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Sunday, March 18, 2007

don't hate the genre

The New York Times reported this week on the Brazilian government's hip hop arts program led by Gilberto Gil. Yes, that Gilberto Gil, pillar of tropicalismo since the 1960's and minister of culture since 2003. In 2004 I was lucky enough to see both Gil and Caetano Veloso perform live though, alas, not together. That remains one of the things I still need to do before I die.

Brazil has a lot going on these days that merits the world's attention—sugar ethanol, gang culture, fighting Northern agricultural subsidies at the WTO—but in some things Brazilians are just like everyone else. Case in point—after noting that Brazilian funk is all about sex, bling, and violence, the article quotes Guiné Silva, rapper and community center director, on the attitudes of Brazil's hip hop community:
'When U.S. rap groups come here and try to be ostentatious or do the gangster thing, they get booed off the stage. We feel a kinship with Chuck D and Public Enemy but we don't have any respect for people like Snoop Dogg and Puff Daddy.' (NYT, March 14, 2007)

(I should say, for the benefit of readers who are not rap afficionados, that Chuck D represents the politically-minded strain of rap whereas Snoop mostly raps about smoking and pimping.)

Now, before I am misunderstood, let me state for the record that I consider Chuck D and Rakim the two greatest MC's of all time and Diddy among the worst, although I do give him props for broadening the model of the hip hop entrepreneur. And yes, many of my favorite raps belong to the politically militant canon. Even so, I have to express my fundamental disagreement with the quotation, which typifies the problem with hip hop criticism today: it is little more than didacticism and prescriptivism masquerading as serious criticism. (For the problem with hip hop today, see my entry of December 1, 2006.)

Too much commentary about rap these days is nothing more than a wish list for what people want rap to be. They want it to be virtuous, morally righteous, and politically conscious. They want it to get up, stand up, and fight the powers that be. And when it doesn't live up to their moral and political program, all they can do is dis it or ignore it. In short, they want rap to teach us how to live and how to think.

But we must ask, is this a valid test for art? Or is this the most intellectually outdated and critically retrograde æsthetic agenda imaginable in the twenty-first century? Do we ask the same of painting or theatre? Have we forgotten the lessons of the æsthetic movement, to wit, that 'There is no such thing as a moral or an immoral book. Books are well written, or badly written. That is all.' (Oscar Wilde, preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray) Or are hip hop critics a special class of people who don't believe in æsthetics but only look to rap for political messages?

The most common complaint, typified by Silva's reference to Snoop and Puffy, is that rap has become too materialistic, but when was it ever not about the Benjamins and partying? Let's go back to day one, 1979, 'Rapper's Delight' by the Sugar Hill Gang:
'You see I'm six foot one and I'm tons of fun
And I dress to a T.
You see I got more clothes than Muhammad Ali
And I dress so viciously.
I got bodyguards, I got two big cars,
I definitely ain't the wac.
I got a Lincoln Continental
And a sharp new Cadillac.
So after school, I take a dip in the pool, which really is on the wall.
I got a color TV, so I can see, the Knicks play basketball.
Hear me talkin' 'bout checkbooks, credit cards, more money
Than a sucker could ever spend.
But I wouldn't give a sucker or a bum from the Rucker not a dime till I made it again.'

And let's not forget that bit about the Holiday Inn.

Rap started out as music by have-nots who wanted to have, and what did they want to have most of all? Equal protection under the law? The right to a fair trial? No, Reader, what they said they wanted was color television and cash money. That's not a criticism but a clear-sighted observation. I'm not telling you what rap should be but, rather, what it is.

The obvious comeback is, well what about raps like 'The Message' and 'White Lines' by Grandmaster Flash & The Furious Five? I'm not denying that there was also political rap back in the day, but selective memory should not erase Flash's parade of party songs like 'Flash to the Beat' and 'Scorpio' from history. Most rap always was and possibly always will be about satisfying appetite and lust. And I'm here to tell you that if we are ever to have meaningful hip hop criticism, we need to engage rap on an æsthetic level and we must honestly take stock of all that it is and not just what some people wish it would be.

Let's not beat around the bush. Most objections to rap come from the misogyny, homophobia, materialism, and violence typically found in the lyrics. I deny none of these claims. Indeed, rap lyrics are a veritable cornucopia of ugly content. Consider one of the starkest examples possible, 'Gangsta Gangsta' (1988) by NWA:
'Do I look like a mother-fucking role model?
To a kid looking up to me,
Life ain't nothing but bitches and money.'
Ugly? Sure. But can we frame a more enlightening critical question than, Yes or no, is rap music sometimes ugly and unpleasant?

At this point, most defenders of rap will choose the classical defense, i.e. the argument that Greek tragedy, Shakespeare, etc. are full of uncomfortable content and violence. Although fairly obvious, that can still be a powerful defense of art in general, despite how overused it is. Yes, a lot of great art takes us out of our comfort zones and asks us to face difficult questions about who we, the human species, are and what we are capable of. There is drama in confronting the darkness. We ought not be too delicate to hear and see things about ourselves that we find unpleasant.

