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How politically liberating is rap music?
NWA was a gangsta rap crew who told stories of the ‘hustler’ lifestyle where “life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” As such, they relied heavily on being as offensive as possible. The cover of their 1988 album, Straight Outta Compton, features a power-emphasising low-angle shot of the band members looking down into the camera, which places the audience in the position of the defeated enemy. A gun is pointing straight at us. Each man is wearing ‘street’ clothes, and one has a chunky gold necklace showing. The picture is shot in natural lighting, and the eyes of three of the men are obscured by shadows. Judging by their stern facial expressions, they probably won’t be showing mercy. This is the image they’re aiming for: hard, ruthless, cold. Over the course of the narrative the three front men - Ice Cube, MC Ren and Eazy-E - accuse the LAPD of racism and violence and go so far as to threaten any rogue officers with death. Their overtly violent stance separates them from the rap mainstream, and the righteous anger of the song - the marked refusal to let the enemy smite the other cheek - is loaded with subversive potential. It begins with a courtroom scene pastiche in which the DJ, Dr. Dre, re-positions himself as the judge and the three vocalists as witnesses. In his booming voice Judge Dre asks Ice Cube if he swears to tell “the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, so help your black ass?” Ice Cube replies: “You’re Goddamn right!” The exaggerated informality of the NWA courtroom shows how they also bring a sense of humour with them. Tricia Rose says “oppressed people use language, dance, and music to mock those in power, express rage, and produce fantasies of subversion.”1 This can be a powerful tool for raising awareness of problems that face African Americans, and engendering the spirit of resistance in others. NWA’s mocking role-plays give way to rage over the verses, where they lay down the charges against the police. One of the less strongly worded and blatantly valid accusations comes from Ice Cube: “Searching my car/Looking for the product/Thinking every nigga is sellin’ narcotics.” This refers to ‘profile’ arrests - Rose’s name for the policy of stopping and searching young black males, particularly if they are driving an expensive car, on the shaky and unashamedly racist basis that they’re more likely to possess drugs than anyone else. With a firm grounding in reality, Ice Cube’s words provide a rallying point for young black men suffering from the same police treatment.
In reaction to profile harassment NWA display the will, characteristic of gangsta rap, “to meet a violent world with alluring, shocking fast talk and, if necessary, with hard fists and bullets.”2 Eazy-E makes a representative comment about “playin’ with the trigger of an Uzi or an AK.” Not surprisingly, critics of gangsta rap often focus on the issue of violence. Studies have apparently found that exposure to rap music "tends to lead to a higher degree of acceptance of the use of violence." Time magazine reported in June 1989 that “most Americans blame lyrics glorifying sex and violence for increasing teen violence, and two-thirds want more regulation of those lyrics.”3 Furthermore, “their celebrity status also serves to glamorize their violent behaviour.”4 This was certainly the case with Snoop Doggy Dogg, who was involved in a drive-by shooting in the early nineties (giving himself up to the police only after presenting En Vogue with a video gong at the MTV awards) and, according to the Q magazine of February 1994, “as the seriousness of the criminal charges against him became known, so the pre-sales of Dogg's as yet entirely unheard record began to soar.”5 Before it was even released it had sold two million copies. After hearing of the drive-by shooting, people would have no doubt that the violence in Dogg’s music will be to some extent based on truth. Therefore, the record sales surely must indicate widespread attraction to violence within the youthful record-buying public - if only on a voyeuristic, non-participatory level at first - and it’s easy to see why people may worry about the role of rap in the perpetuation of violence in American society. However, the issue is more complex than that. Errol E. Henderson summarises the argument put forth by gangsta rapper Ice-T in his song ‘Squeeze the Trigger’: “rap music did not cause violence any more than soccer matches, hockey games, or nuclear peace rallies-all the sites of some form of violence. The larger and important point was that youth live in a violent society, and at its best, the music that captured this ethos would evoke violent images. Therefore it is foolish to assume, as many policy makers did, that rap music was causing violence as opposed to reflecting the violence within many urban communities.”6 This is the standard pro-gangsta argument, which Eazy-E affirms: “We’re telling the real story of what it’s like living in places like Compton…. We’re giving the fans reality. We’re like reporters….” This explains the participatory, non-judgemental style of narrative that Brian Cross calls the gangsta norm, and which is the major issue of contention.7 NWA largely conform to this format, but some of the lyrics on Straight Outta Compton are actually to some extent self-critical. In ‘Gangsta, Gangsta’, Ice Cube acknowledges the impeachability of his gang’s ethical code: “Do I look like a muthafuckin’ role model?” In this respect, the group don’t pretend to be morally correct in any way and mirror the gleeful nihilism of punk bands before them like the Sex Pistols. Eazy-E summarises the situation in ‘Fuck Tha Police’: “my identity by itself causes violence.” Assuming that by ‘identity’ he refers to his black skin, and considering racist police conduct, in essence he is always saying, ‘I am violent because you forced me to be.’ This can be seen as a direct challenge to critics: get rid of poverty and racism at root, and you get rid of gangsta rappers hassling you.
