By X. Malcolm. Trigger Warning! Not for snowflakes. Second in a series on the degeneration of black music. Part I here.
In part I, I summarised the elements of the rap genre as I see them, in particular how it seems to be influenced by Malcolm X’s brand of identity politics. In Part II I shall try to assess the genre. Does it succeed as art, or as political philosophy, or anything else?
In trying to assess the genre, I shall ignore the first two, namely repetitive groove sampled from the beats of Starks and Stubblefield, and the use of speech rather than song. One is simply a musical style: nuanced repetition is the stock in trade of composers such as Philip Glass, and speech song or Sprechgesang is a technique long practised in the classical tradition and a significant part of the canon. This is style, it could reasonably be argued that style is a matter of taste, and I shall not quarrel with taste.
The third and the fourth are peculiar to rap. One is an aggressive style of delivery in the language of the streets, the other is broadly anchored in the politics of Malcolm X. I say ‘broadly’, for if a position is a political ideology, then it must as such possess some form of internal consistency or coherence. The assumptions behind it do not have to be true, but they must be consistent. If we say that the agenda of black politics should be set by radical organizations that advocate armed self-defence against the police, this is a version of the just war doctrine, which sees violence as sometimes morally justified under certain circumstances, and it is perfectly consistent.
The problem with rap is the lack of such internal consistency.
Take money. Most ideologies have a view on it, e.g. love of it is the root of all evil. Now the wealth that rappers have made from their craft is legendary. The net worth of Jay Z is currently estimated at $600m, of Dr Dre at $750m. This equals long-established performers like Madonna $800m, McCartney $660m. Their wealth is ostentatious: the typical rapper’s mansion might be worth $20m, 25,000 sq ft, with 15 bathrooms, perhaps a theatre or helipad, in one case a private night club. Is that wrong? No, it is patronising to criticise members of a poor and oppressed class for escaping poverty and oppression. ‘Middle finger to you hatin’ niggas, That hate to see a nigga do his thing’.
But the rap is all boast and braggadocio. The first commercially successful rap single was full of it. ‘Hear me talkin’ ‘bout chequebook credit cards mo’ money than a sucker could ever spend.’ NWA waxed philosophical. ‘Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money . . . Fuck bitches, get money, Fuck niggas, get money’. To brag about wealth is hardly a position, and such ostentation is not the basis of any political philosophy, and it does not address systemic racial and socio-economic oppression. Nor is this ‘oppressed people’s music’.
Take violence. Rap lyrics, and especially so-called gangsta rap, is famous for it.
For every one of those fuckin’ police, I’d like to take a pig out here in this parkin’ lot and shoot ‘em in their mothafuckin’ face.
Cop Killer, fuck police brutality!
Cop Killer, I know your family’s grievin’ ... Fuck ‘Em!
So they complain about the police, and seek redress for the injustice, but what are they doing to attract this unwelcome attention from the law in the first place? Well, only some dope-dealin’, some gang-bangin’, takin’ niggas out with a flurry of buck shots etc. Where is the consistency? Unfairness requires a presumption of innocence. Again, NWA complain about the police searching cars, ‘thinking every nigger is selling narcotas’, yet other black artists openly boast of the practice. ‘I was only 17, had the neighborhood hooked / Had ‘em stealing out they crib ‘cause my crack taste like ribs’.
They may say they document the violence of street life, yet the words celebrate it. Famously ‘Hit ‘Em Up’ by Tupac Shakur: ‘Killing ain’t fair but somebody got to do it, You’d better back the fuck up before you get smacked the fuck up .. Takin’ a life or two, that’s what the hell I do, You don’t like how I’m livin’? Well, fuck you!’ Famously, Shakur was murdered only three months after its release.
It has too often been real. In 1991, Dr. Dre attacked presenter Dee Barnes, slamming her face and body against a wall. Dre commented ‘[if] somebody fucks with me, I’m gonna fuck with them. .. Besides, it ain’t no big thing – I just threw her through a door.’ In 1993, Snoop Dogg’s bodyguard shot and killed a member of a rival gang, although he was later acquitted on grounds of self defence. After becoming annoyed by his persistent questions, producer Suge Knight dragged a journalist across the room and shoved his head over a tank of piranhas: ‘How about if my fish eat your fucking face?’ See also this rap sheet.
