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“This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years.” - Fox News Analyst Geraldo Rivera.
This sentiment appears to be a relatively popular one. According to a poll published by the Pew Research Center in 2008, more than 70 percent of Americans believed that rap had an overall negative impact on society. Some rap and hip-hop songs do indeed glamorize destructive behavior like substance abuse and violence.But artists like 21 Savage and Meek Mill, whose music sometimes lionizes illegal activity, also lament these very crimes, and the fact that they occur disproportionately in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. When rappers do decide to celebrate these crimes, it is often simply because that is the type of music that sells.
21 Savage’s “Nothin New,” which appeared on “Issa Album,” his latest album and his first composition to reach number two on Billboard’s Top 200 chart, explains this motive. In the lyrics, he says, “They thought I only rapped about murder and pistols / I’m tryna feed my family, I ain’t being political.” Sometimes, even for rappers like 21 Savage who are known for their thuggish lyrics, the only way to generate revenue is to produce what people want to hear. For reasons beyond the scope of this article, that often includes the lionization of violence. Rappers don’t necessarily intend to set a poor example for America’s youth—they are simply trying to do what it takes to earn money, just as any other professional does. Moreover, many rappers come from impoverished neighborhoods and realize that, if they don’t seize the opportunity to make music that sells while they have the chance, they may never get another shot.
When rappers do indeed resort to “being political,” they often receive a flurry of backlash. In his last album, “Revival,” Eminem strongly chastised Donald Trump and was immediately rebuked by many listeners including prior fans, many of whom promised never to listen to his music again.
Nethertheless, rappers do continue to speak out about structural issues in American society that lead to the problems we still see today in black communities. In “Nothin New,” 21 Savage says, “Shit gettin’ outrageous / Treat us like slaves then they lock us up in cages / Young, black, poor, ain’t had a father since a baby / Why you think we skip school and hang out on the pavement? / Why you think we ridin’ ‘round with choppers off safety?” With these lyrics, he addresses how disproportionate rates of African American incarceration spark other issues that plague poor black communities. In Meek Mill’s “Wins and Losses,” which reached its zenith at Billboard’s number three spot, Meek Mill criticizes the low quality of education available to many poor African Americans. “My teacher always used to tell me you gon’ lose n**** / That’s why I never went to school n****,” he raps. Kendrick Lamar also weighs in with his track, “m.A.A.d. city,” on his platinum album “good kid m.A.A.d. city,” saying, “They say the governor collect all of our taxes, except / When we in traffic and tragic happens, that shit ain’t no threat,” further rebuking institutionalized racism that leaves many black families without sufficient aid.
There are also many songs that directly condemn violence and drug abuse in poor black communities. In “Polo and Shell Tops” in his album “Dreams and Nightmares,” which reached number one on Billboard’s chart, Meek Mill says, “Homies murder other homies just to make a brick,” criticizing both violence and the influence of illegal drugs. In Wale’s “Ambition,” in which Meek Mill is featured, he mourns this illicit lifestyle. Yet he also rationalizes it, saying, “Only hope I had was selling dope / Was on my grind cause times was harder than a cellar floor.” He argues that lack of economic opportunity pushes many African Americans in impoverished communities toward illegal activity.
To argue that hip-hop has harmed black people more than modern racism is to ignore these messages, among many others. Though some songs do indeed glorify illegal activity that is disproportionately found at alarmingly high rates in low income black communities, plenty of songs lament these issues and critique their causes. Many songs that highlight issues in the black community are exceptionally popular, which indicates that these messages are heard, if not always widely understood. If opponents of rap music can listen to these pieces and still insist that rap only sends negative messages, they should listen closer.
—Contributing writer Uzochi P. Nwoko’s column, “Where Rap Meets Race,” explores how predominant motifs in rap impact the black community.
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