When I took a course on the relationship between music and politics last year, I got the opportunity to write a two thousand word essay on my choice of topic related to the course. I decided to write about the transition and differences between what Hip Hop/Rap was in the beginning and what it is today. I emphasized the use of racial slurs and others’ view on it, also. Admittedly, It’s not a very well written piece. However, If you’re interested, feel free to read on.
I have always wondered how music, racism and black unity, and many current political issues would be affected effected if uplifting hip hop music like “Changes” by 2 Pac and politically conscious rap such as Dead Prez’s “Politrikks” still reigned and gangster rap music, along with the infamous “N” word, had been a fleeting trend. Instead, Gangster rap is seemingly the most popular hip hop sub-genre everywhere today. Current popular examples include Lil Wayne, Fetty Wap, and Rick Ross with their lengthy stack of songs which revolve around dirty money, casual sex, drugs, and especially black-on-black violence and constant use of the “N” word. Although not all gangster rap is negative, a big problem with Gangster rap is that it is mostly associated with negative trends and influences. These influences have a powerful effect on the actions and reputation of Black Americans. The longer a trend exists, the more attention and support it receives.
The history of Blacks in America contains just as much conflict as that of many other races, if not more. Slavery is already a mandated topic to teach for state schools (Hirshon, 2005). Many argue Africans sold their loved ones into slavery. Nonetheless, Blacks were considered inferior to whites in America for centuries until unified efforts fought against it. Even though slavery had ended, that does not mean people’s mindset toward slavery, or black Americans, had changed. When slavery was abolished after the Civil War, the next huge step in achieving equality was overcoming racial segregation. During this Civil Rights movement, numerous laws were created to legally end racial segregation. The Jim Crow laws privileged whites who de facto had rights that blacks did not have. One could go so far as to say that whites were still treated as superior beings under Jim Crow legislation. Only in the 1960s did the Civil Rights Movement make significant success in abolishing many Jim Crow laws (Jim Crow, 2009) . A very popular example of blacks actively resisting segregation is Rosa Parks’ refusing to sit in the back of the bus and the solid support she received from the Black Leaders of Montgomery, Georgia, thanks to the knowledge gained after Claudette Colvin doing the same thing just nine months prior (Hoose, 2011).
All of this goes to show the the division between blacks and whites in America in the past. It also highlights efforts made to remove this line with racial equality and unify black Americans. During the 1970’s, hip hop became a part of that effort. The 1979 song “Rapper’s Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang is not only still a well known song — even to hip hop fans born decades after its release, it also signifies the popularity of early hip hop as a largely unpolitical party music. When hip hop first became popular it was mainly fun for many people. The music and lyrics didn’t aim to isolate anyone of a particular ethnicity or lifestyle. Songs with cussing and racial slurs scattered throughout the music were less common. It was “feel-good” dance music often at a slower tempo (fewer than 120 beats per minute). Songs emulated, and sometimes sampled, phrases, styles, and rhythms from other genres and infused it within music for the dance floor. Other notable examples of early hip hop as party music include MC Lyte’s “Cold Rock A Party,” Beastie Boys’ “Paul Revere,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Push It,” and Run-DMC’s “Rock Box.”
That is not to say that all early hip hop was unpolitical party music. There were also artists who wrote more political lyrics, a genre that can perhaps be called resistance or political hip-hop. Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power” was a popular which brought a lot of attention to racism. Grandmaster Flash’s “The Message” in 1982 is another less mentioned song that aimed to shed light upon poverty and other dark issues of the society.
