ATLANTA, GEORGIA - MAY 05: Killer Mike performs on Day 1 of the 10th Anniversary of Shaky Knees Festival at Central Park on May 05, 2023 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Scott Legato/Getty Images)

Rap’s dilemma

Sarah Ditum unwraps the rap culture war.

On Pop

This article is taken from the June 2023 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issues for just £10.

There’s a crude dividing line that you can run down the middle of rap music. On one side, gangsta rap, which deals with bitches, money and guns. On the other, progressive rap, which puts a political lens on the black American experience.

Except, of course, it’s not that simple. Look at 2Pac, who delivered impassioned lyrics about police brutality and teenage pregnancy, and whose bitter misogyny made him a target of civil rights activist C Delores Tucker, who called rap “pornographic filth”.

2Pac retaliated with the line “C Delores Tucker, you’s a motherfucker / Instead of tryin’ to help a nigga, you destroy a brother” on the (pornographic) track “How Do U Want It”.

The argument between Tucker and 2Pac — or, really, between Tucker and rap generally — was, in part, an argument about the relationship between black women and black culture.

Tucker thought it was black culture’s job to raise up black women. 2Pac’s diss of her suggests he saw the responsibility running in the opposite direction: black women like Tucker had a duty to support the “brothers”.

To be educated, articulate and civic-minded was an act of defiance against the majority white’s insistence that to be black was to be subhuman

It was also an argument about what black culture ought to look like. Tucker belonged to the generation of Martin Luther King Jr. Her cohort believed that the arc of the moral universe bent towards justice, and they believed that it could be encouraged in the right direction through civic means.

For the black middle classes of the post-war USA, self-improvement was a moral imperative. To be educated, articulate and civic-minded was an act of defiance against the majority white’s insistence that to be black was to be subhuman.

The father of the writer Thomas Chatterton Williams is fairly typical of this aspirational approach. Naming his son after an eighteenth-century poet was not an accident. Williams’ father hoped to raise his son as a “thoroughbred” representing “the best that you and your people could achieve”, recalled Williams in his memoir Losing My Cool.

2Pac was speaking to a less hopeful time. By the 1990s, formal segregation had been broken down, but racism had not. Black Americans were subject to grinding poverty and extrajudicial violence. Respectability had achieved nothing: why try to win a game that had always been rigged against you?

2Pac’s juvenile defence of his work was that it had no influence. But speech matters precisely because it’s powerful

It was an attitude that Williams found compelling, at least initially: Losing My Cool is the story of his teenage immersion in hip-hop culture, and how he eventually rejected thug life and rediscovered his father’s values.

But as well as the gender divide and the generational divide, Tucker vs 2Pac was a dispute about art: what it is and does. Was 2Pac making art? He called himself an artist. Whereas for Tucker, rap was disqualified from being art by the objectionable content she discerned in it.

And while 2Pac defended his music as merely an accurate reflection of a bleak reality, Tucker saw him instead as an architect of reality. His music, to her mind, was seducing black youth into crime.

For what it’s worth, 2Pac is probably the best argument against his own self-justifications. In 1996, at the age of 25, he was killed in a drive-by shooting assumed to be the outcome of an East Coast vs West Coast beef that had been vigorously pursued in music before spilling into bloodshed.

The question of responsibility is one that rappers go on tangling with. “Reagan”, from Killer Mike’s album RAP Music, is a furious denunciation of the racist consequences of the war on drugs that equates Reagan with the Devil. But it also holds rap accountable for its influence, in a surprisingly Tucker-esque way. “We should be indicted for bullshit we inciting / Selling children death and pretending it’s exciting,” he raps.

Still, where Killer Mike parts company with Tucker — who really did want rap music suppressed — is that his commitment to civic culture includes a deep commitment to free expression. (He’s also not averse to “objectionable content” in his own music: “Don’t Let the Devil”, the gospel-tinged lead single from his new album Michael, features references to oral sex and Uzis.)

In a keynote for the Foundation for Individual Rights and Expression, Killer Mike made a case for free speech that has fallen out of favour on the U.S. Left. He said it is the path towards a “more perfect union” because only through free speech can prejudice be exposed and defeated.

In this, if little else besides, he’s on the same side as Thomas Chatterton Williams, who signed the Harper’s Letter in defence of free speech in July 2020 — which was itself, in part, a reaction to the censorious mood that had fallen over the liberal press when it came to criticising the excesses of the BLM movement.

“Is it art?” is always the wrong question to ask about the offensive, and “is it harmful?” is at best infuriatingly unanswerable. Speech should be free because the alternative is too stultifying to live with: censorship, whether government mandated or the consequence of groupthink, is the death of possibility.

2Pac’s juvenile defence of his work was that it had no influence. But speech matters precisely because it’s powerful. You need a political analysis to bend the arc of history towards justice; and that political analysis must be able to defend the existence of raps about money, guns and bitches — even if only to argue with them.

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