My generation had its distinctive music just as every other. While my classmates may have listened to Marvin Gaye and the Aretha Franklin, my daughters selected music that spoke to their generation. Creative expression is great, but certain artists within each generation have stepped over the line of propriety. This is true for today’s genre of music.
“Hip-hop reflects the truth, and the problem is that hip-hop exposes a lot of the negative truth that society tries to conceal. It's a platform where we could offer information, but it's also an escape.” (Busta Rhymes)
I may not agree with Busta Rhymes on many things, but I agree that—at its best—music can be a powerful medium to speak and expose truth. Hip-hop and rap have an interesting history. Most agree that the genre emerged in the 1970s at various urban block parties, particularly in New York. Its artistic roots stretch all over the musical map, from blues and reggae to spoken word and funk. And of course much of it has been associated with cries for justice and relief from suffering, continuing a tradition that reaches at least as far back as the Negro Spirituals of the antebellum south.
This common link with African American history and culture does not mean that all hip-hop is of comparable quality, either as art or as social commentary. Still, for a long time even more controversial hip-hop artists viewed black history’s heroes with a certain degree of respect. Consider Public Enemy’s 1991 single By the Time I get to Arizona, a response to Arizona’s 1990 decision to reject the Martin Luther King, Jr. holiday:
I’m counting down the day deserving fitting for a king I’m waiting for the time when I can get to Arizona Cause my money is spent on the godd**m rent Neither party is mine, not the jackass or the elephant
But a lot has changed in the last couple of decades. Today, many hip-hop artists no longer see themselves as part of the struggle for justice and freedom. Instead, they exploit black history’s powerful imagery in a disrespectful or downright profane manner. Enough have done so recently that we can safely call it a trend. For example, in the original version of Lil Wayne’s song Karate Chop, the third verse reads:
Pop a lot of pain pills Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels Beat that pu**y like Emmett Till
For anyone unsure of what to make of this obscenity, Lil Wayne is essentially using the 1955 fatal beating of fourteen year old Emmett Till as a metaphor for his misogynistic sexual prowess. The Till family was understandably horrified, and Lil Wayne later apologized and replaced the line.
Bishop Harry Jackson is chairman of the High Impact Leadership Coalition and senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, MD, and co-authored, Personal Faith, Public Policy [FrontLine; March 2008] with Tony Perkins, president of the Family Research Council.