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Getting A Bad Rap

By Paul Burton

(Published in The Valley Advocate, Dec., 1994. Copyright Paul Burton. All Rights Reserved.)

It’s all about money, ain’t a damn thing funny.
You got to have a con in this land of milk and honey.
- Grandmaster Flash, The Message

The musical/cultural phenomenon known as rap has come a long way since the early days when Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five put out "The Message" and helped establish Rap as a legitimate, creative art form. From its roots in the toasting and boasting of Jamaican and New York dance hall and street poets, Rap has evolved into a socio-political force, fashion trendsetter and a multibillion dollar business.

As a vehicle for youthful self-expression Rap naturally reflects the vision of a culture defining itself - turning stereotypes inside out, documenting the grim reality of coming up on the streets of Compton, Watts or New York and presenting exaggerated, provocative images deliberately designed to strike fear into the hearts of middle America.

But Rap also encompasses a variety of other voices within its evolving sub-genres. Commenting on the variety of artists and styles within rap and hoping to counter negative stereotypes of the genre, Speech of the Hip-Hop group Arrested Development told Musician magazine, "I hope when people look back on the 80’s and 90’s they’ll know the Gangsta reality wasn’t the only reality."

The artistry of Arrested Development, whose heartfelt, natural grooves and mix of graceful, intelligent lyrics and truly soulful music set a new standard, and Public Enemy, who combine the best elements of rap in a pointedly educational and literate stew, threatening the power structure while preaching cultural awareness to blacks and whites alike, has been recognized and applauded. But the public travails and legal scrapes of a few notorious rappers continue to grab headlines, and the blatantly sexist, misogynist, homophobic and violent lyrics of Gangsta Rap define the music for many. Whether Rap functions as a kind of "journalism of the street" or a dangerous, irresponsible glorification of crime and violence continues to be hotly debated. And the music and its artists succeed, in part, because attempts at censorship invariably backfire.

"Controversy sells," says James Lewis, Music Director of WTCC Springfield, which features Rap as part of their programming. "But it’s not just about Rap. Metal bands, Alternative bands do the same thing. It’s always been about rebellious youth. Or there’s Country songs about getting drunk. Rap has as many positives as negatives. The media is blowing things out of proportion."

After the controversy around the song "Cop Killer" by Ice T, the rapper told Musician magazine, "As far as who won or lost, the police won. They’ve frightened every record label, and there's a freeze on people getting signed." Major labels may shy away from some artists, but others continue to prosper, independently.

Whether or not radio stations play a particular artist’s work, fans still buy the music. "What the controversy with Ice T did was to push rap underground," says WTCC’s Lewis. "An independent label can sell 100,00 albums and make a profit. Now there are small regional magazines that promote rap music. They said it was fad but it’s gone on for 15 years now. It’s created a whole new generation of entrepreneurs for the next century."

Many of those entrepreneurs also use their fame and fortune to help promote others. Ice T and other Rappers have hired ex-gang members, old neighborhood buddies and ex-cons, providing jobs and stability in their own communities. "It comes from the idea of ‘each one teach one’," Lewis says. "Most of the rappers have stayed true to that ideal."

But when young Black males are successful and united, there is also a backlash. "American society has always been afraid of successful African Americans, Hispanics, any minority group making strides and coming together," Lewis said. "There’s always someone trying to throw a monkey wrench into it to try to stop it."

That Rap artists continue to be successful despite attempts to censor them comes as no surprise to University of Massachusetts English Professor Richard Burt, editor of the new book "The Administration of Aesthetics: Censorship, Political Criticism and The Public."

"Censorship has more to do with a displacement from one kind of access to another," Burt says. "It works to the disadvantage or advantage of the artist. In Rap, its always worked to their advantage, at least in the most well-known cases." Burt pointed out that 2 Live Crew sold more albums after their obscenity trial and Ice T’s album with "Cop Killer" was a slow seller until the song was attacked by politicians, police groups and the media.

"What’s at issue is what counts as censorship," Burt contends. "I’m suspicious of those who equate censorship with repression because it doesn’t always work out that way. It can be marketed as a badge of authenticity. Rappers use it to their advantage, saying, ‘look at what the white media has done to me’. But 2 Live Crew are very cynical and totally open about using the First Amendment to make money. They’re not political at all, merely exploiting the controversy. Madonna is a master at it. When ‘Justify My Love’ was banned by MTV, it gained her more notoriety, even getting played on Nightline. So a marketing strategy isn’t the same as being denied the ability to produce and distribute your art."