The sub-genre of gangster rap also emerged from this phenomenon. Since the 1970s, Gangster rap was initially meant to be an outlet for shedding light on the daily life of those who live a life surrounded by poverty, crime, and drugs. Mark Hamm and Jeff Ferrell explain “Gangster rap” as synonymous with “Message Rap” while noting that it’s commonly referred to as “ghetto music, thematizing its commitment to the black urban experience.” (26) Many times, these songs include use of the “N” word. N.W.A., especially shortly after the “Straight Out of Compton” movie from their prime of 1988, is a popular face of this category of rappers. Other highly known rappers from this time frame include Ice-T and Tupac Shakur. Many gangster rap songs, even to this day, imply the mindset of pulling others down to get to the top. The topic is likely someone getting dissed, such as in rap battles, threatened of losing something or someone, or boasting about why he, or she, is the best. Songs like “Hit ‘Em Up” by 2 Pac, a diss song aimed at the Notorius B.I.G. during the West Coast versus East Coast beef and “Shook Ones” by Mobb Deep are a few popular examples from the 1990s. These are the same songs that top charts, achieve immense radio play, become movie soundtracks, and flood social media networks, commercials, and advertisements.
Gangster Rap appears to have an influence upon a few aspects upon African Americans. The title of the song “Cop Killer” by Ice-T expresses the topic of the song, and it created a lot of controversy for a short while. Dennis R. Martin, former President of the National Association of Chiefs of Police, in 1992 concluded that this very song was strongly linked to the 144 policemen killed in 1992 which Hamm and Ferrell argued was instead centered around an incident where a group of teens were arrested and interviewed after assaulting two policemen, the group of four were “allegedly behind the emotional impetus of ‘Cop Killer’” (28). In 2009, Denise Herd presented data covering the violence in the U.S. which suggest that the large increase in violent lyrics, the uptick in crime, and major record companies’ goal to profit from this in this from the 80s to the 90s are interlinked, though that link has seemingly lessened since (p.401). This makes it very apparent that people don’t simply follow the “monkey see, monkey do” concept with Gangster rap music. However, that does not negate the fact that trends and messages within popular media, music or video, influence people. It does not negate the fact that the “N” word is overused in mainstream media. Entertainers have a large influence because of celebrity status – so much that they are often said to have responsibility to guide or promote awareness of key issues and topics at times. Why? They have the power of influence through multiple mediums.
What is this “N” word? Why is it used? How do you define it now? Is it disrespectful? If so, to who? Who should and should it not offend? Michel Marriott explains that many blacks from the “post-civil rights generation” believe using the word will help rid the racism from it, while elders believe it shouldn’t be said at all (1993). Mainstream media mimics the active use of the word. The black community took the word, and spun it into a rite of passage that whites are shunned from speaking, even if blacks say it to or around them. In some social circles, non-blacks seek approval of blacks friends to say or being referred to with the term. However, when whites do voice it, it often times comes off as racist by a white supremacist. This is a problem because this word reenacts the divide between blacks and whites that only ended decades ago. This is a problem because the country still suffers from a lack of solidarity between blacks and whites and even within the black community. Who says it and how it is said can be the difference between a bonding moment or an unpleasant altercation.
In 2013, Frank Harris asked a group of classmates about this and two of three blacks, but no one of another color, were okay with the word, but only when said by blacks. In an article “US:N-word a loaded term like no other in US,” Fabienne Faur lists quite a few incidents regarding using the term that shook the mainstream, including President Obama saying it during a an interview, Muhammad Ali on the Vietnam stating “No Viet Cong ever called me [n-word],” and Jay-Z’s autobiography stating it’s just a word (2015). Richard Pryor, a late black comedian, said “It’s an ugly thing and I hope someday they give it up” after a trip to Africa and having a moment to think about the effect and perspective of the word and its meaning (James, 2006). Before that trip to Africa, Richard Pryor was, like many black entertainers today, commonly heard voicing the term with little to no hesitation. Being emerged in another country brought him to that moment.
Sometimes, it is good to hear what the people you interact with most have to say about such issues. This is a controversial topic I have taken care to tactfully introduce to a few communities. I wanted to know what people in different communities have to say regarding the question – Is it okay for blacks to say the “N” word? On Rallypoint.com, a forum site for active and veteran Service Members, out of 114 respondents, 72 (63%) voted it was wrong for President Barack Obama to use the “N” word during his speech while 34 (30%) believed it to be okay (Wade, 2015). I have also sent out a poll regarding the topic. The poll asked three questions and as of 6 December, ten have completed the survey. Of the three questions, 7 of ten believe Black music artists should say the “N” word less, five prefer “Thought-provoking, intellectual, political” music, and seven of ten believe popular Gangster rap has a lot of influence on blacks and crime (Spratley, 2015). There is no available data to specific the ethnicity or age of those who completed the survey.
