Hip-hop music has been political since its inception, but Eminem’s live performance against Donald Trump has struck a chord with scores of people. Racking up millions of views since its debut, the song features a considerable amount of lyrical depth for a freestyle. The ability of a rapper to craft a song about politics and gain so much mainstream exposure speaks volumes about hip-hop music’s popularity in contemporary U.S. culture. But despite hip-hop music’s widespread appeal, conservative critics such as Mike Huckabee and Bill O’Reilly continue to make tired arguments against it. Hip-hop should not be beyond good faith critique, but its cultural significance should be widely recognized–and dishonest conservative attacks should be called out as such.
Like many white suburban kids in the early 2000s, my first foray into hip-hop music was Eminem. My parents were opposed to me listening, but I managed to get around their censorship by listening to him at friends’ houses or just ignoring my parents’ censorship altogether. What captivated me was the sense of perceived “realness” that emanated from each song; it did not feel overly choreographed or artificially synthesized like pop music, but instead it felt raw and explicit.
After his debut in the late 1990s, Eminem garnered significant controversy. His music–particularly his early work–is deeply violent in its misogyny and homophobia. Part of this can be attributed to Eminem’s hometown, Detroit, which was recognized for creating horrorcore, a sub-genre of hip-hop music. Wikipedia defines this as containing “horror-themed and often darkly transgressive lyrical content and imagery.” Think of it as a horror movie in song form.
His career took off amidst the 1999 school shooting in Columbine, Colorado, which led to speculation that explicit music was the catalyst behind the shooting. (This theory was disproven.) Eminem brushed aside concerns about the content within his music by claiming that his songs are not to be taken seriously. Legitimate criticism about the problematic aspects of Eminem’s lyrics was buried under the numerous unsubstantiated Columbine-related claims against the rapper.
However, there are valid critiques of many popular tropes in mainstream hip-hop music. Conversations about misogyny in music were ignited after hip-hop artist Rick Ross was forced to apologize about lyrics glorifying date rape. Recently, artists such as Future have been called to task for lyrics that seem to glamorize the use of “molly” (ecstasy) and percocet (Oxycodone). It is hard to deny that mainstream hip-hop in many ways still looks up to artists who use themes of homophobia, hyper-masculinity, capitalism, drug use, and street violence to promote their work.
At this point, readers who do not listen to hip-hop music may be asking, “Given all of these problems, why listen at all?” I am not trying to convince people to start listening to hip-hop. People can listen to whatever music they want in their free time! Rather, I want to both defend those who do appreciate hip-hop as an art form, and also explain why hip-hop matters.
The controversy surrounding hip-hop music is hardly surprising. It follows a pattern: historically black art forms in the United States have been simultaneously criticized and consumed by white people. Before jazz became the curated pick for upscale elevators everywhere, jazz was shunned and considered unorthodox. Rock and roll was raunchy and wild when it was a “black thing”, but Elvis Presley, despite criticism over his hips, made it palatable for white consumption.
Following suit, hip-hop music in the 1980s and 1990s was a controversial commodity, before Eminem played a role in making it palatable for white consumption. This same dynamic was highlighted in 2014, when white hip-hop artist Macklemore beat Kendrick Lamar for a Grammy, in a move that Macklemore himself admitted was a mistake.
Eminem has been refreshingly honest about this dynamic. In his 2002 song “White America,” he raps:
Look at these eyes, baby blue, baby just like yourself
If they were brown, Shady’d lose, Shady’d sit on the shelf
But Shady’s cute, Shady knew Shady’s dimples would help
Make ladies swoon, baby (ooh, baby!) — look at my sales!
Let’s do the math: if I was black, I woulda sold half
I ain’t have to graduate from Lincoln High School to know that
Broadly speaking, hip-hop music receives unfair criticism that other forms of media and other genres of music are not subject to. Movies such as Saw, Kill Bill, and Human Centipede contain significant amounts of violence and gore. Movies such as Scarface and television programs like Breaking Bad received unmitigated praise despite the drug content. Rewatch nearly any comedy film made prior to 2009, and you’ll see a barrage of homophobic jokes and slurs. In fact, the entire premise of Robin Williams’ classic Mrs. Doubtfire is predicated on an aversion toward transgender people.
