Mike O’Hare is distinctly unimpressed by rap. I’m not as hostile as he is–I can think of at least a handful of remarkably complex rap albums (in particular stuff from the late 1980s like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Eric B. and Rakim) albums that I continue to listen to today. That said, there’s a large amount of simple-minded, disposable junk. The same could be said for a large percentage of mainstream pop music as well. I don’t claim to be an expert in aesthetics, at least for the purposes of this blog.
The relevant question here is, as Mike insinuates, not the particulars of any individual artist, but the aggregate impact of a heavily marketed genre. Obviously one impact, as the Imus spat has shown us, is that the wide marketing of the more misogynistic corners of the genre has had an effect on the perception of blacks in the broader (white) culture. In a culture where suspicions of black intellectually deficiency, tendencies toward violence and uncontrollable sexual impulses are deeply rooted in racist stereotypes, a great deal of rap acted out those stereotypes in their most cartoony fashion–and in the process reinforced them among whites. The consequence is that casual reference to black women as “nappy headed hos” is now quite close to the frontal lobe of people like Imus, and his listeners (a majority of the buyers of rap music) as well. One way to think about this is that the cruder forms of rap are very lucrative for their practitioners and the large corporations behind them, but they do so while imposing an externality (in the form of reinforced stereotype) on the community they claim to speak for.
More social scientifically, I should note that there is some significant evidence tying the rise of rap music to declining educational achievement among black students. Between 1984 and 1988, there was a sharp increase in reading scores and the percentage of blacks reading for pleasure. This reversed quite sharply and dramatically between 1988 and 1992. Ron Ferguson of the Kennedy School has studied this decline, and finds that “the only phenomenon I have identified that coincides in time with the drop-off in reading gains, leisure reading, and class attendance for black teenagers, is the commercial take-off of rap music.” Rap was popular among both blacks and whites, but there appeared to be little effect on white educational performance, which Ferguson explains by hypothesizing that “it was entertainment for whites, but ‘identity’ for young blacks because it was so assertively distinct from white culture.” This explanation would also explain why declines were found even among relatively well-to-do blacks–the cause was not geographical but cultural, diffused not through neighborhood but through radio, CDs and MTV. (More of Ferguson’s argument can be found here, in a book I edited with Glenn Loury and Tariq Modood).
Whatever we may think about rap on an aesthetic level (and I’m more torn on the matter than Mike), there is some evidence that over the last twenty years, it may have contributed considerably to two of the nation’s more important social problems (white racial stereotyping and the black-white achievement gap). What, if anything, policy could have done about this, or could do in the future, is the subject of a future posting.