Where Rap Meets Race
One recently popularized hashtag, however, remains distinct from the others. On Nov. 6, 2017, a judge sentenced Meek Mill to two to four years of prison time, with two years without the possibility of parole. Soon, the hashtag #freemeekmill began to appear on various social media platforms. Meek Mill was arrested on two separate occasions in 2017, once for fighting and once for “popping wheelies”—recklessly riding an illegal bike. He has been unfairly penalized for both crimes—especially considering that both charges were later dropped. To be fair, the reasoning behind the harsh sentence was that these crimes violated his probation, which he received as a consequence of an earlier arrest. But this earlier arrest occurred over a decade ago in 2007, when Meek Mill was just 19 years old. The artist is now 30, and since serving eights months of prison time for his crime in 2007, he has continued to suffer for his offense in the form of an exorbitantly lengthy probation, a situation that would likely not be the case were he not black.
Moreover, the average age of hip hop listeners is the lowest of all major music genres in the United States. Because of this impressionable demographic, the content of hip hop and rap music has particular potential for impact. Hip hop and rap music effectively convey significant and powerful messages, from expressing grievances in the black community to illustrating the vision that even the poorest black Americans from the most dangerous neighborhoods can achieve wealth and fame—a potent image for young black people in those very situations.
Over time, black people have taken ownership of the slur, dropping the hard “r” to form a related word that refers to black community, in an effort to counteract the original word’s spiteful history. But that word does not hold the same meaning when said by anybody who is not black. When non-black individuals vocalize the n-word, a reminder of the malice associated with its roots remains, and elicits a strong sense of unease from many black persons who witness its expression. The n-word with no hard “r” (hereafter referred to as the “soft n-word”) should still be reserved for only black individuals, especially because racial prejudice still exists in 2018. (There is some debate as to whether or not anybody—even black people—should casually vocalize the soft n-word, but that is beyond the scope of this article).