Volumes have been written about the societal impact of music and lyrics, and I wouldn’t even pretend to know where to start. But seeing as how I have been of rap for as long as I’ve owned a tape player, I thought I’d toss in a couple of moderately-considered points, given the recent controversy surrounding rapper Ludacris\’ upcoming appearance at Summerfest.
I will concede off the bat that rap music may have a different meaning to me than it does to its target audience, African-American males. I’ve always been a white suburban Catholic kid with two parents that drilled me – often painfully so – with lessons of right and wrong. I’ve always consumed rap music, rather than allowing it to consume me. I’ve always been able to compartmentalize it as mere entertainment. That being said, there’s nothing Ludacris or anyone else today that’s doing anything that hasn’t been done for 20 years in rap music.
I don’t listen to much anymore, because not much of it is really any good. Outkast, The Roots, Rhymefest, Ghostface Killah – all making quality contemporary hip-hop. Rap music is a young man’s game, and the themes don’t really interest me all that much. But while the lyrics often are foul and ignorant, the overall theme of youthful rebellion is one that is attractive to young people. The overarching theme of rap is a swagger and confidence that appeals to people – in rap, you can say all the things you want to, but can’t. Ludacris exists because old, white conservatives hate him. And the more he can do to offend the old folks, the more popular he will be. Take him out now, and we’ll be having this same discussion about someone else a year from now.
But for normally right-thinking people, rap music provides escapist entertainment, just like any other numbers of mediums. The academy award for Best Picture last year went (deservedly) to The Departed, a movie featuring foul language, drug use, illegitimate pregnancy, and a boatload of grisly shootings. Yet nobody is picketing the outside of the theaters showing it. The best television show I’ve seen in the past few years has been The Wire, which certainly depicts inner city life in an unflinching manner. I concede that each of these examples are miles ahead of Ludacris in terms of artistic value, but each are also replete with the same glorification of sexuality and violence found in rap music.
Furthermore, there’s plenty of “white” music that deals in the same themes as rap. Nine Inch Nails’ “Closer” managed to become one of the cultural landmarks of the 1990s, despite its refrain of “I want to f*** you like an animal.” In the late ‘90s, teenage boys flocked to see appalling rap-metal bands like Limp Bizkit, whose lyrics make Ludacris sound like Camus by comparison. Yet no protest of any kind took place, with the exception of people with taste. It wasn’t until Eminem started ridiculing homosexuals that he ever got any public attention.
Granted, all the goth and rap-metal concerts aren’t accompanied by much of the violence and shooting deaths that have been seen at rap concerts. This is where my understanding might diverge from an African-American rap fan. In many fatherless inner city homes, there may not be the teaching and discipline I received growing up, so many of the anti-social themes might sink in to minds that didn’t have anyone to teach them better. There might be more of a proclivity to actually live that lifestyle if one isn’t exposed to any alternative. But whether rap music reflects the African-American community or whether the African-American community reflects rap music is anyone’s guess.
Sadly, complaining about foul rap lyrics now is just a signal to the black community that white people are completely out of touch with their situation. If I were African-American, I would be skeptical of any white person that acted like they just learned – GASP! – that there was swearing in rap music. I might wonder what else about black culture those white people had been ignoring for the last quarter-decade. I’d also laugh at all the attention Ludacris is getting, since there are rappers that are a lot raunchier and less talented that could be made examples of.
The most salient point about modern rap music is the one often discussed after the Don Imus controversy – that it\’s hypocritical to call for Imus\’ firing when rappers are selling millions of records by degrading women. Naturally, the rules of society take into account the context of the message and ethnicity of the messenger when deeming something appropriate, when in fact none of those qualifiers should make any difference.
Will I be attending the Ludacris concert at Summerfest? Ummm… no. I hope for everyone that it’s peaceful. But if it’s not, I would tend to blame the people who instigate the violence, rather than the artist who is there giving those people what they want.