Rap music: black thugs machine-gunning rape, violence, and crime monologues. Right? It’s not hard to see where these ideas about rap come from – just listen to the song rockstar by Post Malone and 21 Savage, for example. The opening lyrics are: ‘I’ve been f*cking hoes and poppin’ pillies man I feel just like a rockstar’ and the music video contains a violent sword fight between rival gangs. This one example demonstrates what a lot of modern rap songs are about, and contributes to a lot of the misconceptions I listed above. But before rap started to evolve into the rap we know today, rap music in the 80s was about the black community expressing their frustrations towards police brutality and discrimination. This essay seeks to better understand modern rap by looking back to Los Angeles in the late 80s, and explore how rap music has evolved into the almost unrecognizable modern rap we hear on our radios today.
In the 80s and 90s, racism was still apparent in society despite the 1964 US Civil Rights Act that banned discrimination. Many of the first rap songs made were about violence, poverty, and crime – because that was what life was like for many African-Americans in Los Angeles. In fact, between 1984 and 1989, the homicide rate for black males aged 14 to 17 more than doubled. Music became one of the few opportunities for black youth to protest; and because of the potentially explicit content, rap music was rejected as legitimate music by (mostly) the local white community. However, on a global scale, rap music was incredibly popular. In 1989, the song F*ck Tha Police by N.W.A (N*ggaz wit Attitude) came out and shocked the world. It became incredibly popular in countries like Australia and Canada but was still not recognized as ‘pop’ music locally in the US despite the popularity of the song. The song protested police brutality and revealed insight into what it was like to be black in Los Angeles. It was never played on any radio and soon belonged to the underground subculture because only black urban youth could really identify with it. The white community largely rejected the song because it was encouraging “violence and disrespect” towards policemen; and as they had not been subjected to the same racial discrimination, they couldn’t identify with the song, instead thinking it to be unnecessarily aggressive. Instead, the pop industry dominated pop culture leaving little room for other subcultures to grow.
It wasn’t until 3rd of March in 1991 when a video surfaced of two white cops beating up a black man that some aspects of what black communities were feeling were made visible to the public. Some of whom were sympathetic – even outraged on their behalf. It was finally becoming clear that many African Americans who grew up in poor neighborhoods could not rely on the police. This was a phenomenon to many white people. When the two policemen were tried, an all-white jury found them not guilty of assault despite the video evidence. This incident became known as the Rodney King incident; later triggering riots in Los Angeles on April 29th of 1992. These riots lasted about a week and included arson, lootings, riots and other civil disturbances. This was the immediate short term reaction of society, and thus, rap music began to infiltrate popular culture. The rap subculture emerged slowly following the Rodney King incident and the Los Angeles riots, then became legitimately mainstream on June 22nd of 1991. The new, exciting rap music was different to the existing pop music, and suddenly songs by N.W.A and other black rappers shot up to the top of the charts where they have stayed for nearly two decades. Now, rap culture has become part of mainstream culture. We can see that with violent, politically charged origins, rap music has a natural appeal to rebellious teenagers, no matter what race. Nowadays, modern rap is widely listened to by teenagers, with an estimated 88% of the people who listen to rap aged 25 years old and under.
Given its controversial origins, many people did not react positively when the song F*ck Tha Police was first released, but nowadays rap music is one of the most popular genres of music, with rap being the most listened to genre of music since 2015. Because of this large audience, rap music has had an impact on many political movements, such as the black rights movement. Todd Boyd said Hip hop [rap] is inherently political, the language is political. It uses language as a weapon — not a weapon to violate or not a weapon to offend, but a weapon that pushes the envelope that provokes people, makes people think. In the long term, the black rights movement has almost certainly been affected by the popularity and emotional impact of modern rap music; because of the reinforced stereotypes shown in songs and music videos. It’s not obvious if the impact has been positive or negative; because while rap music supports black empowerment, some see rap as guilty of marginalising black communities. In the short term, the rapper icons have had a big influence on the fashion industry and even language. In the 80s, rappers were often from very poor backgrounds and couldn’t afford good quality clothes – so their clothes were baggy and often ripped. These are now widely accepted as fashionable and are seen as a symbol of ‘cool rebellion’, resulting in intentionally ripped jeans, baggy trousers, and backwards caps. Interestingly, controversial features of rap music also regards gender. The misogynistic portrayal of women in rap songs reinforces the idea that women are inferior to men, because the men project power and image, perhaps as a result of the angry roots of rap music. purposefully show women like that to demonstrate their masculinity in order to sell their ‘character’. They did this by putting down women; it became the cultural norm. Many have taken a very negative view towards rap music because of this, regardless of the original purpose.
I have argued that rap emerged as a way for black urban youth to express themselves and to speak up against injustices perpetrated by authority. In my opinion, it’s important for people to have the opportunity to share ideas and frustrations, but the way many modern rappers do that is now detrimental towards other black people and women, and undermine their cause with some sectors of society. Rappers do not need to use these stereotypes to sell their music anymore – it has just become normal for them to do so. This can and should change. That said, rap music was an escape for many early rappers living in Los Angeles during the 80s and 90s. It paved the way for many early political movements, and in this way, music that expresses frustrations towards authority and culture is incredibly important to the development of society. In short, rap music emerged as a way to speak up for black rights and has had a lasting impact on popular culture.
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