Sure, I buy all that, but that argument only works for rap's singularly great achievements as art. No, I want to defend rap more broadly, not just the handful of cases that any of us would readily accept as art. A better question to ask about rap, high or low, is this: what does it draw on and what does it do with that? What critical and æsthetic operations does it perform on the cultural traditions from which it proceeds? Or, more simply, a question we can ask about any art form: how does it transform the stuff it steals?

For me, the most important traditions underlying rap's lyrical content are bawdiness and the outlaw. Rap's discourse of pimping and ho's has a lot in common with the work of Rochester and Swift's dressing room poems. The first rappers to make a specialty of bawdy talk were 2 Live Crew, not the greatest MC's but clearly working in a similar vein as the aforementioned English poets, if not exactly in a direct line of descent. More directly, American traditions of the outlaw, common in popular song, came to the fore in rap in the late 1980's, not coincidentally in the west. One thinks readily of Jimi Hendrix's 'Hey Joe' or Johnny Cash's 'Cocaine Blues', two first-person narratives about men who shot their women dead.

Artists don't speak literally for themselves when they perform in character (and yes, some rappers remain in character far too much of the time). To portray violence in song is not to perform or advocate violence. Gangsta rap is by now an established genre drawing on a fairly stable body of source material: outlaws and bandits, bawdy talk, pimps and prostitutes, gang culture, Brian De Palma's Scarface, drug dealing, street life, and boasting. The originality of the art lies in the operations it performs on this genre material.

When gangsta rap started, people typically defended it on the grounds that it represented the authentic voice of witness: it was testimony from the streets by people otherwise silenced. I happen to think people were also listening because they were excited by the moral ambiguity of listening to shameless tales of crime and wrongdoing, but perhaps that was just me. Whether we want to imagine a lost, pure heyday of politically militant gangsta rap or whether we want to acknowledge that it was always already self-consciously constructing itself as a genre, æsthetic revolutions ultimately do tend to evolve into sets of genre conventions, and there's nothing wrong with that.

That rap's tales of hustling now seem more mannered than militant is a typical outcome in art. Is there still originality and creativity in American rap these days? Recent albums by Ghostface Killah and Clipse suggest there is, although first-rate new work is becoming rare. But that is a question worth asking about art: is it still original and creative—not, do I agree with what the artist says? Reader, if we only accepted art whose content we agreed with, we'd burn down much of the Met tomorrow.

I'm on the left and all, but there is no place for the dogmatism of easy liberalism when it comes to the arts, let alone rap, the most intellectually demanding form of music today. Appreciating Eminem's assonance and 'Stan', his great epistolary rap, or marvelling at the way the Wu-Tang Clan mixes martial arts, super-heroes, and post-Scarface cocaine entrepreneurs does not mean we are not committed to fighting misogyny, homophobia, war, and all the other evils in the real world. It means that we recognize that art is something else: strange, perplexing, and outside our normal morality. If we limit ourselves to only admitting artists whose literal content we agree with, we will be all the poorer for it.

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

It's hard not to 'hate the genre' when there really are kids, many of them, who 'look up' and do see, among other moral indiscretions, bitches and money. These young people, mainly adolescent boys, believe in and find comfort in this literal content you mentioned and often have not developed the critical awareness to see such content as anything other than scripture. It might be outside our normal morality, as adults, but for many of these boys, no definite morality has been established yet. It's not the fault of the artists, and I would never sanction censorship, but because of rap's accesibility and popularity, it must be contended with.

5:36 PM, March 19, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

JR is right to point out that young people lack the critical awareness of adults, and rap certainly does nothing to lead young males to enlightened attitudes about gender. Artists release work to the public, and the public has the right to talk back to the artists. Those who believe that young people learn about gender relations primarily from music are welcome to lobby the artists and the distributors to change their ways. I tend to think the example of adults teaches young people a lot more than rappers do.

I will not lobby rappers to change for two reasons. One is that I don't believe we should infantilize the arts by making every last thing kid-friendly. We must not reduce everything to the youngest common denominator. There has to be room in the world for artists to take risks and for adults to enjoy their work. And risk means risk. The first definition of 'risk' in the OED is 'Hazard, danger; exposure to mischance or peril'. Yes, that's exactly right. Art is sometimes dangerous. If we try to expel the real danger that art sometimes exposes us to, then we cannot go on claiming to believe in the power of art.

The second reason is that I'm not convinced that behavioural persuasion is one of the powers of art. I think young people are smarter than adults give them credit for; I don't think they use the content they're exposed to the way adults assume they do; and I don't think rap music is going to turn young males into women-haters. This is an utterly unscientific piece of evidence, but I have been listening to rap music for nearly my entire life yet I remain a committed feminist. I'm quite sure I'm not the only one. (At one point, in an extended fit of zeal, I even boycotted rappers who used sexist language for quite a long period. I did not buy a copy of The Chronic by Dr. Dre until 2000. By that time, I had developed a more mature understanding of the role of art in the world.)

I think JR certainly goes too far in suggesting that young males cannot see 'such content as anything other than scripture'. What I remember of youth is that it was a time of relentless questioning and the slaying of idols.