The biggest irony of the debate about violence in rap is the fact that when you hold a song like ‘Fuck Tha Police’ up to the American constitution litmus test, it becomes clear that, as Americans, NWA are merely asserting “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.” (4th Amendment) They do so with guns, which is necessary in the respect that the enemy (police and rival gangs) are armed, but is also fundamentally okay because “the right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed.” (2nd Amendment) Of course, this argument is stretched at times because the gangstas seem to take so much pleasure in messing with guns - and it therefore becomes more than a simple matter of necessity, and enters the realm of vulgar displays of imagined patriarchal power (as I shall discuss later). But it is interesting to look at the extent to which gangsta rap values resemble mainstream American values. For instance, NWA and their counterparts often celebrate the capitalist’s dream of personal wealth and expensive clothes and jewellery. In ‘Fuck Tha Police’ Ice Cube mentions his “little bit of gold and a pager” and “me and Lorenzo rollin’ in the Benzo” (presumably a reference to a Mercedes Benz). This kind of attitude is also exemplified by the likes of Tupac, Ice-T and Notorious B.I.G., and shows how pervasive white middle class values are even among those who set themselves up in opposition to them. Another problem with this attitude, that Chuck D from Public Enemy warns, is the gulf between the average person in the street and the rap superstar: “we have to watch out, because our masses are waiting by bus stops and going to the laundromat... These cats have to be careful of rubbing their spoils in the faces of the masses.” Which is a good point because it is not politically liberating to be obsessed with money.
Gangsta rap’s mistreatment of women is another habit inherited from white America (though obviously sexism pre-dates modern America), which also threatens to undermine the subversive potential of the music. According to bell hooks, “black males, utterly disenfranchised in almost every arena of life in the United States, often find that the assertion of sexist domination is their only expressive access to the patriarchal power they are told all men should possess as their gendered birthright.”8 This may explain the constant reference to women as bitches in Straight Outta Compton. Despite the attempt in ‘I Ain’t Tha One’ to focus particularly on money-grabbing women, Ice Cube blows his cover when he says: “You know I spell ‘girl’ with a ‘B’.” Clearly this attitude is counterproductive. It should be noted that Ice Cube has since renounced the domination of women: “If I wanted to give orders, I’d get me a German shepherd or somethin’.”9 However, he maintains, as bell hooks paraphrases, that “some females ‘carry’ themselves in a manner that determines how they will be treated.” In reaction to this kind of attitude the female gangsta rapper Lil’ Kim has taken the bitch image to the extreme. Her lyrical contribution to the song ‘Would They Die For You’ from Mase’s album Harlem World is representative: “I’m the same bitch all y’all wanna try ya luck with/Lil’ Kim spread like syphilis/You think I’m pussy?/I dare you to stick your dick in this.” She emphasises her sexual desirability - thus ‘carrying’ herself in a way that might determine how she will be treated. But she retains the right to dress and act as she pleases without being reduced to the label of ‘pussy,’ and dares any would-be rapist/male dominator to come ahead and try - the implication being that they’d be sorry for it afterwards. Lil’ Kim’s image as a strong woman in gangsta rap is helpful because it provides a rallying point for young black women who find themselves mistreated. The problem with Lil’ Kim, however, is that she is still marketed as an object of sexual desire, just as white female pop stars like Britney Spears are. She is still objectified. Also, her adoption of the word ‘bitch’ is questionable. On the one hand, she threatens to erode its misogynistic power. Likewise, the constant use of the word ‘nigger’ by general gangstas hacks away at the hateful power it once had. Even hardcore opponent of “white supremacist, capitalist patriarchy” bell hooks can be found saying ‘nigger’ from time to time. But Yvonne Bynoe rightly says that recent atrocities committed against African Americans (for example, James Byrd being dragged to death behind a pickup truck in Texas) show that “the original concept of a ‘nigger’ as a sub-human still exists in America.” (And of course the concept of a ‘bitch’ as a woman to be conquered and tamed still exists.) She argues that “we should understand the weight of words. Words like ‘nigger,’ ‘buck,’ ‘coon,’ ‘mammy’ and ‘bitch’ were used to dehumanize us and therefore helped to rationalize the brutality levelled against us for centuries.”10 Therefore, as America is far from full of liberal attitudes, the use of such words can only be starkly regressive - providing further fuel for racism.
