Last September, political pundit Ben Shapiro tried to argue that “rap” was not music.
Not only is this assessment laughably cringey, but it is also patently wrong. According to Shapiro, music is only music if it contains these three elements: harmony, melody, and rhythm. Shapiro argues, “Rap only fulfills one of these, the rhythm section. There’s not a lot of melody and there’s not a lot of harmony. And thus, effectively, it is basically spoken rhythm. It’s not actually a form of music. It’s a form of rhythmic speaking.”
Shapiro’s assessment of what makes music actually “music” is woefully under representative, but even if it wasn’t, by his own standards, hip hop music checks all three boxes. Melody and harmony are not elements that are strictly intrinsic to singing — in hip hop, for instance, they can be visibly seen in the form of flow and cadence. All Shapiro has succeeded in doing is proving how little he actually understands of his so-called “musical theory.”
I bring this up not to gratify Shapiro’s naive argument, but because Shapiro’s attitude is not a unique one — it is a reflection of a broader sentiment present in our society. People hear the messages about guns and drugs and are quick to dismiss the art form, and to hear someone say that rap isn’t “real music” is quite common, especially amongst older generations.
But this would not be the first time that a primarily black art-form has been dismissed by society at large, and it will not be the last. Ragtime, jazz, blues, black church spirituals, all at the time of their conception were disregarded as uncouth, as too discordant to truly be “music.” For instance, in 1919 the popular literary magazine Current Opinion argued that jazz is merely “a random assemblage of war-like noises” and not real music — not too different from Shapiro’s “rhythmic speaking” assessment of rap.
Or take, for instance, the African American spiritual. Many critics would agree it is one of the most scintillating displays of struggle condensed into an artform. And yet, as Langston Hughes puts it in The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain, when the genre first originated many argued that the “drab melodies in white folks’ hymnbooks [were] much to be preferred… ‘We want to worship the Lord correctly and quietly. We don’t believe in shouting’…they say, in effect.” I suppose it can be argued black art-forms are not unique in this effect — new, different music is oft panned at its genesis — but black music faces the added challenge of weaving through an obstacle course of racist dog whistles, which only compounds the difficulty for the art form to achieve the respect it deserves.
In fact, the artform seems to have become something of an easy scapegoat for a lot of unfair blame. The tragic overdose of young up and coming rapper Juice WRLD stands out as a sort of parabolic example of this. The rapper, who a good portion of his songs run with the motif of drug use, died from a percocet-induced seizure. Naturally, his death served as a marker for many to argue that hip hop’s normalization of drug abuse is out of control. And to an extent, this is true. However, the idea that hip hop is unique in this regard is simply untrue. A little under thirty years ago, Kurt Cobain shot himself while high on heroin at the height of the Rock n Roll heroin epidemic. Just ten years earlier, Janice Joplin died of a heroin overdose.
Perhaps I am digressing. But, I do think that the conversation around drugs in hip hop is reflective of a broader trend for the artform. People are so convinced that hip hop is the root of the problem; that rappers “glorifying” violent crime and drugs are causing youth to follow suit. Older generations especially love to tout these “harmful messages” found in hip hop as this ultimate damning strike against the genre. But these messages in hip hop are not the cause of the problem — rather, they are simply a manifestation of the problem. Indeed, they are symptomatic markers of a pain and suffering which so often remains in shadow, of the deeper issues in our country which America has chosen to efface from its own conscious.
Perhaps the best example of this are a couple of lines off of Sacramento rapper Mozzy hit song “Sleep Walking” — ”Miss my brother Deezy, only if them bullets grazed ‘him / Wa’nt no hatred in my heart until that happened, that’s what changed me.” It is a line that is equally heartbreaking as it is haunting, and in my mind, is one of the most effective encapsulations of the cyclical nature of the inner-city struggle with poverty and crime. Our youth are not born with “hatred in [their] heart” and the droves of disadvantaged minorities are not born with an innate penchant for crime (as so many conservative pundits would love for you to believe). We are all the products of the world we are given, and the one much of America’s black youth has been given is a hopeless and stark concrete jungle. So those who decry the “foul” messages of hip hop should perhaps take a closer look at the iron environment from which they were wrought — or rather, a closer look at how these environments were formed.
Hip hop did not create the crippling socioeconomic conditions which oppress America’s black youth. Hip hop did not create a war on drugs which explicitly targeted minorities. Hip hop did not red-line and white-flight African Americans into poorer communities. Hip hop did not nigh expunge all valid and viable opportunities to America’s low-income inner-city African Americans. No, quite the contrary in fact. All hip hop has done is act as a regenerative tool for disadvantaged, disenfranchised black youth. It has provided them with the spokes of resilience in the face of a world that does not care to know their troubles. It has provided an outlet, a means of escape. I suppose it’s only natural then that people like Ben Shapiro get offended when these black artists share the truth of their reality.
Buffalo rapper Benny the Butcher puts it best: “I really did get three felonies, been up to the feds, been to the state, lost my brother. I was born in the middle of the crack epidemic, so I’m telling my story.” Art is often grounded in the experiences of the artist; for Benny that is the bleak cage of the crack epidemic of the eighties, and for other rappers it is likely something similar. So, if the messages of violence in the medium make you uncomfortable, perhaps you should utilize some of that energy to do something about the institutional problems that necessitate black youth turn to crime in the first place, rather than denigrating the medium for the sake of casual racism.
But Benny’s story is not unique, not by any means. As Benny says, “I’m not the only one who lived this way, but I’m probably the only one who can rap this good about it…. So I’m telling this story for them.” Benny is merely the only one who has has been given the skills to share his story; for every rapper like him that “makes it”, there’s thousands of others who are still shackled to the steel mill of poverty and street hustling. But such is, and always has been, the crux of hip hop. Hip hop is a voice for the voiceless. It is a medium which gives shape to the shadows. It is a medium which gives a representation to the unspoken struggles which so many know, yet are so seldom acknowledged by the public conscience. Songs like Mozzy’s “Sleepwalking” are, in their basest form, literal byproducts of the African American struggle and fantastical transmutations of pain into art. These artists are able to cultivate a garden of lyrics, rhymes, and emotion from the storied soil of a people, adeptly condensing the age-old struggle of their history into something valuable, something beautiful.
For instance, Conway the Machine’s verse on “The Cow” comes to mind — one would be hard-pressed to find a more impactful display of both anguish and resilience. Conway, who after receiving gunshot wounds to his head and neck and was subsequently diagnosed with the disfiguring Bells Palsy, raps, “You know it’s funny I wanted to quit / after I got shot in my head, I seen my face like I’m done with this shit.” Conway and these lines are perhaps the most salient example of this pain-to-art trope, and in my mind, the song is in itself a rather perfect emblem of this phenomenon, with Conway’s post-shooting success in the rap-industry serving as a quite literal symbol of hip hop’s regenerative powers. As Conway rather pointedly puts it, “I wrote this shit with the tears in my eyes / Now they gotta consider me top five.”
It is this that makes hip-hop, in my opinion, the most compelling of art-forms. It is the result of a people, people like Conway the Machine, Benny the Butcher, and Mozzy, who will not quit, who cannot quit. It is an artform of resistance, of fighting the power, of fighting back. It is resilience, persistence. It is struggle and pain, transmogrified into beauty through the sorcerery of wordsmithing and cadence. It is high art. And it’s high time it got its recognition as such.