I am not a hip hop head in the slightest. I don’t spend hours reminiscing about hip hop released before 1998 (nothing wrong if you do), I can’t name every member in the Wu Tang Clan, and I don’t blame Soulja Boy for “ruining” hip hop. In fact, a good portion of the hip hop I do listen to would probably fall within the guidelines of what a hip hop purist would never consider “real” hip hop. I spent my high school years swerving my two-door Toyota Camry to the likes of Webbie, Lil’ Boosie, and Three 6 Mafia. On the flip side, I do enjoy my share of hip hop/rap that many would classify as intellectual, conscious, and “real”.
Ramblings aside, my years of listening to hip hop/rap music spanning regions and time periods has exposed me to the hierarchical structure that is present among many hip hop listeners. Within this rating structure, “real” and conscious hip hop is regulated to the top, and dance/party/”ratchet” (i.e “ghetto”) hip hop usually holds the bottom position. Respectability politics reign supreme, and the rationalization behind this hierarchy is elitist and classist in nature.
I have noticed a trend. Artists who speak about their lives in working class environments (and use them as backdrops in their videos), heavily employ the use of non standard English or AAVE, or just present themselves through their music in a way that is not accepted by mass media are usually waved off of as remedial, uncouth, and accused of “embarrassing” the Black community. I understand and appreciate critiques of lyrical content in reference to misogyny, violence, queerphobia, etc., but what makes problematic material at the hands of Lupe Fiasco more acceptable than problematic material at the hands of say, Waka Flocka Flame?
It seems as if one’s story is not worth acknowledging if it is not presented in ways that are deemed “respectable” by the larger mainstream society. And as a result the narratives that are usually pushed to the side are those by or representing poor People of Color, specifically Blacks living in marginalized or underrepresented areas (usually located in the south).
And with most of these stories/songs, people do not take the time to critically examine and think about how the conditions of one’s environment might influence their lyrics and their persona/image. I think the most telling example of this can be seen in the responses to the burgeoning hip hop scene coming out of Chicago right now. And I am not talking about Common, Kanye West, or Lupe Fiasco. I am in fact referring to the Chief Keefs, the Sasha GoHards, the Lil’ Durks, and the Katie Got Bandz that are working hard, perfecting their craft, and hoping to make their mark on the industry.
With these young artists, I’ve noticed that many are quick to confidently state that their violent lyrics are either a cause or an exacerbating factor in the rising murder rate in the Chicago area. I understand that artists should be aware of the inherent political power of their music, but how can an effect of a situation be a cause? The high murder rate in Chicago had been an issue before Chief Keef & Co. even came on the scene, and unfortunately may still be present even after their run in the industry comes to an end. For me, these young artists have shown a bright light on the current situation in Chicago, and have given me a glimpse into their lives via their homegrown lyrics and music videos based in & around the neighborhoods they grew up in and currently live in.
Rather than trying to silence the Chief Keefs and Sasha GoHards of this scene for “ruining” hip hop, more effort should be turned towards identifying and understanding the shortcomings of our own society that have created conditions where things like this and this are becoming more and more commonplace in working class neighborhoods inhabited by people of color across the country. Lackluster underfunded public schools, high unemployment rates among the youth in our communities, the pushing of people of color out of their neighborhoods to make room for gentrifiers and their Starbucks are all things that are just as deserving of criticism. Not just the youngsters who are shedding light on the situations they are in and possibly trying to escape.
Don’t shoot the messenger.