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.
When choosing cover art for her 2013 single Lookin A** Ni**a, Nikki Minaj selected the iconic picture of Malcolm X holding a rifle while looking out his window. The song—intended as a devastating critique of hip-hop culture’s treatment of women—is a profanity laced tirade disparaging black men. Although she apologized after the predictable backlash, Minaj later defended her use of the image during a radio interview, calling the picture “a parallel” for hip-hop’s treatment of women.
Last year, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who at 56 should really know better) posted a parody video on his YouTube channel which featured an actress pretending to be abolitionist and Underground Railroad heroine Harriet Tubman. The actress was portrayed filming sexual escapades with her slave master in order to blackmail him. After multiple complaints, the video was removed. Simmons responded to the outrage, telling the Huffington Post, “…but I still maintain that comedy should push the edge. I misunderstood the underlying implications and I'm deeply sorry for that.”
What Wayne and Simmons do not seem to understand is that there is a difference between being edgy and just being obscene. The “underlying implication” Simmons apparently misunderstood was that portraying a courageous heroine as a common whore disrespects not only her memory, but also the cause for which she risked her life. And sadly, Minaj does not seem to be able to discern the difference between a husband and father trying to protect his family and the men who abuse and abandon them.
Fortunately, countless Americans denounced Wayne, Simmons, and Minaj for their extraordinary breaches of decency. Some have speculated that Wayne et al have no reverence for those who paved the way for their success because they haven’t truly experienced the struggle themselves. This may be partially true. But I think it is more likely that the current struggle so many black Americans face has changed from the days of slavery and Jim Crow. The fight is no longer about material lack or legal discrimination as much as it is about a toxic deficit of self-respect. Because to mock and belittle the people fought for one’s own liberty is to disrespect oneself.
The good news is that enough Americans reacted with the appropriate level of outrage and the wrongs were corrected. What I fear is that we are headed for a day when such antics will no longer generate any backlash at all.