Next week sees a panel discussing the cultural merits (or demerits) of Hip Hop at London’s Barbican. Whilst it’ll likely be an interesting panel we couldn’t help but start throwing the question around between ourselves here at The Phonograph.
The three main criticisms Hip Hop, from a societal point of view, that we came up with were misogyny, a focus on the attainment of wealth, and its glorification of gang culture. It’s not easy to separate out these criticisms into clear cut categories because they quickly become entwined within the music.
That said, let’s give it a stab. If we lay the music aside for a moment and just focus our attention on the videos then you can see what critics mean: women only appear in a few different guises. Most frequently they are attractive models and dancers who are all smouldering sex objects that have an instant lust for the rapper. Their portrayal is extremely simplistic with no depth beyond for sex and up for sex.
Rappers are often depicted sitting on something throne-like whilst the women beneath them are hosed down and do tasks for the men. The other colour they come in is ugly and angry. These women are presented as dumb, jealous, and to be reviled by the male singer and his audience.
This, too, comes through in the lyrics: women are consistently objectified, demeaned, a focus for sex and subjugation. All their problems seem to be a result of “the bitch”. Women seem to come with wealth and success as though they’re gold diggers and chasing the coat tails of power, unable to attain their own.
Plus, all the symbols that go with Hip Hop culture – big cars, guns, gold, big muscles – are all incredibly masculine. They glory in what man is and what man is, according to these musicians, is a king over the other sex.
After misogyny (though touched on already above) is the focus on wealth.
It’s rampant commercialism: gold, diamonds, cars, marble, big houses. But it’s not traditional images of wealth, the transition shown by the wealthy musicians in one that displays their roots overtly: rather than switch to suits the men are wearing designer versions of the cheap clothes they wore before. It’s showing where they came from and where they are now: “You have those cheap boots, I still wear boots but mine worth more than your house”.
This isn’t a terrible thing in itself but once coupled with the links to gang culture these statements become antagonistic and promote separatism. At the core of the of Hip Hop music are the ideas of a crew. Who your friends are, who your enemies are, it’s described as a soldierly bond, but they’re talking about their home neighborhoods.
Now clearly Hip Hop didn’t come first and spawn gang violence, it was people who were in gangs already who made music about it. But now, it seems, you can’t make this form of music without being in a gang, without singing about who you want to kill, who you hate, who’s standing in the way of your big score.
As gang violence has increased in Britain we’ve seen swathes of new crews spawning around different boroughs. Particularly in London where your postcode can place you on the frontline of a fight you don’t care about. This violence is then glorified in songs posted on youTube.
This all being said, do these criticisms define Hip Hop? Focusing on a musical genre perhaps avoids tackling the actual root of the problem. For every gun-toting sexist, materialist homophobic rapper, there is a peaceful, progressive thinking one as their counterpart.
For example Homeboy Sandman never became involved with gangs: ‘Told the same to every gang that ever tried to recruit/I don’t want no trouble, homey I’m just tryina be cool (peace)’. Meaning, if the degrading elements of hip-hop are not necessary, then they cannot define it – they are not conventions of the genre.
Secondly, these elements are not unique to hip-hop; they permeate through all genres. As we have commented upon before Wagner is well known to have featured odious anti-semitic stereotypes within his operas, though It seems unlikely that western classical tradition is ever going to be cited as the downfall of civilization.
Materialism, too, is found elsewhere: Nickelback’s ode to consumerism ‘Rockstar’ ‘I Need a credit card with no limit/ and a big black jet with a bedroom in it’ Which apart from being as vulgar as any gangsta rap, is complete doggerel and void of any artistic merit.
It’s an unfair accusation to say that hip-hop degrades society – some of it might, some may do the opposite – some may do neither. They simply reveal the musician’s values – which in some cases are misogyny, commercialism, at al – it’s a comment on their society, be it deliberate or simply the cultural baggage that we reveal in everything we do.
We would instead urge rather than blaming a cultural monolith like Hip Hop for the ills in society, target the root cause of these issues – all of which exist outside of Hip Hop, and do undoubtedly deserve proper attention, from which this inane debate is providing distraction.