AQUA: It's almost comedic to think of how Chief Keef, and other rappers, are all over their Instagram toting guns, then look at the armed force that is the Ferguson police department. It shows why a counterpoint to the Chief Keefs of the rap world is necessary. I can't help but think of the struggle rapper that shot his own friend after an argument in a bodega after a rap video shoot. This guy unloaded a full clip into another human being, almost casually. In no way am I blaming hip-hop for such an event, but to say there isn't at least a minimal influence would be naive. Images like these are what cops are taking as gospel when it comes to dealing with communities they patrol.
DAVE: I think that to suggest rappers are in any way responsible for the way police or politicians or white America views black people is very unhealthy. Police, politicians and white America are 100 percent responsible for their (our, I suppose I should say, as a white person) prejudices and racism and irrational fears. It is absolutely a police officer's job to learn not to make the assumptions, not to submit to the fear, that you mentioned. They (we) suck at this, unfortunately. But we can't hold rappers responsible. Not even one iota.
JOHN KENNEDY: I can't cosign the idea of hip-hop being responsible for the perception of Black people in America. It ventures into the realm of respectability politics, where we have to present ourselves a particular way to afford the rights and respect that we're born with. When Eminem makes a song about killing the mother of his daughter, no one assumes that White, blonde men are killers and wife beaters. Do I love the glamorization of gun violence in music? Not particularly. But no number of Chief Keef videos gives police the authority to play jury and judge instead of officer of the law.
Media as a whole is a problem, though. From Hollywood to hip-hop to reality TV—we're not the ones in control of the images that are portrayed. Which is why it's so important to have Black people in ownership or leadership positions at these corporations, particularly Black people with an interest in balancing the stereotypes that we're bombarded with.
It's getting better, though, which is why it's so promising to see sensible artists like Kendrick Lamar and J. Cole find success, and with that, a large platform to spread awareness and balance the messages in music. Labels need to give their consumers more credit—today's generation is no less interested in political and socially conscious music than the one that's preceded it.
GREG: I agree, Dave. I do think hip-hop, like punk, is art (granted, commercial art) first before its supposed to be a propaganda tool, and thats always fascinating to wonder how much weight we can really ask a subculture to carry in the face of larger ills. Hip-hop has seen some of its finest moments when it satirizes American excess or at least holds a mirror up to it—sex, drugs, violence, hedonism. But its also like punk, in that it's very powerful when it rejects and rebels against the mainstream, against the Man.
With the romantic image of the gun-toting outlaw, which goes back in hip-hop at least as far as Wild Style, if not to the Bronx projects themselves, it’s always been at least one of the voices in the hip-hop conversation. But then its more powerfully a part of the American conversation right? Cowboys and gangsters dominate our entertainment all throughout the 20th century and even today.
Whats dangerous is the constant projection of American vices as uniquely urban vices, or hip-hop vices, but back to the point about rejecting and rebelling, certainly I enjoyed eras in hip-hop more when rappers were rejecting certain American vices as wack or rebelling against potential traps and pitfalls to be avoided, and I wish it were more popular now. Im not ashamed to admit that much.
DAVE: I agree. Hip-hop is an art form. It's going to change and morph according to its own mysterious rhythms. I think critics often overestimate their (our) ability to control prevailing tone or trends or subject matter than artists want to engage in, that fans want to hear (and pay for). I don't think it works that way. Art is more amorphous than that. People's appetite for it—for what sounds and styles are going to move them—is more mysterious.
That's a good point, John. About the labels needing to trust the public more. Of course, at the same time, the labels themselves, the music industry as a whole is in such upheaval right now: Smart, forward-thinking folks like TDE will see this as a time to take a risk and invest in an artist like Kendrick, and reap the rewards. But it's probably not surprising that do many companies are running around like chickens with their heads cut off. Because their heads are being cut off!
IYANA: I wouldn’t place the initial blame on hip-hop, or say that it is solely responsible, ever. But to say that it in no way contributes to how society views us, is to relinquish our own power. We glorify violence and killing each other in a way that communicates a message to others. This is not to say that if the Chief Keefs didn’t exist, that we would all of a sudden be viewed as a pristine people, but these things do not help. And if we aren’t contributing positively to how the world sees us, then we are contributing negatively. Period.
It is oxymoronic to say rappers should be socially responsible/conscious, and then say that hip-hop hasn’t contributed to the way our people are viewed. Do we have the power to transform our reality, or don’t we? Don’t get me wrong, I love things of the ratchet sort, but I cannot in good conscience say that it doesn’t affect our image at all. It does.
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