Rap Music: The Disturbing trend
by Basharat Eneze Sanni
“My words are like a dagger with a jagged edge/That’ll stab you in the head..........” As these lyrics from Eminem’s song “Criminal”, for which he earned four Grammy Award nominations illustrate, rap music has increasingly drawn the attention of critics to the music industry with its X-rated lyrics and violent nature, and many worry about its possible negative effects on listeners. Lyrics of these nature have brought about concern to parents and anti-violence groups worldwide. Many believe that rap is not only the most important popular music to emerge in America in the 1980s, it has also become a way of life, a sense of identity, and a culture. K. Maurice Jones in his book Say it loud! The story of rap music explains that “rap is rooted in the pain of black-American experience, which began with slavery”, which he describes as the most traumatic forced movement of human beings in history. He explains that, denied their original cultures, the slaves created a new culture, African-American culture, one which gave birth to rap. According to him, the word rap was derived from a 1960s slang word for conversation, which generally consists of chanted, often improvised, street poetry accompanied by a montage of well known recordings, usually disco or funk (Jones M.). In James Haskin’s One Nation Under a Groove: Rap Music and Its Roots, he relates that a major contributing factor to the violence now rampant in rap music and the lifestyle of rappers, especially the militant subgroup known as gangsta rappers, is the deep-rooted value for a quick verbal facility among various tribes of West Africa, which accompanied the slaves to the United States. He explains that humorous story telling was used not only to entertain, but also to insult and taunt one another in order to gain the admiration of others. He points out that it was a battle for respect, in which the victor aims not only to win, but to keep his or her opponent from returning fire, and to verbally wipe him or her out. According to Haskins, because family is important to everyone, attacking an opponent’s family is a technique that was often used. He argues that the spirit of competition inherent in these verbal contests directly influenced rap music (Haskins). Some argue that gangsta rappers have made controversy their watchword, and have been accused of, among other things, anti-semitism and advocating violence against mostly women and gay men in their raps. Haskins cites an example of an incident with which Gangsta rap drew further attention to itself and the entire rap world in June 1990, when the owner of a Florida record store was arrested for selling the album of 2 Live Crew titled “As Nasty As They Wanna Be”. According to him, the members of the group were themselves arrested two days later, and their leader, Luther Campbell was charged with obscenity. He relates that Dr. Henry Gates, Jr., a scholar of African-American studies testified that the music the group was creating was part of an oral tradition stretching back to an Africa in which society and its elements were criticized, often harshly. Haskins points out that this and other testimonies led to the acquittal of 2 Live Crew, but the trial fueled a controversy on how far music for young people should be allowed to go (Haskins). Haskins further relates how Parents Music Resource Center (PMRC), a group founded in 1985 by Tipper Gore, wife of Al Gore, who would later be elected vice president under Bill Clinton, spurred by the controversy of the 2 Live Crew trial attempted to subject records to a rating system, but the artists and record companies objected. According to him, despite the protests, a compromise was reached when the recording industry agreed to label certain tapes and CDs as containing “Explicit Lyrics”, marking them as “Parental Advisory” (Haskins). Many believe that the gangsta rappers not only continued to compose explicit lyrics, they were also accused of living their lyrics. In an article published in Rolling Stone, it was reported that in September 1996, Tupac Shakur, after a nasty East coast - West coast feud with former friend and fellow rapper, Notorious B.I.G. (Christopher Wallace), was murdered in Las Vegas. According to the article, six months later in March 1997, Notorious B.I.G. was also murdered in a drive-by shooting in Los Angeles. It points out that to this day, the assailants of two of rap music’s leading figures have not been apprehended (Cave et. al.). James Steyer in his book The Other Parent noted that after the horrific school shooting at Columbine High School, Interscope Records released Eminem’s album Marshal Mathers, deciding only to blank out the words “kids” and “Columbine” from these lyrics in the rappers song, “I’m Back”. “I take seven kids from columbine, stand ‘em all in line/Add an AK-47, a revolver, a 9/A Mach II, and that oughta solve a problem/And it’s a whole school of bullies shot up at one time” (Qtd Steyer). This song that glorifies the schoolyard massacre has got critics wondering if rap music is actually just art. Eminem defended his lyrics in an interview given to Rolling stone, where