COVER STORY : The Voices of Rap--Politics or Just Music?
Stanley Crouch, author of “Notes of a Hanging Judge,” would like to put the noose around the neck of rap music.
Crouch, a jazz critic for the Village Voice whose book features essays on Spike Lee, James Baldwin and others, doesn’t find rap terribly entertaining, although his teen-age daughter listens to it.
What bothers him is the notion that the recent political storm swirling around such rappers as Ice-T and Sister Souljah has thrust them into a spotlight where they are seen by some as the spokespersons for a young, disenchanted generation of African-Americans. He fears that rappers may be put into leadership roles similar to those held by black activists Eldridge Cleaver and Stokely Carmichael in the 1960s.
“It’s such an injustice that black youth is being saddled with these imbecilic images that the record companies are exploiting,” said Crouch, who is also a contributing editor for the New Republic.
“What do these rappers have to say that we don’t already know?” Crouch said. “They’re not saying one thing that I didn’t hear 30 years ago when I was 16. All they are is just third-rate street thugs and would-be thugs, who have rhymed doggerel on a third-grade level with no literary content.”
Crouch also contends that most black youth don’t even like rappers.
“The majority of black youth are trying to get away from these fools,” he said. “They’re studying and getting an education. They’re not going around talking about shooting and killing police.”
The controversy surrounding rappers and their rhymes about killing white people, police and Korean grocers in many ways recalls some of the uneasiness felt during the ‘60s when activists like Carmichael and Cleaver mobilized young African-Americans with shouts of “Black Power” and “Get Whitey.”
Those activists were carrying on a tradition established by outspoken African-American leaders of previous generations--Harriet Tubman, Marcus Garvey, W. E. B. Du Bois, Frederick Douglass--who called for independence and equality for blacks.
Because rap is now regarded by many as the most explosive and visible expression of the young African-American culture, a debate has erupted among scholars, media experts and sociologists on whether rappers have transcended their artistic and commercial aspirations to become the new unofficial spokespersons for disenchanted African-Americans.
Some believe that rappers, intentionally or not, have stepped to the forefront of black activism. However, most interviewed denounce them as being too unfocused and semi-literate to be credible representatives of African-Americans.
Alvin Poussaint, associate professor of psychiatry at Harvard University and a consultant for the television series “A Different World,” said that although he disagrees with many of the messages, he believes rappers do have social significance beyond their musical accomplishments.
“I think they represent the voice of the inner city and oppressed African-Americans,” Poussaint said. “They have been sending a message about the conditions under which they live, and the pain of their existence. They have a very assertive stance, even when they’re not talking.”
Sherrie Mazingo, a USC journalism professor specializing in the mass media, said: “These artists convey their social and political message through music. They have become the pioneers in the new frontier of black political awareness and action. It’s a new wave that was established in different ways through H. Rap Brown and Stokely Carmichael.”
Mazingo added that the transmitting of the messages through rap “is attracting not only a lot of attention in the larger society, but is having a profound impact on young adult members for whom those messages were originally intended.”
She said that because black gang members listen to rap, it might motivate gangs toward political action: “Gangs could determine they might have a more positive influence as a political group in the traditional or grass-roots sense.”
But Poussaint and others say rappers are not yet adequately organized or focused to generate much of an impact in political circles.
“Their anger is voiced, but not well channeled,” Poussaint said. “They don’t have any organization. With Brown and Carmichael, they had an organization.”
James Bernard, senior editor of the Source, a magazine devoted to rap music and personalities, agrees.
“Rappers represent the community, but I would not say they’re the new Black Panthers,” he said. “That’s not fair to them. They’re not there trying to lead organizations or stage organized rallies.”
Said Bernard: “Fans may perceive them as spokespersons, and rappers really do voice sentiments that don’t get voiced. But the fact that people are now questioning the political significance of rappers shows the dearth of leadership in the grass-roots arena.”
Rappers see them themselves as the beginning of change, not the end, Bernard said.
“Chuck D. (of Public Enemy) would be the first person to say he’s a voice but he’s not Martin Luther King,” he said. “He said he wants 5,000 new black leaders. He wants to be the catalyst for what we hope is more political activity.”
That activity does not necessarily mean violence against the Establishment, despite the lyrics of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer,” N.W.A.'s “F--- the Police” or Sister Souljah’s statement about killing white people, Bernard said.
“People underestimate the audience,” he said. “That kind of rhetoric is in the community all the time. That’s what rap is. It’s based on bravado. You would have to assume that rap fans are sheep. The people who don’t understand that are the Bill Clintons and the Tipper Gores.”
But others differ.
“Whether the lyrics are meant to be taken literally or figuratively is a moot point,” Mazingo said. “These messages could be potentially harmful to those predisposed to this kind of violence.”
“Black youth is so vulnerable to being explosive,” Poussaint said. “It’s like a steam kettle. We have to keep the lid on, not off. They should encourage people to use steam constructively.”
He also notes that some of the more extreme rappers display hostility toward their own community.
“It’s just so interesting that so much rage is directed toward the black community,” Poussaint said. “But when Ice-T talks about killing cops, he gets slammed by the media. When he rapped about ‘blasting niggers away,’ no one said a damn thing.”
Other academicians and media observers say rappers have no political or social significance and should not be compared with former black activists.
“When Dr. Dre (of N.W.A.) lives in Calabasas and Ice-T lives in the Hollywood Hills, it’s pretty hard to see them as the militant voices of a fighting generation,” said Gerald Horne, chairman of the black studies department at UC Santa Barbara.
“When Sister Souljah has a press conference complaining about the interest rates on her certificates of deposit, it’s pretty hard to relate to her as a Harriet Tubman,” he said.
David Horowitz, the editor of Heterodoxy magazine and a conservative media observer, said rappers offer nothing more than “the lowest level of discourse. Anyone who thinks these people are capable of social commentary or forecasting should have their head examined.”