Aside from watching Chelsea thrash their Premier League competition, writing is easily one of my most sacred rituals, in that I let nothing get in the way of my enjoyment of it. Such was the case when my little brother’s impassioned mini-sticks game with his friend disturbed my writing-induced revery two weeks ago, so I packed my things up and walked to a nearby Starbucks to continue my article. Irritated that I had been displaced, I grew even more perturbed when my book review musings were muddled by a conversation that refused to be blocked out by my headphones.
Two bros were having a conversation about the state of music and how the current day output was inferior to that of the past — a point that boring, lazy people make all the time and one that reminds me why I try to never stay in coffee shops long enough to hear others like it.
After bemoaning how music that people make on computers couldn’t rival that made with “real instruments” — at which I stifled a yawn — one of the two, who I understood to make music on his own with a guitar (what a compelling narrative), went on to say that he wasn’t a fan of hip-hop anymore because it had ceased to be a “voice for the oppressed” and was instead littered with references to girls, money, and violence.
While his critique was obviously snobby, what irritated me more was that he cited Public Enemy’s “Don’t Believe The Hype” as a barometer for what good hip-hop should sound like, and even rapped the title to his friend, eliciting an eye-roll from me. This song, he said, was important in how it implored the public to see that things weren’t as great as the government would have everyone think. Rather fittingly, he had no modern-day example to support his point.
Aside from the fact that I consider these kinds of hip-hop “fans” a great bore and a negative influence on the genre, his sweeping generalization still angered me as I walked back home. While I greatly enjoy Public Enemy, I understand that they are so idolized because they broke away from the norms with their gritty production and lyrics (Chuck D’s hatred for John Wayne and his conservative agenda is something I wholeheartedly share). Maybe the guy had written a thesis that dealt with the “oppressed,” but that didn’t give him licence to posit what’s best for them.
I was also angry at how he swept all modern rappers under the rug. Much of the rest of his conversation with his friend dealt with his distaste for capitalist society; maybe if he hadn’t been wanking off into the pages of his copy of Walden for the entirety of 2013, he wouldn’t have missed the release of Kanye’s vehment critic of the same capitalist society in Yeezus.
Kanye is a decidedly mainstream artist based off the length of his reach alone. While Yeezus wasn’t a groundbreaking album for those who already followed the producers that ‘Ye gathered in Paris to make it, the Middle America that he referred to on “Black Skinhead” was put off by both the grating electronic production and angry lyrics that confronted them. Yeezus took the seething anger that white media castigates Kanye for and turned it up “a whole ‘nother level” (*Pusha-T voice*) to a decibel rate that you couldn’t ignore.
The video for “New Slaves” literally premiered upon the face of establishments that didn’t serve to further black status, with it being projected onto the walls of places like Toronto’s Royal Ontario Museum. While Kanye’s Watch The Throne compatriot Jay-Z has dealt with racism in passing — “put some coloured girls in the MoMa” — Kanye’s effort was less intent on cleverness and more on getting his message across. The video was sparse to the point that its straight-on view of Kanye resembled a mugshot. The fact that some of these video installations were shut down by police before they could happen was an ominous foreshadowing of the violent turmoil that would come in 2014.
Perhaps the guy might point to Bobby Scmhurda as an example of how rappers today glorify violence. Schmurda’s single “Hot N*gga” was one of the biggest of 2014 and featured the New York MC bragging that he’d been selling crack since the fifth grade. While I enjoyed the one-liners that the song produced — “bout a week agooooooo” — I was also struck by the chilling nature of Schmurda’s revelations about his GS9 gang’s exploits. The lyrics apparently weren’t all talk, as Schmurda was arrested by the NYPD last December. Although Schmurda may have promoted illegal activities with his music, he was rapping what he knew in the same ways that white boys who idolize Hemingway write what they know. Schmurda’s music was a hard-hitting depiction of the life that he was confined to in the hood, and he confessed to knowing no other way of lifting himself out of it than through music.
To take rappers just looking to craft a hit song to ensure a record deal and ensuing escape from their surroundings and hold them up as a detriment to the progress of their genre is unfair and more than a little misguided because many of them use their status to help those still suffering in the conditions they rose up out of.
Perhaps deterred by how his angry comment against George Bush brought the conservative media down upon him, Kanye didn’t show face at Ferguson. But there were other rappers like J. Cole who did. While I don’t harbour too much affection for Cole — his lacklustre bars don’t prove him to be the lyrical messiah some people say he is — there is no denying that his appearance in Ferguson gave its citizens a boost and his subsequent album, 2014 Forest Hills Drive, was a reflection of Cole’s life and thus immensely relatable to African-Americans.
Supposed music lovers need to take a step back in 2015 and reassess their feelings towards rap as a genre in order to understand whether their distaste for it is due to an issue of lack of quality and depth (my bone to pick with country music, but that is for another time) or a form of racism that has become subconscious. While we all want to impress our friends, a general rule of thumb if you don’t know anything about what you’re talking about is to just shut up and educate yourself when the opportunity presents itself.