Malcolm X said there are limits to what singing can achieve. “This is part of what’s wrong with you. You do too much singing. Today, it’s time to stop singing and start swinging.”11 By ‘swinging’ Malcolm X meant fighting for the cause and actually overcoming rather than singing ‘We Shall Overcome.’ Public Enemy are one of those rare groups capable of swinging while singing. They refrain from using words like ‘nigger’ and ‘bitch’, they rarely swear, and like to keep their anger precise and controlled. Image-wise, the band members do not display any of the riches of gangsta rappers, though they do wear defiant facial expressions and can often be found in military garb. The cover of their second album, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, has the front men Chuck D and Flavor Flav standing in a jail cell, facing the camera defiantly. Flavor, the secondary rapper and ‘jester’ figure of the band, wears cartoonish plastic sunglasses and his trademark clock for a necklace - a clock which perhaps symbolises Public Enemy’s intention to really let people know ‘what time it is.’ The Public Enemy logo of a black man in the sight of a gun sits just above them. Excerpts from live shows, in which Chuck D and Flavor Flav order the crowd to scream while sinister sirens wail in the background, punctuate the songs. Flavor starts a call-and-response chant of ‘bring that beat back!’, emphasising the two-way nature of the music - the importance of audience participation. The crowd sounds like a mob being roused to some kind of a revolutionary fervour. Flavor is confrontational in these extracts, as he is elsewhere: “I don’t think they can handle this, Chuck.” The crowd rise to the challenge with more cheers and screams. Thus the tone of the album is established.
‘She Watch Channel Zero?!’ begins with Flavor Flav shouting: “You’re blind, baby, you’re blind from the facts of who you are ’cause you’re watching that garbage.” Flavor is not usually a rapper outright, instead restricting his contributions to short, sneering, seemingly improvised rants like the one that introduces this song. As Tricia Rose says, he is effectively a “news activist, his role is to tell you the news and what to do about it all in the same breath.” So, the fact that you’re blind ’cause you’re watching that garbage can be considered the news. Elsewhere in the song he shouts: “Read a book or something! Read about yourself, learn your culture.” This is the thing to do about it. While it later becomes clear that Public Enemy are primarily concerned with the deadening effects of television on black people, Flavor’s words can easily be transposed onto a white audience. His loose and spontaneous style of delivery contrasts well with Chuck D’s precise, ordered rapping: “2, 7, 5, 4, 8 she watched she said/All added up to zero/And nothing in her head.” The contrasting sound of the two voices is important too: Chuck D’s being low and booming and providing an aura of seriousness and authority; Flavor Flav’s adding a shrill, humorous edge, like an excitable but knowledgeable child. He seems to get progressively more agitated as the song progresses, though, until he is saying: “Yo, baby, you think I’m jokin’? Do I look I’m jokin’? I ain’t jokin’.”
