What are some of the factors that influence the ideas, values, and models of life of young inner-city African-American men today? There are the everyday conditions of life in the neighborhoods of segregated American cities, which Elijah Anderson considers in Code of the Street: Decency, Violence, and the Moral Life of the Inner City (link). But there is also the increasingly violent and misogynist output of hip hop music and video. It is apparent that the images, values, and modes of behavior presented in hip hop music and videos find their way back onto the street and into the lives of young black men and women. Hip hop doesn’t simply mirror the street — it helps to create the street. So the content and identities portrayed in the music makes a difference.
Byron Hurt’s very interesting 2006 PBS documentary on violence and sexism in hip hop music and videos, Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, addresses these issues. (The video is posted at the top.) Hurt does a great job of reading the role that violence and misogyny play in hip hop lyrics and videos. “Why are so many rappers preoccupied with violence and gunplay” (6:30). The basic idea that he puts forward is that this major aspect of hip hop culture is a commercial exploitation of a cartoonish version of masculinity—hard, tough, unafraid, ready to kill, ready to exploit and sexualize women. (Hurt calls it “hyper-masculinity”.) The representation of women in much of this music is hyper-sexualized and brutalizing. And there is a recurring theme of homophobia and homophobic slurs.
Hurt asks penetrating questions about the relationship between the street, the music industry, and youth culture. The documentary takes on a powerful strand of popular culture and the pop culture industry that creates it and undertakes to piece together an interpretation of the meanings this system of lyrics and images has. Hurt wants to know how this medium influences the young men and women who follow it. But he also asks how the content of the medium itself is shaped by the profit imperatives of the music industry. And it becomes clear that this is a complicated mix of commercial interests and some young men’s distorted ideas of masculinity.
This is real social criticism, in the Frankfurt School sense. The documentary raises a crucial question: Why is it that the music industry gives the lucrative contracts to the most violent, misogynist, and degrading rappers? And why has it been increasingly difficult for more radical and critical rappers to get contracts and distribution in the past fifteen years? A young rapper offers a striking theory: it is preferable for white America to have hip hop music glorifying violence and sex in the hood than the messages of anti-racism and class-sensitized anger that are found in Public Enemy.
And in fact there is a segment of hip hop that has a very different orientation — political rather than violent, expressing strong messages about economic and racial justice, and largely immune from the homophobia and misogyny of mainstream rap. Artists like Public Enemy, Poor Righteous Teachers, the Coup, the X Clan, KRS-ONE, and Digable Planets fall in this category, and The Roots is a more contemporary version. (Thanks, Ahmad!) But here is the key point: this stream of work doesn’t often result in the giant contracts and public acclaim of the other stream, and with a few exceptions the music and videos don’t make it into the mainstream. (Yes, Public Enemy is an exception.)
Hurt asks several other key questions in the video: Why is it that black men are aiming their violence against each other, and overlooking the forces that create the degradation of inner city neighborhoods in the first place? And why is it so hard to find a positive message in hip hop lyrics? One of the on-screen voices places the responsibility squarely on the profit interests of the music industry: “Media and the corporations are defining what hip hop is.” Here is how one of the young rappers puts the point on camera:
That’s nice but nobody wanna hear that right now … They don’t wanna hear that right now … [Narrator: Who’s they?] The industry … they don’t wanna hear that right now. They don’t give us deals when we speak righteously or things of that nature. (40:00)
And this perception is born out by Carmen Ashurst-Watson, former DefJam president: “The time when we switched to gangster music was the same time when the majors bought up all the labels, and I don’t think that’s a coincidence…. The music became less and less conscious” (43:30).
Imani Perry’s Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop is a very thoughtful reflection on hip hop. She is an advocate for hip hop as a cultural expression. But she also feels that it risks being poisoned by the commercial interests of the industry. She writes:
The combination of democracy (“speak your piece”) and meritocracy (“be the best MC”) that exists in hip hop is threatened at every turn. The manipulations of capital, media, and record company distribution, the ruthless promotion of some acts to the disadvantage of often musically superior ones, the commodification of black female bodies, and the grotesque marketing of racist images of black male violence threaten to completely overwhelm the public face of hip hop. (Reunion)
This is a complex set of issues, with causation going in many directions. The commercial interests of the major music companies drive the content of the videos and recordings; the content of the music influences the behavior and practice of young men and women in the neighborhoods; events in the street reflect back into the content of hip hop art; and realities in the neighborhoods are determined by the larger structures of power and race in our society. It is possible to see the formative power of popular culture on behavior; the media on popular culture; the business of music on the content of popular culture; the extreme behaviors that seem to result on the street; and the ideological forces that permeate all of this.
(Here is an interesting piece by Solomon Comissiong that analyzes the music industry and the fate of progressive rappers.)