Fuck the police coming straight from the underground
A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown
And not the other color so police think
They have the authority to kill a minority
– “Fuck Tha Police,” NWA
Ice Cube, of the rap group NWA, first wrote these lyrics in 1988 after an incident in which he felt that the police wrongly detained him. When “Fuck Tha Police” was first released with the album Straight Outta Compton, there was a clear disparity in the way the public listened to the record, ranging from elation to outrage. Radio stations gave it little to no play on air, because of its vulgar lyrics and threats of violence against law enforcement. NWA was even said to have been put on an FBI watch list. Some groups publicly destroyed copies of the record in protest of its message (Goldstein). Yet, somehow, without any positive media coverage or representation, “Fuck Tha Police” entered the Billboard charts at the 25th position, and Straight Outta Compton went platinum by the next year (Billboard; RIAA). In the face of stringent social and political disapproval, NWA had found a popular audience.
“Fuck Tha Police” became a rallying cry, both in the wake of the Rodney King affair and during instances of racial tension to come—most recently the Ferguson incident in 2014 (Goldstein). The song highlights a growing, often ignored rift between those who saw it as reflection of their own situation, like those in Compton and in Ferguson, and those who took great offense to it. In an arguably extreme, intentionally offensive manner, Ice Cube and NWA expressed these clashing realities in a way that resonated with the anger felt by the black community. In highlighting the values and culture of often-overlooked communities, rap carries sociopolitical power. This is just one reason why I feel that offensive lyrics in rap music are more than admissible or justifiable; they are vital to rap’s power. Rap is one of the most censored artistic modes of expression of our time, and not simply in the sense of bleeping vulgarity. There are some, such as Sean Hannity of Fox News, who would like to see rap banned entirely, its themes and messages erased because of their alleged offensive nature (Dicker). In response to Hannity and those who align themselves with him, I would make the argument that when critics call for the elimination or suppression of rap, they disrespect the communities for whom these lyrics express reality. By overstating or misunderstanding the effect of such lyrics, critics stifle the ability of marginalized citizens to address and influence the wider world. Moreover, rap, and discussion of the genre’s sometimes vulgar or offensive nature, helps struggling communities gain visibility, as people like Sean Hannity give them a primetime slot at Fox News to consider these realities. In short, rap’s opponents are trying to limit the power the medium wields through its offensive language, and the power of the form to breed social understanding; to target rap, is to target Americans who connect to it.
“America targets our rap market, it’s controversy and hate
Harsh realities we hit made our music translate.” (“Compton,” Kendrick Lamar)
Kendrick Lamar’s music is often embraced by those constrained by their economic or social situation. Lamar even calls his song “Compton” in deference to his hometown, which was once ranked by the FBI as the eighth most criminal city in America (“2010 City Crime Rankings”). The album as a whole, entitled good kid, m.A.A.d city, is a fictionalized account of Lamar’s own life, through which he recounts the “harsh realities” of his experience. There are references to rape, murder, alcoholism, in which Kendrick sometimes implicates himself. If one were to remove these elements from the work, critical parts of Kendrick’s identity would be removed in the process, making for a less honest portrayal of his world. Despite this, Lamar claims in the above lyrics that American media “targets our rap market,” singling out the medium for its exploration of these themes. For some, rap music acts as a definition of their situation and the hardships of their reality, and without this exploration they might not come to understand the world nor exercise any power over it. More importantly, in disregarding and censoring these themes in rap music, one discounts the existence of low-income neighborhoods and depowers the people who live in them. Just as Kendrick expresses in his lyrics, it’s this roughness that translates to audiences a reality that other types of music simply cannot, giving citizens a measure of power they are often denied.
One could argue that the offensiveness of rap curtails the understanding it can provide. The attitude of dismissing rap on the grounds of offense is a refusal to understand another mode of living. Critics cannot be allowed to censor a word or group of words that a population connects with, especially when that population that is so often under-served and over-scrutinized. Denizens of neighborhoods racked with violence or poverty sometimes need this language to vent frustrations. Vulgarity has the power to be positive, should we allow it. To restrict vulgarity, or to dismiss the genre of rap, is to implicitly neglect or criticize the experiences of those in impoverished or ethnic communities who may connect with rap.
