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25 September, 2012

Art and Responsibility.

I've had some interesting conversations lately regarding rap and the behavior of its listeners. My own opinion is that young people often use music to rebel and try to take on the persona of the entertainer whose music they listen to. You see this with heavy metal, rap, emo -- just about anything.

What you only see with rap, though, is this projection of the artist's persona onto an entire minority group. Metal is not associated with all the ills in white culture, but rap is blamed for sending a message glorifying violence, misogyny and crime for black youths.

I've been a fan of gangsta rap since I was eleven. My parents were newly divorced and I was angry. I rebelled and the music was comforting to me. Not only did some of the lyrics tell me that there are people who have it worse than me, they also told me that I wasn't the only person who could get angry at life, parents, society, or whatever else it might be. I knew I wasn't alone in my rage, but there were other ways to channel that anger.

What a lot of people don't understand is that there is more to the lyrics than glorifying crime, chasing women and participating in violence. I could point to numerous Tupac songs that subtly detail the faults of a criminal lifestyle, or that simply describe the cynicism of a community still economically segregated years after the Civil Rights Act. People who write off rap as violent, useless music are obviously missing the point (and the people that say it's not even music at all don't realize how racist they sound).

Gangsta rap ended with the nineties. Hip-hop gained popularity, and while there are some artists still doing a tough-guy act, they don't have the story-telling capabilities of their predecessors and popular music has watered the genre into a hit machine where a catchy hook and lyrics about making money are mass produced to make more money. This, in a way, is more damaging than the entire era of gangsta rap, because now almost no one is talking about the social issues.

I know the objection I'll get next, so I'll jump right in and say it was the media that killed Tupac and Biggie. The sensationalism of East Coast/West Coast conflict resulted in what I suspect were crazed fans taking things into their own hands. A conflict in white music like that which occurred between Tupac and Biggie wouldn't have garnered as much attention. Our society holds a preconceived notion about the violence and aggression of black people. (After all, isn't it telling that Dimebag Darrell's death wasn't circulated for months as an example of why white people need to tone down metal?

This all leads me to the title of the blog. Despite the poor race relations in our country, if we put all of that aside, when is an artist responsible for the actions or behavior of their fans? Many people defended Marilyn Manson after Columbine, but are quick to blame rap personas on the destructive behavior of some black youths. Do artists have a duty to be careful of what they produce? How far does this responsibly go? Furthermore, just to be totally cliche, how does one discern that life is imitating art, rather than the other way around? Is it more or less likely that rap artists were describing an impoverished environment rather than encouraging one? And just to tie this post in with atheism, if your opinion is that artists are responsible for their fans, what does this say about Christian music and the bigoted actions of some believers? What responsibly does other secular music have in our society?

That's all for tonight. I'm about to throw on some Wu Tang and go to bed.


  1. I've always been a fan of rap too - moreso in the past, but still today - yet I have to disagree to some extent. There's no question that rap glorifies the ghetto gangsta mentality. I've known upper-class white kids with parents worth tens of millions, who got into peddling drugs on the street and fighting turf wars over no tangible causes thanks to that particular sub-culture. They weren't drawn into it by seeing the poverty and hopelessness of the ghetto; they were drawn into it because that kind of lifestyle is presented in rap (and movies) as one never-ending wild party, full of excitement, adventure, and pleasure, often capped off by a glorious death full of meaning and drama.

    I don't think it's fair to blame rap for any SPECIFIC crime, just like it would be unfair to blame goth music for Columbine, or the Beatles for Manson's Helter Skelter. But it would be foolish not to acknowledge that music often DOES shape the way we look at the world, and can have a profound impact on the manner in which large segments of society choose to live their lives.

    That said ... if you post a youtube video of you rapping, I'll pitch in however much cash is still needed to get you over that $500 goal for the ADA :) I think that would be WAY more amusing than a Raiders shirt. But it has to be a decent attempt - not some shitty 20 second blurb.

  2. I do understand the power of music, but there are all kinds of reasons someone with ten million dollars might fall into a life of crime. I'm not saying that the music doesn't have an effect, but what we don't see is any sort of causation. People who listen to all kinds of different music get in all kinds of trouble. There's not a strong enough connection there, I think. Has crime gone down since gangsta rap became less popular? I wonder if anyone has looked into this before. If you know any anthropologist who want to give this one a go, let me know!

    As to your challenge: while I believe there are at least two videos of me rapping California Love (once by myself and once with friends) out there somewhere, waiting to resurface and embarrass me, I will add that to my ADA page.