“Let me write the songs of a nation, and I care not who makes its laws.”
– attributed to Daniel O’Connell, Irish Nationalist (1775-1847)
The recent Rap Summit in New York, organized by hip-hop entrepreneur Russell Simmons, and supported by leading industry, political, academic, and cultural figures, speaks volumes, not so much of the music, as of the people who make the music, and what role they play in American (and increasingly, global) society.
One does not have to look long nor hard to perceive the criticism launched at the rap music genre. It is, in part, this very criticism, coupled with political threats, that made such a Summit necessary.
It’s helpful for us sometimes to look at history to see more clearly where we are today, and why. You don’t have to crack a history book to find the first example. (Talk to your mom, pop, or grandmom, grandpop.)
In the 1970s and 1960s when rock music and rhythm and blues were emerging, it was heavily criticized by adults, who called it “noise.” Southern racists and segregationists called it “##### music,” or “jungle music,” and organized events to burn such records, or even bulldoze piles of such materials.
What was happening then was an historical echo of what was happening before, in an earlier era. When both jazz and the blues emerged from Black culture, these artists were severely criticized for making music that was seen as “immoral.”
The late, great jazz trumpeter, Miles Davis, bore the hatred of small-minded cops in Philadelphia and Manhattan, and could easily predict harassment, a jail cell, or a beating when he performed in either venue.
Black feminist scholar Angela Davis notes that both whites and bourgeois Blacks regarded the blues as “lowly,” “vulgar,” or “bizarre” musical forms.
(See her “Blues Legacies and Black Feminism,” p. 123.)
Today, the same artists who were criticized and demeaned as “low,” “vulgar,” or even drug addicts, are remembered as musical geniuses, and icons, whose work is revered for their scope, depth, power and brilliance. Imagine how dry American music would be without John Coltrane, Miles, Bessie Smith, Billie Holiday. Or Bob Marley, Peter Tosh, Chuck Berry, etc….
What is happening with rap? Every generation of Black America creates its own musical form, to speak to their place in national life. Rag-time and blues were the first musical forms made outside of the church, and as a secular form, was condemned by African American religious and community leaders. It caught on with working-class and poor blacks though, because it spoke to their lives in a false, hypocritical “freedom,” which was really blue.
Similarly, rap has been criticized for its violent misogynistic (means the hatred of women) character. That violence, misogyny, and materialism arises from a national characteristic that is profoundly American.
America is easily one of the most violent nations on earth and has a barely suppressed hatred of women. Materialism is almost a pre-eminent American trait. Much of the criticism leveled at rap was at one time directed to other Black art forms, and usually had more to do with the policing of Black sexuality than anything else.
Nothing so disturbs the twisted labyrinths of white supremacy than Black creativity, artistry, and productivity. Think of it this way: what other music form draws the scrutiny of the corporate press like rap?
I have heard heavy metal that was so steeped in violent imagery, of death, torture, and dismemberment, that it made my nose bleed. It was so misogynistic that it gave me a headache. But these were white artists, who are presumed to be free.
Rappers are allegedly “free” to say what they wish, but they are profiled by the state, in the same way Miles was 40 years ago. The cops didn’t think he should be driving an imported car, so they busted him on Broad Street in Philly. How little things have changed.
© COPYRIGHT 2001, MUMIA ABU-JAMAL