We understand how closely related this word is with black music artists, gangster rap and other avenues of entertainment. But how does this have to do with politics? This word, its common usage especially in music by black artists, and the unwritten rules behind it remind people of racial tension. It makes people uncomfortable. If politics involves the the struggle for power, then one has to consider the quiet yet important effect of social norms on that power. If more people in the United States actively worked toward unity, would everyone care the same about presidential candidates? It could possibly cause a power shift in the people’s favor as everyone is looking to do their part to improve the larger whole. If more black Americans worked more seemingly toward equality than overpowering whites in the United States of America, how would other aspects of racism be affected. As discussed before, many people believe racial slurs should be used less than it unfortunately is.
The one other word that is used often and strikes closest to the same amount of rage in a particular group of people is “bitch” when used toward women by men. Women have been fighting for decades to achieve a desired state of equality with men in the workplace and society – hence feminism. The glass ceiling still exists in many ways, though.
The battle for the future of this racial slur has been brought up many times before. It simply did not build enough traction to spark noticeable change. Oprah Winfrey and Jay-Z had a short discussion about it on her show once. In 2007, Russell Simmons publicly challenged the music industry to be more strict about the usage of the “B” and “N” words, though he did not seem to make much of a stance for the position and influence he holds (Cramer). Songs like that challenged the mind such as “Fight the Power” by Public Enemy are still being recorded and pushed to the mainstream. However, they do not receive the same attention as songs that glamorize the party life or the thug life.
Many people believe the word shouldn’t be said at all. Some believe the constant usage will remove the racism eventually. This word, especially with its current usage in gangster rap, encourages division versus unity. Alongside the minority, I have removed this word from my vocabulary and gangster rap without the primary purpose of challenging the mindset from my music library. I have reached a point where I am lot more selective with what I listen to. I listen to a lot more jazz, trip hop, drum and bass, and symphony music. I have not completely abandoned rap music, but it is definitely does not hold a large percentage of my music collection. Music has the power to influence and bring people together. It can also do the opposite.
Cramer, E. (2007, Apr 27). RAP DISEASE CARRIER LATE WITH CURE. Palm Beach Post Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/327240134?accountid=14214
Faur, F. (2015, Jun 25). US:N-word a loaded term like no other in US. AAP General News Wire Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/1691813606?accountid=14214
Hamm, Mark S. & Ferrell, Jeff. (1994). “Rap, Cops, and Crime: Clarifying the ‘Cop Killer’ Controversy.” Retrieved from http://schools.yrdsb.ca/markville.ss/history/honours/Rap_Cops_And_Crime_Clarifying_the_Cop_Killer_Controversy.pdf
Herd, D. (2009). Changing images of violence in rap music lyrics: 1979-1997. Journal of Public Health Policy, 30(4), 395-406. doi:http://dx.doi.org/10.1057/jphp.2009.36
Hirshon, N. (2005, Aug). Panel to investigate slavery lessons in state schools. New York Amsterdam News Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/390430695?accountid=14214
Hoose, P. (2011, Jan 16). Claudette colvin: First to keep her seat. Philadelphia Tribune Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/851725292?accountid=14214
Jim crow era A painful time. (2009, Feb 21). The Ledger Retrieved from http://search.proquest.com/docview/390197084?accountid=14214
Marriott, M. (1993, January 24). “Rap’s Embrace of ‘Nigger Fires Bitter Debate.” Retreived from http://www.nytimes.com/1993/01/24/nyregion/rap-s-embrace-of-nigger-fires-bitter-debate.html?pagewanted=1
Spratley, J. (2015, December). “Why is it okay for blacks to say the ‘N’ word?” Retrieved from https://apps.facebook.com/my-polls/form/why-is-it-okay-for-blacks-to-say-the-n-word
Wade, S. (2015, June 22). “Was it ok for the President to use the N word?” Message posted to https://www.rallypoint.com/answers/was-it-ok-for-the-president-to-use-the-n-word