Contemporary Urban Music: Controversial Messages in Hip-Hop and Rap Lyrics

By Krohn, Franklin B.; Suazo, Frances L. | ETC.: A Review of General Semantics, Summer 1995 | Go to article overview

Contemporary Urban Music: Controversial Messages in Hip-Hop and Rap Lyrics


Krohn, Franklin B., Suazo, Frances L., ETC.: A Review of General Semantics


Introduction

Anyone who is unfamiliar with recent contemporary urban music is likely to be surprised at its unusual rhythms and perhaps even shocked at its uninhibited lyrics. Unless one is involved with urban teenagers or ghetto culture or watches MTV on cable, there is little likelihood of being exposed to such music. The purpose of this paper is to help familiarize the uninitiated with some of these newer forms of music which have become so controversial.

When hip-hop music became popular in the early '70s, most people responded only to the music (Sims, 1993, p. E3). More recently, the term "hip-hop" describes a culture, superficially characterized by performers with droopy pants, hats to the back, laceless sneakers, hoods, and loud radios. "Hip-hop [is] an African-American and Afro-Caribbean youth culture composed of graffiti, break dancing and rap music" (Rose, 1994, p. 2). As Garofalo (1990) points out, "rap music must be understood as one cultural element within a larger social movement known as hip-hop." It's a culture born out of a mixture of cultures with its own language.

"Hip-hop is the fundamental matrix of self-expression for this whole generation" (Katz & Smith, 1993). But the superficial characteristics which are deemed minimally acceptable to mainstream society can be deceiving. Often the words reflect the frustration over poverty, drugs, violence, poor schools, family breakdown and racial tension (Leland, 1992, p. 52). The victims have become victimizers in the way that they communicate the events and emotions of inner city people. Hip-hop, then, is another form of musical expression that has included rhythm and blues (R&B), rap or urban style, dance, new jack swing, reggae or ska. All may serve as a protest of racism and poverty. According to Rose, [rap music is]:

...the central cultural vehicle for open social reflection on poverty, fear of adulthood, the desire for absent fathers, frustrations about black male sexism, female sexual desires, daily rituals of life as an unemployed teen hustler, safe sex, raw anger, violence, and childhood memories. It is also the home of innovative uses of style and language, hilariously funny carnivalesque and chitlin-circuit-inspired dramatic skits, and ribald storytelling. In short, it is black America's most dynamic contemporary popular cultural intellectual and spiritual vessel. (Rose, 1994, p. 18)

Rap music also demeans women and promotes drug use and violence as a way to achieve empowerment through symbolic verbal action. The negative implications of rap music have become as popular as the music itself. It has attacked racism through more racism, lack of power through supremacy and perhaps poverty through the sales of racist and misogynist material to those willing to be entertained and influenced in their desire for information about ghetto culture - those who take the easy stand of observing rather than participating. According to Henry Louis Gates Jr., a professor at Harvard University:

A lot of what you see in rap is the guilt of the black middle class about its economic success, its inability to put forth a culture of its own. Instead they do the worst possible thing, falling back on fantasies of street life. In turn, white college students with impeccable gender credentials buy nasty sex lyrics under the cover of getting at some kind of authentic black experience. What is potentially very dangerous about this is the feeling that by buying records they have made some kind of valid social commitment.

This kind of consumption - of racist stereotypes, of brutality toward women, or even of uplifting tributes to Dr. Martin Luther King - is of a particularly corrupting kind. The values it instills find their ultimate expression in the ease with which we watch young black men killing each other: in movies, on records, and on the streets of dries and towns across the country. (Samuels, 1991, p. 29)

Rap is a musical expression characterized by continuous beats looped to produce a steady rhythm and overlapped by sentences which are recited rapidly but in cadence with the music. …

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