Is Hip-Hop out of Hand?

Uzochi Nwoko, Harvard University

This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years” – Geraldo Rivera, FOX news analyst; quoted on Kendrick Lamar’s, “DNA.”

Rivera’s comment, although heavily hyperbolized, holds some intrigue. Rap and hip-hop music often glamorizes violence - an issue that heavily impacts the black community. Countless artists’ songs contain lyrics that depict the authors shooting their enemies, getting revenge on those who hurt them, and obtaining material wealth by force. Psychological studies such as the mere-exposure effect (a principle denoting that repeated exposure to a stimulus can cause people to develop predilections to said stimulus) indicate that hearing these lyrics on a regular basis can cause listeners to develop preferences for them. As these preferences form, listeners may begin to identify more and more with these violence-laden lyrics, which can lead to consumers attempting to emulate the stories that rappers are portraying. Thus, on some level, Rivera has a point – there are definitely negative repercussions associated with absorbing the motif of violence that many rappers perpetuate in their art. If we were to get rid of rap and hip-hop music, would the greater black community be better off, and placed on equal footing with our Caucasian counterparts, who, as a group, head the socioeconomic totem pole? Obviously not. Thus, largely invalidating Rivera’s thesis. However, would eliminating violent lyrics from the music consumed by so many black youth, some of whom are at a high risk of joining gangs due to their location and socioeconomic status, benefit the black community? Perhaps. However, only perhaps.

Rapper Tee Grizzley voiced his opinion on violent lyrics in his song, “Win,” rapping, “How you gonna motivate the youth rapping that gangster s***? This what I like so I’ma make that s***. But even still, this my life, I gotta claim this s***.” As Tee Grizzley stated, what many rappers voice in their music are their lived experiences (although often-embellished). Rapping about these experiences can not only be cathartic for rappers, but can also provide others in similar situations with somebody with whom they can resonate due to shared experiences. Seeing those who were in comparable circumstances now enjoying wealth and fame can give the youth something to aspire to. Although the method of providing such inspiration, by saturating one’s lyrics with glorified violence, may be negative. Thus, lyrics depicting violence are not necessarily problematic in-and-of-themselves, but their glamorization is. This glamorization, though, is what sells the best, as people are naturally more attracted to those who portray themselves in a position of power, than those who depict themselves as victims; so, rappers continue to glorify “that gangster s***,” as Wallace calls it.

Nevertheless, rappers often amend this promotion of violence by also portraying the true ugly side of it. This expression of discontent is important because it resonates with listeners who live in similar conditions and provides those in privileged situations with a new perspective that they may not have obtained otherwise. In his song “Rappers” Wallace states, “they wanna go to the hood, I don’t wanna see it again.” These lines contrast many of his other lyrics that glamorize the violence that affects impoverished neighborhoods, or “the hood,” elucidating that this motif may, after all, be undesirable. There are countless examples of rappers likewise portraying their story in a frank, non-glorified way, even though they may paint an alluring picture on other occasions to sell records. For example, though rapper Lil Wayne often produces lyrics seemingly promoting violence, he also provides lyrics that condemn it. One example of which is on “Nightmares of the Bottom,” where he states, “I’m a gangsta by choice, hope my sons choose wiser, and don’t call me sir, call me survivor,” portraying that the lifestyle he depicts in his music may not be as appealing as he sometimes describes it to be. Another example can be found in “Polo and Shell Tops,” where rapper Meek Mill voices his displeasure of situations occurring in “the jungle,” or the hood, where “homies murder other homies just to make a brick.” In other selections of his music, Williams seems to convey a more alluring side to violence by lionizing it, but by providing both of these perspectives, he does his due diligence of informing listeners of the harsh realities of his prior conditions.

Though violence in the African American community is a major and pressing issue, it can’t be blamed on rap music to a large extent. It is true that many verses may indeed glamorize violence, however, there exist a plethora of verses often by the same artists who condemn it; it doesn’t take much reading between the lines to receive the alternate message, although opponents of rap music, like Geraldo Rivera, could stand to benefit from doing just that.