The central metaphor of ‘She Watch’ is this fictional Channel Zero, which represents the emptiness of those many channels on offer. Chuck D continues: “Her brain’s being washed by an actor/And every real man that tries to approach/Come the closer he comes/He gets dissed like a roach.” Sut Jhally states the obvious when she says: "The more TV you watch, the more you think the world is like TV.”12 The female subject of Chuck D’s narrative spends her time watching actors and therefore expects “real men” to be like the actors. Flavor Flav drives the point home: “People don’t look like that, people don’t even live like that! You’re watching garbage.” bell hooks says that black children are sent out “into a world that does not value them, that does not value blackness,” and cites the desire of many black girls to straighten and dye their hair to appear more ‘white’ as a significant example. The media plays its part in this denial of blackness by presenting the white, blonde woman as the epitome of feminine beauty.13 In Spike Lee’s film Malcolm X we observe a young and naive Malcolm scraping his hair into a parting, again in an attempt to appear whiter. These are the kinds of negative effects of the media, and particularly television, that Public Enemy wish to reverse. In his third ad lib of the song, Flavor seems to position himself as a television watcher in the next room to the woman, only he isn’t watching the soaps: “I got the Tyson fight on in here, you know what I’m sayin’? Watch the superbowl, we got a black quarterback, so step back.” Despite the image that this conjures of a frantic Black Nationalist couch potato pestering everyone else in the house, the serious message is that black people are asserting their presence at the top of the sporting world. When Flavor tells us to “step back” - as if to say, ‘step back out of the limelight’ - it may be to suggest that African Americans will not be marginalized for much longer. This positive attitude is what gangsta rap too often lacks. Chuck D addresses this issue in interview: “this is a society that is always treading on black people, who are being thrown negativity and are adopting the negativity. Being positive is like going up a mountain. Being negative is like sliding down a hill. A lot of times, people want to take the easy way out, because it's basically what they've understood throughout their lives.”14
So far I have dealt mainly with the gangsta rap of NWA and the politically conscious rap of Public Enemy. Cypress Hill, from Los Angeles, take a much more laid-back approach to their music - indeed, their chief subject matter is the calming influence of marijuana, as shown in tracks like ‘Stoned is the Way of the Walk,’ ‘I Wanna Get High’ and ‘Hits From the Bong.’ They spread their thematic wings occasionally with some songs about guns and women dotted about their albums, but they will always be known for their preoccupation with the drug. Lyrically, therefore, Cypress Hill have little to offer in the way of political liberation, except their advocacy of NORML (National Organisation For The Reform Of Marijuana Laws) and of the general notion of marijuana as a cultural replacement for alcohol - none of which applies specifically to African Americans. Their power lies in what Brian Cross calls the reawakening of people “to the fact that what was special about [hiphop] culture was its ability to laugh in the face of adversity.”15 The song ‘Pigs’ - a subversion of the children’s rhyme ‘This Little Piggy’ - is a good example. With simple and catchy musical backing (bass, drums, sampled guitar line), lead rapper B-Real takes us through a series of fictional policemen, each displaying varying degrees of stupidity, incompetence, or corruption. “Well this pig he's really cool/So in this class we know he rides all alone/Well this pig's standin' eatin' donuts/While some motherfucker’s out robbin' your home.” B-Real hints that the “cool” policeman may soon be crying ‘weeeee-weeeee-weeeee’ all the way home, while evoking the humorous cliché of the American police officer with donut in hand. The actual music of the band is slow and calming - it is essentially party music, as liberating as the concept of bringing people together.
