Reiley, Fox

These are some of the fine words used by Bill O’Reiley during his explanation of why he thought Christianity was on the decline in America in a recent video. If you ask me, even if O’Reily’s theory were true, it wouldn’t be much of a bad thing (given my own issues with religions in general and they ways they impose strict dogmas on those affiliated.) Hell, I wish more hip-hop MCs criticised the issues surrounding religion, but sadly the genre cannot take all the credit.

Mr. O’Reiley needs to look a little closer, and really examine why young people reject religion, rather than frame hip-hop as this demonic force. I am actually offended that Mr O’Reiley assumes that listeners are brainless sheep who will succumb to any media message, with no autonomy whatsoever over their own decisions.

The fact is, I hate how hip-hop is used as a scape goat for youth crime, unemployment or in this case the rejection of religion. But this isn’t new. Since the emergence of the first ‘Gangster” hip-hop group, ‘N.W.A’, in 1988, media critics have consistently expressed genuine concern about the way political rebellion, violence and crime have been glamourised in hip-hop music. Much debate has been had on the veritable effects of this music, as well the behaviour it supposedly encourages.

haha

Last year (or the year before I can’t quite remember) Philosopher Aaron Smuts wrote a paper called The Ethics of Singing A Long: The Case of Mind of a Lunatic’. In this, Mr. Smuts argued that serious moral issues arise when people sing along to grossly disgusting tracks like the Geto Boys cult classic ‘Mind of a Lunaitc’

 (If you haven’t heard it you probably should, Bushwick Bills verse will literally make you squirm). Smuts believes that it is evil to imagine violence and considers the very content that evokes such thoughts, as equally evil. But this sort of thought ultimately only leads to biased and misguided views.  To make serious, moral and ultimately objective value judgements about the lyrical content of a song and the genre alike with zero acknowledgment for the extra-musical factors that must be understood leads to biased and misguided views.

It’s really just another episode in an ongoing series of how hip-hop music is unfairly framed. I guess my question here is this: why do we always end up at this point where hip-hop and other cultures that so often challenge the status quo are so readily demonized? I know that it has been suggested these conflicts are inevitable between generation gaps, conservatives, general ignorants, or even among elite power structures trying to expunge ‘deviant’ sub cultures that preach freedom of the mind. I would say that these are all contributing factors. But what I would also add is that is a lot has to do with race.

Now I am sure many who are belligerently ignorant will groan at these suggestions, especially my so called pulling of the ‘race card’. But the fact it is, there is a race issue here and it is very, very real. The agency that African Americans exercise in hip-hop, and their ability to truly express themselves in unmitigated, uncensored rhetoric, is a testament to the true power of music. This freedom to express provides the means to break free from stereotyped personas, and enables the strategic essentialisation of African-American identity.

One of my favourite hip-hop scholars, Imani Perry, has continually argued this about the relationship (or lack thereof) between politics/morals and artistic quality in hip-hop. Perry claims that the correlation between artistic quality and morals doesn’t hold in hip-hop any more than it would in other art forms. That is to say, hip-hop should not be judged for its political message, but rather for its artistry. A hip-hop song can have be laced with heavenly ideals, but in the end if you have simple lyrics, zero flow, mixed with some weak beats and some clumsy sampling, you’ve got a really shitty track. I liken it to three year old’s painting; it may well be done with the greatest of intentions and a nice social message, but in reality we both know it is a terrible piece of art. The same goes for hip-hop. Big L’s tracks were laced with misogyny and homophobia – ideas that are contrary to my own beliefs – but the insane lyrical skill exhibited by Big L in every track is what I commend. It is simply a bonus when the social message and the artistry are simultaneously on point.

The reason I believe this is race issue is because of how widely accepted white art is, irrespective of “immorality,” while black art is demonized on all levels. If you don’t believe me – have look at your school curriculums. Fine “white” literature and “white” art works around us are often a cesspit of immoral themes. In truth, Shakespeare’s work was full of incest, sex and murder. ‘Of Mice and Men’ is a book about an intellectually handicapped man, who upon accidentally breaking a woman’s neck, is executed by his best friend. Apollo and Daphne is a famous marble sculpture by Bernini that depicts the prelude to the raping of Daphne by Apollo.

In all these examples, while remaining in admiration of the talent at play, we downplay the immorality exhibited, and justify “evil” presences against the backdrop of the artistry. If I were to ever argue these texts should be removed from school curriculums, I know for a fact many would leap in defense. They would say that Shakespeare was the biggest influence in History on English literature. They would argue that John Steinbeck was able to create harrowing metaphor to simulate the mirage that is the American Dream. They would point to Bernini’s ability to create one of the most realistic depictions of the human anatomy than ever before.

So why don’t we do the same for hip-hop? My argument isn’t centered on hip-hop being taught in schools (even though it could be). Rather, it is that the political message doesn’t determine the value of the song.

The artistic freedom exhibited by MCs is similar to the power that is exercised by the White artists mentioned above. When the Geto Boys talk about the heinous acts in ‘Mind of a Lunatic’ these MCs are simply exercising and testing their own freedom of expression, taking advantage of the opportunity to say whatever they want. As listeners we can make active judgements and condemnations toward the moral content but we cannot ignore the artistry, the rhyme flows, the MC’s ability to paint lyrical narratives, or the chilling beat.

To deny African American works of the art the same attention that is given to white works of arts is fundamentally racist. For the Geto Boys these violent fantasises may evoke power in those who feel powerless, and that is the power to express oneself and have complete control over an artwork.

I suppose this all comes down to how we think about music – which seems to be a common theme in my articles of late. If we, as I do, assume that music should be considered in the same light as other art works, our judgments should revolve around the artistic values, not the messages. In doing this we as listeners are open to different layers of appreciation of songs.

However if you are like my good friend Bill O’Reiley and maintain that Hip-Hop is poisoning our youth, well, I guess you better take one final look at the texts around you. Be it albums, books or movies, the fact is that these works are likely filled with “evil” ideas, and you should probably throw them out.

– oh, and that includes your bible.

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