My point is not that all entertainment is bad and that no one should ever watch it. Quite the opposite! There are some very good pieces of media which involve problematic themes. I cringed when recently rewatching the classic 1964 James Bond film Goldfinger, in which Sean Connery shoos a woman away from a sensitive conversation by slapping her on the ass (loudly) and remarking, “man talk.” I wish that this awkward scene did not exist, but I still find enjoyment in this otherwise (mostly) excellent film. While I can I can sympathize with and understand why some people might find problematic aspects in media a barrier to enjoyment, it is possible to critically consume media while still enjoying it.
Many of hip-hop’s right-wing critics concern troll about social justice issues to mask white fragility. Perhaps the most outspoken critic was former Fox News host Bill O’Reilly, who has publicly criticized hip-hop artists Ludacris, Nas, Cam’ron, Jay-Z (and his wife, Beyoncé), Lupe Fiasco, Common, Snoop Dogg, Young Jeezy, Lil’ Wayne, Kanye West, and Eminem. His concerns about lyrical content were interspersed, of course, by his concerns for children.
Bill O’Reilly’s arguments are completely disingenuous. O’Reilly feigns shock at the misogyny in hip-hop lyrics. (O’Reilly has had to pay over $45 million to settle numerous sexual harassment allegations, including one nauseating incident in which he phoned a female producer of his program and pleasured himself with a vibrator.) O’Reilly bemoans violent lyrics affecting children. (Court documents reveal O’Reilly dragged his ex-wife by her neck down a flight of stairs in front of his daughter.) O’Reilly is concerned about hip-hop artists, such as Common, being invited to the White House. (Frequent Fox News guest Ted Nugent has defended South African apartheid, called Hillary Clinton a “worthless bitch”, told Barack Obama to “suck on my machine gun”; Trump hosted Nugent in the White House early 2017.)
The conservative freakout about hip-hop music has developed into a cliché. This makes sense: aside from white fragility, hip-hop is a trend popular with younger demographics, whereas conservatives skew older. But, the origins of hip-hop perhaps make it even more difficult for conservatives to sympathize with. In the 1970s, black and Latino artists in the Bronx began to create music using what resources they had. They did not have a lot of resources, so they would often sample records and use basic loops to create instrumental tracks. Eventually, people began to record vocals over these beats. It was not intended to conform to what white people were comfortable with or used to listening to; it was the embodiment of the rejection of media that did not reflect their communities.
I should reiterate that I do not care whether people listen to hip-hop music or not. Personal preferences are just that–personal. Rather, I want to critique the mainstream right-wing disdain for hip-hop that makes lazy arguments and is often used as a method of criticizing black culture in general. This is similar to the “southern strategy,” a right-wing electoral method of making racist arguments by using coded language for political gains.
The anti-hip-hop fervor is misguided: people in the United States should take pride in hip-hop music, even if they do not enjoy it. In researching for this post, I tried to find a country with no hip-hop culture whatsoever. This eventually devolved into me typing in random countries’ names on Google, but each time I was able to find a hit: Icelandic hip-hop, Singaporean hip-hop, Iranian hip-hop. I could not find any sources detailing hip-hop culture in North Korea (although a Washington D.C.-based hip-hop duo secretly filmed a music video in Pyongyang) or in the continent of Antarctica (although a DJ did film a project there). To penetrate so many different markets is truly a feat by any measure.
Many people in politics have taken notice. Ben Carson had a cringe-inducing hip-hop ad targeted at urban black voters. Bernie Sanders hung out with Atlanta-based hip-hop artist Killer Mike on the 2016 campaign trail. The Obamas are public friends with Jay-Z and Beyoncé. Even if Hillary Clinton embarrassingly attempted to learn how to “dab” and “nae nae” on national television, the message is clear: ignoring hip-hop’s influence is to ignore voters. In addition to other reasons listed here, condescendingly dismissing hip-hop is electorally unproductive.
Hip-hop music has its problems, as do all art forms. Disingenuous right-wing arguments against hip-hop not only do not help, but they fall on deaf ears: hip-hop music is global phenomenon, and people are unlikely to stop listening because it hurts Sean Hannity’s feelings. People should reject racially coded diatribes against this internationally acclaimed genre of music and take pride in one of the United States’ most popular cultural exports. It might not be what everyone chooses to listen to, but to not recognize its value in U.S. culture is to do a great disservice to black history.
In Post Notes, I add some additional thoughts or context to a blog post I’ve previously written. That can be found here.