Will Smith don’t gotta cuss in his raps to sell records
Well, I do; so fuck him and fuck you too. (“The Real Slim Shady,” Eminem)
These are the words of the highest selling artist in any genre of music of the 2000’s (Montgomery). While fans often praise Eminem for his unique style and witty punch lines, his own verse seems to give most of the credit for his breakout success to the outrage created by his vulgarity, offensive references, and irreverent themes. His music begs the question: does rap’s vulgarity allow for it to reach wider audiences? This was certainly the case with “Fuck Tha Police,” as its forthrightness made it the subject of much national conversation. Eminem, too, faced his fair share of controversy: at one point, he was almost denied a visa to Australia because of his position as, what the Australian Family Association termed, “a hate rapper” (Kazmierczak). He’s also been the subject of more than a few defamation lawsuits. However, without the visibility of these controversies, Eminem and NWA may not have been able to reach mass audiences. Moreover, to see elements of their worlds depicted in the media and discussed and debated by public figures provides rappers with the societal influence they seek. The world must reckon with their views and acknowledge the experiences of otherwise ignored individuals and overlooked communities.
Given the chance, vulgarity may even provide catharsis to those communities. In an article on the benefits of swearing, Dr. Neel Burton tells us that swearing comes with a sense of “power and control,” and heightens self-expression (Burton). Another psychologist also notes the “cathartic” properties of swearing; vulgarity releases internal tension (Grohol).
Don’t you look up to me
Don’t trust the words I say
Don’t you look up to me
If you learn one thing today. (“Windows,” Chance the Rapper)
So raps Chicago native Chance the Rapper on his band’s song “Windows,” from the recent album Surf. The record deals with Chance’s reservations about his then impending fatherhood, namely his immaturity and his self perceived immorality (“Chance the Father”). Rap’s detractors, such as Sean Hannity, or the Australian Family Association, often share these fears and uncertainties. Is rap a glorification of detrimental ideals? Does it have the power to incite the criminal actions it so often references? I do not believe so. While rap may indeed provide a form of cathartic aggression, there is little evidence to suggest that it causes actual violence. This is a sentiment echoed by Yan Searcy, who argues that the logic used by people like Sean Hannity and the Australian Family Association is backward. While it is understandable that some caretakers might not want to expose their children to such themes, it falls to those parents to safeguard their children, not the artists. While music may help inspire change, I am not convinced that this genre shapes cultures so much as it reveals them. One may point to material manifestations of this culture, such as merchandise surrounding rap or rappers themselves growing in popularity, as being marks of a shift in values or culture. Instead, consider this: NWA, or those with similar messages, simply became emblematic of a long gestating frustration with the current system. Communities that were once faceless now had countless representatives in the form of artists that were bold enough to voice the existing struggles of these communities. Certainly, gang violence predates the existence of hip-hop. Rap music reflects the frustration and resulting dynamics of decades of systemic and cultural discrimination. Rap is an effect, not the cause, of these conditions.
To these points, one might ask if rap’s vulgarity is essential to its efficacy. Vulgarity in rap music, along with responses by those it offends, enable the genre to express dire circumstances and to draw popular attention to them. Even without offense, rap is the inheritor of centuries of black art, a history that traverses various artistic mediums. In fact, in their recently released Anthology of Rap, editors Adam Bradley and Andrew Dubois identify rap as an “art form that draws not only from the folk idioms of the African diaspora but from the legacy of Western verse and the musical traditions of jazz, blues, funk, gospel, and reggae” (Bradley & DuBois). The authors suggest that rap is the next stage of African oral tradition and poetry, and their work treats rap songs as poems. Rap’s focus on clever wordplay, its penchant for rhyming and alliteration, as well as its frequent uses of other literary devices, qualify it as poetry, both linguistically and stylistically. Recently, educational facilities, such as the Scholastic Corporation, have begun to recognize parallels between rap and poetry. Scholastic even has a webpage devoted to developing lesson plans for teaching rap as poetry (Clark). Scholars have also embraced rap. Berkeley offered a class on the legendary rapper Tupac, titled “History 98, the Poetry and History of Tupac Shakur,” and a Columbia professor taught Kendrick Lamar’s album To Pimp A Butterfly (Kaufman; Mooney).
As the examples show, rap has gained respect in scholarly circles. However, rap’s obscenity and vulgarity continue to offend some listeners. Offense and vulgarity are not the sole strengths of rap, but they are vitally important to the genre, not only for their aesthetic quality, but because they empower rappers to convey the immediacy of their lived experiences both to immediate and otherwise distant audiences. The vulgarity that critics attack is ultimately foundational to the genre’s power and efficacy.
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