he responded to the protests touched off by the contents of his songs by saying “The few people that know me know that I got a good heart......... as for the general public, I don’t owe them s**t. I don’t owe nobody an explanation for a f**king thing. The kids listening to my music get the joke. They can tell the entertainment of it. I think kids are smarter than we give them credits for.” (Qtd A.D.). Many experts have argued that there is a direct correlation between gangsta rap and violence among teenagers. In a recent study conducted by researcher Ralph J. Declement, PhD, of Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, it was concluded that teens who spent a lot of time (at least 14 hours per week) watching the sex and violence glamorized in gangsta rap videos are more likely to practice these behaviors in real life. Dr. Declement studied five hundred and twenty two black girls in Birmingham, Alabama over the course of one year. These girls were found to be far more likely to practice destructive behaviors. They were *Three times more likely to hit a teacher. *Over two and a half times more likely to get arrested. *Twice as likely to have multiple sexual partners. *More likely to get a sexually transmitted disease, use drugs or drink alcohol (Wingwood et. al.). Another comprehensive study of music videos published in the January 1999 issue of Pediatrics demonstrated that 22.4% of all Music videos portrayed violence, 20% of all rap videos contained violence, and weapon carrying was depicted in 25% of all Music television videos (Strasburger et. al.). Many wonder why rap music attracts as much patronage as it does, despite the danger it is believed to pose. They fear that it could either be that its viewers, which constitute many youth worldwide, desire the violent images it portrays, or that rap music is just reflecting the dangerous place that the world has become. On the opposite side of the argument are also experts who have admired rap music as an innovative way for oppressed minorities, especially blacks to express themselves in an artistic format, and to show how they live their daily lives in the confined ghettos, which is home to a sizeable majority of blacks in America. John Leonard, author of Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures, suggested that violence in our life should not be attributed to music or movies. He argues that violence was a part of the American culture, long before TV and other segments like music. According to him, virtual violence informs kids on realities of life that nobody would really have sat them down to talk about, like racism, homelessness, child abuse and rape (Leonard). Jones G. in his book, Killing monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy Super Heroes and Make-Believe Violence, argues that falling into the trap of thinking that children emulate what they see on TV is easy. He points out that these rappers and TV gunmen are symbols of strength to kids, and by pretending to be them, young people are being strong (Jones G.). What does the future hold for rap? Rap optimists argue that it is constantly undergoing a transformation process. They believe that out of that process have emerged a new generation of rap artists who do not live their lives on the fringes of urban psychosis. K. Maurice Jones gives examples of rappers like Fresh Prince (Will Smith), LL Cool J, and Queen Latifah who have disavowed violent, raw lyrics for wholesome family oriented songs that teach kids to stay in school, and encourage youth participation in the nation’s political system by urging them to vote. According to Jones M., many of these rappers have been involved in charity organizations, donating millions of dollars to help the needy and to advocate for a world devoid of violence (Jones M.). Critics of rap, on the other hand, do not hold the view that anything good has, or will come out of rap music. They believe that the worst is yet to come. With the kinds of transformations rap has undergone since its inception, some say it is difficult to predict where it will go. Many believe that it will, indeed, go somewhere new and interesting, and perhaps controversial.
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Jones, Gerard. Killing Monsters: Why Children Need Fantasy, Super Heroes, and Make-Believe Violence. New York: Basic Books, 2002.
Jones, Maurice K. Say It Loud: The Story of Rap Music. Brookfield: Millbrook Press, 1994.
Leonard, John. Smoke and Mirrors: Violence, Television, and Other American Cultures. New York: The New Press, 1997.
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Victor C., Strasburger, and Donnerstein Edward. "Children, adolescents, and the media: issues and solutions." Pediatrics 01 1999: 103. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO Host. Atkins Library, UNCC, Charlotte, NC. 30 Sep 2004.
Wingwood, Gina M., Diclement Ralph J., Davies Susan L., and Robillard Allysa. "A Prospective Study of Exposure to Rap Music Videos and African American Female Adolescents' Health." American Journal of Public Health Mar 2003: 93. Academic Search Elite. EBSCO Host. Atkins Library, UNCC, Charlotte, NC. 20 Oct 2004.