The Rap on Rap

Predictably, Imus’ little contretemps raises questions about the relentless truly repulsive conventions of gangsta rap and its related forms. This AP story has some interesting quotes, from critics hostile to the misogynistic, violent stream of gangsta rap and from its defenders anxious to distinguish it from Imus’ japes and jabs. The standard defense of this bilge is here offered by Russell Simmons, who tells us (summarized by the reporter) to see it as “reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from”.

Reflected, that is, by an artist assuming a persona: it’s no more appropriate, Simmons would say, to condemn a rapper for the cop-killing lines he’s written for his actor half than to condemn Shakespeare for Lady Macbeth’s murderous incitement. This is a considerable position, and puts some distance between the rappers and Imus, who always tried to have it both ways, framing himself as a serious social critic, that is, as himself, interviewing the great and the good who’ve been rending their garments this past week. (The legal trouble rappers seem to fall into by acting out suggests some blurring of their lives and their artifice, but I don’t have statistics to prove that they’re actually any more likely to wind up in jail than painters or violists, and I can imagine that the press distorts my estimate.)

Social criticism art, popular and highbrow, has a long and illustrious history, from John Gay to Goya to Brecht to Randy Newman. Unfortunately, if this is the rubric we are to use, commercial rap won’t do well. Aesthetically, I think Wynton Marsalis got it about right. As I recall the quote: “I can’t believe the African-American musical tradition has been reduced to talking over a mechanical drum.” The form is rhythmically and harmonically simpleminded and the lyrics have flashes of imaginative imagery but not much more than that. It’s stupefying; Ravel wrote the Bolero once, and if it hadn’t been distinctive against a background of all the other music of the time it would have been meaningless. (I know, there’s lots of kinds of rap; you know the category I’m discussing: the one with the mass audience, black and white.)

OK, I have no credentials to criticize on this score; I have some musical training, but in the tradition of exactly the hegemonic (European classical music) or complaisant coopted (jazz and popular song) or colonial oppressed (Afro-Iberian) aesthetics from which rap has liberated itself. What about the explicit content?

Here we have what may be a real breakthrough, but to what: this is the first art making social significance claims that is completely, pervasively, devoid of any sympathy for anyone who could be seen as a victim; indeed, it’s hostile to the victims at every turn. Even Brecht at his most misanthropic doesn’t wallow in the undifferentiated world of mutual destruction of gangsta rap, and even Brecht is always ironic and complicated; when he’s being most bitter, Weill sets the lyrics in redemptive music. Check out the “Drowned Maiden” in the Berliner Requiem: a young woman’s corpse floats down the river and slowly decomposes – in the most seductive, romantic, imagery, so we have to subconsciously feel the humanity she’s lost while we’re recoiling from the facts being recited.

In the same article, Snoop Dogg neatly cuts the ground out from under Simmons: “(Rappers) are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports,” he told MTV.com. “We’re talking about hos that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing —- that’s trying to get a n—- for his money.” Yup. And no other women, as far as I can tell, and the lyrics aren’t exactly full of men trying to get ahead either, beaten down for it or not; mostly brothers trying to get other brothers (and the odd cop) dead.

In about the last half-century, protest and provocative art has got itself in a difficult situation, which may entail some sympathy for the rap artist who feels compelled to ever more repulsive discourse. I refer to the establishment’s confused misunderstanding that the duty of the culturally sophisticated is to not be shocked or offended (Tom Wolfe dissected this body, one would think once and for all, in Radical Chic and Mau-mauing the Flak-Catchers thirty-seven years ago, but go figure). The poor artist who wants to work this vein is constantly being embraced and head-patted by the enemy, vitiating the whole enterprise and setting up a cycle of “doesn’t anything get your attention? Well, try this!”…and it goes up on the wall at the next Biennale. The audience that threw chairs at the stage at the premiere of Ubu Roi were right, and made it possible for Jarry to do his job; when did we get so mixed up about that?

I claimed in an earlier post that kvetching about the supply side of the shock-discourse industry, let alone censoring it, is a letoff that permits us to pass by the important part of the phenomenon. In my view this latter is the demand it reveals by making pots of money. If we know anything about art, we know that perception is an active process that goes on inside the head of the viewer or listener. Looking at the artifact by itself is like reading recipes instead of eating; we need to pay more attention to art (especially political art) where it counts, which is after it’s heard or seen. I don’t care especially that a handful of singers or shock-jocks hate women or blacks or Jews or themselves; the world can tolerate quite a few sociopaths. What keeps me up nights is the millions of customers who can listen to whatever they want, pick this stuff, and keep coming back for it. That’s the real social disease. Will it go away if we close the tap (or try to) – does hateful entertainment make hate? If that’s all there is to it, I’ll sign up to help shut it down. But I want to be sure I’m not just whiting a sepulcher going down that path.

Author: Michael O'Hare

Professor of Public Policy at the Goldman School of Public Policy, University of California, Berkeley, Michael O'Hare was raised in New York City and trained at Harvard as an architect and structural engineer. Diverted from an honest career designing buildings by the offer of a job in which he could think about anything he wanted to and spend his time with very smart and curious young people, he fell among economists and such like, and continues to benefit from their generosity with on-the-job social science training. He has followed the process and principles of design into "nonphysical environments" such as production processes in organizations, regulation, and information management and published a variety of research in environmental policy, government policy towards the arts, and management, with special interests in energy, facility siting, information and perceptions in public choice and work environments, and policy design. His current research is focused on transportation biofuels and their effects on global land use, food security, and international trade; regulatory policy in the face of scientific uncertainty; and, after a three-decade hiatus, on NIMBY conflicts afflicting high speed rail right-of-way and nuclear waste disposal sites. He is also a regular writer on pedagogy, especially teaching in professional education, and co-edited the "Curriculum and Case Notes" section of the Journal of Policy Analysis and Management. Between faculty appointments at the MIT Department of Urban Studies and Planning and the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard, he was director of policy analysis at the Massachusetts Executive Office of Environmental Affairs. He has had visiting appointments at Università Bocconi in Milan and the National University of Singapore and teaches regularly in the Goldman School's executive (mid-career) programs. At GSPP, O'Hare has taught a studio course in Program and Policy Design, Arts and Cultural Policy, Public Management, the pedagogy course for graduate student instructors, Quantitative Methods, Environmental Policy, and the introduction to public policy for its undergraduate minor, which he supervises. Generally, he considers himself the school's resident expert in any subject in which there is no such thing as real expertise (a recent project concerned the governance and design of California county fairs), but is secure in the distinction of being the only faculty member with a metal lathe in his basement and a 4×5 Ebony view camera. At the moment, he would rather be making something with his hands than writing this blurb.