In their defence of rap, the liberal left have naturally avoided this aspect of the genre. Theresa Martinez (‘Popular Culture as Oppositional Culture: Rap as Resistance.’ Sociological Perspectives 40: 2, 265-86) has claimed it as a form of ‘oppositional culture’ promoting ‘resistance, empowerment, and social critique’. But as Sikivu Hutchinson has complained, this passes over how gang rape, pimping and the murder of prostitutes are ‘chronicled, glorified and paid homage to’ as the spoils of street life. ‘Black female survivors suffer on the margins in a culture that still essentially deems them “unrapeable”’. Nor is there anything liberal about some rappers’ views on gay rights. Try this. ‘Won’t play basketball cause your nails ain’t dry’. ‘I ain’t into faggots,’ added 50 Cent, ‘I don’t like gay people around me, because I’m not comfortable with what their thoughts are,’ although he claimed ‘I’m not prejudiced,’ and that it was OK because on the street they ‘refer to gay people as faggots, as homos. It could be disrespectful, but that’s the facts.’
This is not a position.
As for the overall success of the genre, if it attempts to be serious, it needs to be serious. But rap, in becoming the court jester of black music, has also, with considerable irony, turned into the house negro. Of course, sometimes the fool gets to tell the truth, the truth that would be trouble in the mouth of another, but that is the problem of the fool: we can only take him seriously on the assumption we do not take him seriously. ‘Truth has a genuine power to please if it manages not to give offence, but this is something the gods have granted only to fools’.
Indeed, has the history of black music been about playing the fool? In Golliwogg’s Cakewalk (1908) Debussy not only ‘appropriates’ the rhythms of the negro minstrels, but also the music of the white German nationalist Wagner. Listen out at 1:09 for the opening theme of Tristan. Perhaps Debussy is having a snigger at the pompous high-culture aesthetic of Bayreuth, yet he must contrast it with the vulgar and comical cakewalk – which itself began as black people aping the manners of the white upper class of the American Golden Age: ‘the bumbling attempts of poor blacks to mimic the manners of whites’ (link).
The later American fascination with Harlem was part of a larger fascination with black culture that Nate Sloan believes was imported from France in 1900s, with artists like Picasso painting ‘African’ art, and Debussy writing ‘minstrel’ music. The project was sincerely intended as respectful of ‘primitive’ or ‘exotic’ art, but it was a condescending form of respect. Berliner has complained about the ‘stereotypical representations of black as grands enfants – whether savage, servile or hypersexual’ which helped define the colonial and civilising ‘French self’. ‘Duke’ Ellington’s style of symphonic jazz began at the Cotton Club, open only to whites, where blacks were depicted as jungle savages or ‘darkies’ in the cotton-fields of the South. So the signature sound of probably the greatest black composer of the early twentieth century is located in a white primitivist fantasy. Sloan views this as Western ‘romantic re-imagining’ of non-Westerners as charmingly primitive and primal, but black writer Langston Hughes was more direct, speaking of the Club as ‘a Jim Crow club for gangsters and monied whites’, and likening it to the entertainment provided at a zoo.
Is rap any better? As I have argued, it is not a coherent political philosophy, but a form of entertainment. And do not forget that about 70% of people who buy the stuff are white. Spike Lee has argued that it is just a modern version of the Victorian minstrel performer. Lee grew up aspiring to be like the educated black men he saw reading books and going to college, when young black kids ‘didn't grow up wanting to be a pimp or a stripper like they do now’. Are the personas of the pimp, the pusher and the gangsta just another kind of blackface?
As for this gem, which I began with, I find no redeeming qualities whatever. It does not even pass as entertainment, except for disturbed adolescent boys. Aristotle pointed out long ago that music has a power of forming the character, and should therefore be introduced into the education of the young. ‘For young persons will not, if they can help, endure anything which is not sweetened by pleasure, and music has a natural sweetness’. But this has no sweetness, nor does it seem capable of forming the character.
In summary, rap music is for the most part a form of entertainment. It has made a lot of black people wealthy, but that is precisely because it is entertainment, which needs no coherence or system or ideology, nor the kind of difficult writing or subtlety of thought that is less financially rewarding. Perversely, its ‘oppositional’ and separatist black identity politics has become absorbed into the mainstream culture of America, as another form of stereotype, and has even turned into a weird form of integration, namely the house negro as court jester. Just as Malcolm X complained there are ‘house negroes among us’, so Lee laments that ‘Minstrels are still with us today’. And that irony is still with us today, too.