Ever since the fourth grade, when I heard Soulja Boy’s creatively-titled hit single, “Crank That (Soulja Boy),” I’ve been an avid rap fanatic. I was a lanky awkward white girl who’d blast Kanye West lyrics I was too young to understand on my bright pink iPod Nano. My high school senior yearbook quotation was Lil Wayne’s famous “I go so hard they call me go so hard,” and I even went so far as to write my college essay on how rap music changed my life. One short year later, however, in an atmosphere of perpetual political conversation and controversy, I find that rap has become more stunningly relevant than ever.
What initially fascinated me so strongly about rap music was its blunt, unapologetic tone. Often, its lyrics are provocative, risqué, and so explicit it’s shocking they ever see the light of public radio. Nevertheless, it is refreshing to witness people speaking free of restraint or boundary, and without fear of stepping over the line.
I observe self-censorship frequently among my peers and the people around me. In Silicon Valley, a family refrains from displaying a “Romney 2012” banner on their front porch. A Republican college student hurriedly peels off a “Big Government, Big Problems” sticker from their laptop before stepping back on campus. Abraham Lincoln rolls over in his grave. So it goes.
The problem is not that people are frightful of openly proclaiming unpopular political views. In fact, being scared to do so is good—it signifies the recognition of the vulnerability of difficult discussion while simultaneously possessing the open-minded understanding that not everyone, and sometimes no one, will agree. The issue is that something must come next. Accept that you will hesitate, but, like rap music, speak anyway.
There is a surprisingly easy solution to feared accidental offensiveness, which brings me to the next admirable element of rap: Its utilization of shock factor. The overwhelming promiscuity of Nicki Minaj, the pushing-the-envelope lyrics of Drake, and the taboo topics of Lil Wayne’s verses, whether intentional or not, get people listening. Most importantly, they get people talking. A flaw of politically-engaged millennials is their assumption that debate is meant to persuade the other side into agreement. The most important part of a debate, however, is not the resolution, but rather the conversation itself.
Allowing yourself to hear what is shocking to you and unthinkable to your morals only provides you with a broader comprehension of the issue on which you are taking a stance. It urges you to understand why people choose to march against you rather than alongside you, while knowing you are under no obligation to acquiesce. Not being able to change someone’s mind does not mean the argument you posed is illogical or unworthy of consideration. However, many people believe shocking arguments to be invalid, and thus refuse to approach their legitimacy, only burying themselves deeper into a self-built bubble of comfort.
Take, for example, the widespread dismissal of—God forbid—voters for Donald Trump as merely uneducated. The ruthless amounts of blame and critique pointed towards lower-class conservatives signify nothing other than the accusers being unwilling to listen, assuming their opinion is the only one worth uttering. Simply put, open-mindedness is stunted when one waves away an idea as too absurd to be true solely for its shock factor, or for its resonating as out of the ordinary.
We need to allow the shocking to teach us that there are people who think in manners previously unknown to us, and let it urge us to begin conversation. Our freedom of speech should be of utmost importance, and we should not flinch when we observe others taking full advantage of this monumental right. Hesitate, but speak. Be surprised, and surprise others in return. Do not run away from what you do not know, for your understanding will be nothing without it.
This is what ties rap music so closely to the United States: Its total embrace of freedom of speech. Its fearlessness to proclaim what it believes to be worth proclaiming, knowing that it will be heard. It encompasses principles upon which our country was founded, which seem to be escaping us more and more every day.
Next time the fierce words of Kendrick Lamar suddenly appear on your Spotify, listen. We could all afford to be a little more like Kendrick Lamar.
Madeleine L. Lapuerta ’20 lives in Leverett House. Her column appears on alternate Tuesdays.
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