Apart from singing too many songs, Malcolm X was vehement in accusing his people of not having “sense enough” to take control of their money. “We have to… educate our people into the importance of knowing that when you spend your dollar out of the community in which you live, the community in which you spend your money becomes richer and richer. The community out of which you take your money becomes poorer and poorer.”16 This is precisely the problem that faces the majority of rap artists - the fact that the music industry is dominated by an oligopoly of white-owned corporations and, therefore, too much of the money hiphop generates goes to another community. The dilemma, as the MC Boots Riley from the Coup says, is “if you don't go through the major corporation, very few people hear what you have to say.” Also, “it might cost $300,000 for a video, and $3million to promote a hit record through the mainstream. Therefore, it [the record label] can actually dictate the whole direction of where hip hop should go.”17 Tricia Rose points out that the problem extends beyond money - that as “most popular culture is electronically mass-mediated, hidden or resistant popular transcripts are readily absorbed into the public domain and subject to incorporation and invalidation.”18 This often leads to a curious blend of revolutionary politics and blatant subservience to record companies - as is the case with the rap-rock band Rage Against the Machine. They are what Chuck D terms the “epitome of an anti-establishment within the establishment,” rapping disobedient slogans like “Fuck you I won’t do what you tell me” and “We gotta take the power back” - all the while answering to Epic Associated Records Ltd. This is precisely why rap artists like Eazy E and Chuck D sought other means of getting their records to their audiences. Impressively, Eazy E “managed to turn a cottage industry [Ruthless Records] into a multi-million-dollar business overnight, while still maintaining control.” He refused to deal with major record labels because they took too long to put the records out, but aside from that “we also got the creative freedom and solid distribution too.”19 This independent route has proved itself effective in dodging the grasp of the white-owned majors, and the final insult in Eazy E’s case was that his recording career was kick-started with money gathered from drug dealing and prostitution. Boots Riley still isn’t satisfied though, and points out that the money these rappers make from “no sell out” independent labels is rarely used for constructive causes such as education, food, shelter and clothing for the impoverished people they are often supposed to represent. He adds that “many times indie labels are just aspiring to be major labels and they don't necessarily give a damn what they're putting out and putting forth as long as it sells, so being part of an indie label is not in and of itself some sort of revolutionary act.”20
Rap “is a forum born out of call-and-response,” and therefore at its core has always encouraged healthy, artistic competition, and also a sense of togetherness and participation. Unlike the majority of popular music, there are often multiple voices in rap songs, as heard in Cypress Hill, Public Enemy and NWA’s work. In the absence of a lone front man for people to idolise the emphasis is on the group as a whole - and even ‘solo’ rappers like Ice Cube usually have a substantial crew of other rappers to back them up. The DJ is often as likely to be singled out for praise as the vocalists (Grandmaster Flash and Dr. Dre being two notable examples). The use of two turntables is one of the lasting legacies of hiphop, allowing the DJ to meld different records into each other to create a spontaneous collage of sounds. “This homemade approach resembles the strategy of punk music at the time; breaking down the huge production aesthetic of theatre rock of the seventies, reducing rock music to its fundamentals.” The art of scratching, pioneered by Grandwizard Theodore, is a highly creative and simultaneously destructive way to use turntable equipment, because in the process of creating the unique rhythmic sound, records inevitably get destroyed. Less self-indulgent than the propensity of many rock stars for smashing up equipment at the end of a show, nevertheless Grandwizard Theodore “taught us to abuse our most highly prized possessions,” which has a clear anti-materialist message.20 Rap has some of its roots in old African American traditions of ‘toasting’ - the speaking of “vernacular poetry made from street language.” Toasting itself is linked to what Cross calls the “African art of rhyming over beats,” which is clearly rap’s birthplace.21 Ultimately, hiphop is “a community of bedrooms… In homes all over the city people gather around turntables… different perspectives are shared, microphone techniques are invented and beatbrokers collage new soundtracks for urban survival.”22 Bringing people together, encouraging creativity, celebrating blackness - this is rap’s true legacy.
- Rose, p. 100
- Norton, p. 60
- http://www.theexaminer.org/volume5/number5/music.htm ‘Filthy Music: It Is Time For the Public to Speak Out’ By Thomas L. Jipping, J.D., Director, Free Congress Center for Law & Democracy
- Q Magazine, June 1994 http://www.qonline.co.uk/q4musicstore/DisplayProductDetails.cfm?ObjectUUID=A6DA6E4F-9EBC-11D4-84460002553035E0
- Cross, p. 36
- hooks, p. 118
- hooks, p. 143
- http://www.urbanthinktank.org/nword.cfm ‘The Use of the N-Word: We’re Talking Out Both Sides of Our Mouth’, by Yvonne Bynoe
- Norton, p. 93
- hooks, p. 110
- Cross, p. 59
- Norton, p. 95
- Rose, p. 102
- Cross, p. 36
- Cross, p. 10
- Cross, p. 65
- Cross, p. 63
- Henry Louis Gates Jr. ed, Norton Anthology of African American Literature, Norton1997
- Cross, Brian, It’s Not About a Salary, Oxford, 1989
- Rose, Tricia, Black Noise: rap music and black culture in contemporary America, London: University Press of New England, 1994
Lil’ Kim guesting on Mase’s album, Harlem World, Bad Boy Entertainment, 1997
Public Enemy, It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Def Jam, 1988
NWA, Straight Outta Compton, Priority Records, 1988
Cypress Hill, Black Sunday, Columbia, 1993