What young people do with culture is not an easy thing to understand. And people's tastes change rapidly when they're young. I have not met the kid who listens to only one form of music and sticks to it for an entire childhood. The same kids that listen to gangsta rap may also listen to the most overwrought emo music. What does it mean? Who can say?

Sexist attitudes are rife among young males with or without rap music. Some young males prone to sexist attitudes grow out of them and some, alas, do not. But I'm not convinced that music makes the difference.

10:31 PM, March 19, 2007

Anonymous supreme ultimate fist said...

An invigorating defence of rap, which prompts two questions in my mind:

1) You call rap "the most intellectually demanding form of music today". Is it really? In what way? Is "intellectually demanding", howsoever defined, actually what music ought to aspire to be, or is it possible that this is something like a category mistake? (I am reminded of the absurd old "Dylan is as good as Keats" trope. Absurd not because he isn't, but because he's simply doing a different job.)

2) How does your laudably liberal theory of art, with which I want to agree, deal with something like Leni Riefenstahl's Triumph of the Will?

3:02 AM, March 20, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

Welcome back, Supreme. It's been a while.

By no means should music necessarily aspire to be intellectually demanding. I generally find music that appeals directly to the hips more satisfying than music that stimulates my intellect. That said, I do think rap stands out as a peculiarly intellectual form of music in that it often resembles, in both words and sounds, a literary text dense with allusion and quotation of other works. Surely, other types of music draw on pre-existing compositions in a variety of ways, but rap quotes more omnivourously and more provocatively than any other form. The result is often an exegetical challenge of a high degree of difficulty.

As for Riefsentahl, I refer you to your own comments in the Apple advertising debate: 'I must agree with Jeff that, despite Wittgenstein's gnomic announcement that "ethics and aesthetics are one and the same", there is no reliable link between aesthetic and political choices. (Notoriously, the Nazis loved 'em some good music.)'
I don't have any hesitation in praising Riefenstahl's work on purely æsthetic grounds. As much as they infuriate me sometimes, I even admire the rhetorical skills of our worst political enemies at home and abroad.

3:36 AM, March 20, 2007

Anonymous supreme ultimate fist said...

I see what you mean when you say rap resembles a densely allusive literary text - but I'm not sure that that makes it "intellectually demanding" by itself. You say it poses a difficult exegetical challenge - but I suppose there are many people who listen to rap with no intention of crafting an exegesis thereof afterwards.

So you seem to be saying rap is intellectually demanding because a) it's got wicked verbals; and b) it's hard to write a good essay about it, if you try. I'm sure those are both true, in a way. But are there not other ways to be intellectually demanding that do not require that music be seen as literature, or provide an alibi for scholarly literature on it? For example, is a wordless Bach fugue not also "intellectually demanding"? Perhaps it is, for musicologists who are trying to see and anticipate the fugal architecture as they listen. Perhaps it isn't for others. Is Wagner intellectually demanding? No doubt! But he's also the Tolkein for people who are too snobbish to like Tolkein. Are System of a Down intellectually demanding, with their slammin' Armenian-American political harmony-thrash? I dunno, you try playing those riffs!

Forgive me for all the above, but I suppose you see my point. I fear that praising music as "intellectually demanding" can tend to imply that it's only worthwhile to the extent that it approximates literature. I am glad to hear you disown this prejudice.

Meanwhile, you say:
I don't have any hesitation in praising Riefenstahl's work on purely æsthetic grounds.
Do I hear something like a hesitant proviso in "on purely aesthetic grounds". You do not, after all, attach this proviso to your praise of rap. So why do you not say simply "I don't have any hesitation in praising Riefenstahl's work"?

4:41 AM, March 20, 2007

Blogger Jeff Strabone said...

I don't think we disagree about music and whether it needs to be difficult.

I don't need to attach the æsthetics-only proviso to rap because its otherwise objectionable content usually registers as æsthetic convention to me. Other rap recordings, fewer in number, explore the darker sides of human appetite in profitably discomforting ways. And yes, many rap recordings are simply indefensible crap, but one could say the same of any art form.

People may debate Riefenstahl's motives, but her filmic collaborators' were clear: they really wanted to kill Jews and destroy parliamentary government. I don't think Ghostface Killah really wants to sell cocaine. He wants to make music.

10:57 PM, March 20, 2007

Blogger Clemens said...

A quick question for Jeff regarding the debate with Supreme:

"I don't think Ghostface Killah really wants to sell cocaine. He wants to make music."

Where, then, do groups like Clipse (and to a lesser degree, Young Jeezy) fit into this argument? Surely, we all agree Ghostface has no plans to 'shovel snow' anytime soon, but Clipse gained most of their early notoreity off a comprehensive knowledge of dealing. Even their new release--years after their preliminary success--has been lauded for the first hand account of a complicated juggling act: pushing coke while maintaining a rap career.

5:23 PM, March 30, 2007

Blogger Luke West said...

Good stuff Jeff. I think I'll give this to my class to read...

4:16 PM, March 31, 2007


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