On the question of whether Rappers bear some responsibility for promoting violent behavior, Burt says he is a purist in defending the First Amendment. "I wouldn’t hold the Rap musician responsible anymore than I would hold Black Sabbath responsible for teenage suicides. It would be dangerous to prevent an artist’s free expression. How people respond to it is their own responsibility."

Burt suggests that we look at the real issues expressed by Rappers. "Rather than take a Tipper Gore approach, just saying it’s all bad and must be stopped, read the lyrics and take the art form seriously. We need to address the issue of seeing Black anger for what it is. It’s not gonna look nice for most white people."

The barely hidden racist fears of the dominant culture are at the root of the attacks on rap for many. Hussein Ibish, a graduate student in Comparative Literature at UMass and outspoken advocate of free speech as Editor of the Graduate Student newspaper The Voice, makes it plain. "There’s a primitive response that a lot of White America has to young black men. So what a lot of rappers, especially Gangsta Rappers, have done is to take the negative images and exaggerate them and embrace the fears of White America and work with them."

Hussein points out that there is a double standard in how the media treats Rap artists. Citing the recent trial of Rapper/Actor Tupac Shakur, Hussein said, "When a young white male film star gets into a scrape with the law it’s considered exciting and can help their career. With Tupac Shakur it’s seen as representing the horrors of Rap music."

Among the horrors that Rap is perceived to represent are the nonstop images of shootings, gang warfare and disrespect for and violence against women. Is Rap merely reporting on the real events in the lives of Rappers or glorifying those anti-social images? "It’s a combination," says James Lewis of WTCC. "But alot of the imagery Rappers use is taken from the movies, like ‘Scarface’. Now there’s ‘Horror Rap’ and ‘Horror Rock’ using images from Horror movies. If Gangsta Rap is the flavor of the day, an artist will say, ‘OK, I’ll make my money, sell my platinum’. It comes from the old gangster movies with Al Capone and stuff you see on TV. So the media really created the image problem."

But Lewis points out that as a community radio station WTCC has to be selective about the rap it plays. "Our policy is we won’t play songs with blatant cuss words. We choose not to play offensive lyrics because we are dependent on community support. We try to stay away from songs that are degrading to women because we have a lot of women programmers and a lot of our support in the community is from women."

Smith College Afro-American Studies Professor Ann Ferguson objects to scapegoating rap as a purveyor of misogynistic images. "I’m very much against misogynistic lyrics and feel we need to struggle against them," Ferguson said. "But I worry about the focus being on Black artists as the producers of those images when much of the images from Hollywood are misogynistic or at least objectify women."

Saying that misogynistic lyrics are prevalent if not dominant in mainstream culture, Ferguson added, "At least the Rappers, especially women rappers, have opened up a discussion of misogyny. But it shouldn’t stop at just Rap. We have to take it to the core issues of violence against women. Just look at how many murders are committed against women on TV and in popular movies."

Women’s groups have condemned misogynistic Rap lyrics because by dehumanizing women and condoning violence against women, they can lead to actual violence against women. Similarly, when rappers like Public Enemy or Ice Cube promote the teachings of Louis Farrakhan, their perceived anti-Semitism poses a threat.

"I do think they contribute to a climate of intolerance," says Rabbi Phillip Graubart of Temple B’nai Israel in Northampton. "It’s ironic that a lot of the stereotypes which Farrakhan uses of Jews are the classic European stereotypes which now come up in American popular culture. It’s unfortunate because a lot of the audience of rap wouldn’t have any direct contact with Jews, so their only image of Jews comes through popular culture. It’s very sad, and also dangerous to give people a license to hate."

But Graubart also supports the right of rappers to have their say. "I’m against censorship in all forms," he says. "I’m not in favor of censoring them but people should be informed of what the lyrics say, that there’s anti-Semitism in some of the lyrics." He offered support of labeling records for lyric content, "not as censorship, but as a way of informing the listening public."

But beyond alerting the public to some of Rap’s antisocial messages, Graubart says: "You have to use your own right to freedom of expression to protest."

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