Say it louder for those in the back: Gangsta’ Rap is NOT a purposeless exhibition of aggressivity whose only goal is to make your literary Grammie choke with her dictionary. Whouuuuu, hear me breathing again.
Now that this is said, I’ll go on with my preliminary announcement : Hip-hop culture in general and Rap more specifically, have long been great interests of mine, perhaps because they represent all of the things I like to think of as central in our world: the arts, society, history and social evolution. I would just like to state before I go on, that, although it is my great pleasure to explore with you the depths and angles of Rap, I am in no way willing to give you an ultimate truth about such a nuanced and controversial movement. My very freshly adult self will not pretend to know close to half of what there is to say about Rap and its roots: it is too broad and touches many subjects that go from race to the origins of semantics and word playing, subjects of which the mastery is by no means in my possession. However, I will focus on one important, if not essential, aspect of rap, rappers, MCs and others vocal Hip-Hop deliverers, that is the social origins of rap and its evolution in what we like to call the Land of the free: The United States of America.
If you have ever listened to any piece of American Gangsta Rap, you most likely understand how much hypocrisy is contained in my above mention of the United States. One might argue that the social struggle which represents the basis of Rap music can be found in any language and that Rap isn’t solely American. This is precisely one of the points I wish to state clearly: Rap music is originally an African-American movement, which has welcomed (oh not so warmly) other ethnicities such as Latin-Americans and Whites, and that extended to the rest of the world to blossom in different branches of nationality. However, the origins of Rap, the idea of social integration, alienation, and race, that motivated its creation, are pure products of the United States. In order to understand the social implication of Gangsta Rap, one must understand its geographical origins and the situation of the country.
Gangsta Rap, which derives from the hardcore Rap movement that started with general Rap singing in the USA of the 1970s, emerged with NWA’s hit 1988 album: Straight Outta Compton. The group’s rappers ( which included rappers Dr.Dre, Eazy-E, and Ice-Cube) expressed their anger as to the urban chaos and inequalities suffered by Black people in their town of Compton, and in the whole of the United States. By virtue of its aggressivity, crude language and references to general violence as well as invitation to rebellion (with NWA’s single Fuck the Police), Gangsta Rap quickly became the target of critics whose strategy was to deplore the state of the country’s cities and of poor neighborhoods, mostly inhabited by African-Americans, as a result of such invitation to violence. An incredible number of these people chose to turn a blind eye to the fact that police violence, social segregation, and racism were the cause of Gangsta Rap’s explosion and success and not its consequences. Acknowledging the fact that this artistic and musical movement is originally purely African-American because it precisely derives from a reaction to racism and violence, is key to understanding Rap.
This idea goes as far as Rapper Ice-cube’s declaration that Rap is aimed at a black audience and that white people listening are “eavesdropping”. However he also states the paradoxical necessity for the same white people to eavesdrop: if the message isn’t directly directed at them, they need to hear it in order to understand the struggle and the artistic movement. To many of my fellow French people, I am sure that this statement comes as a shock. This is precisely what I meant when I said that the issues regarding pure American Gangsta Rap and other world rap are different. I am not sure that such a statement would be made by a black french rapper.
The reality of this hit me when I recently went to the United States. The sense of community in the African-American group is something that is essential to grasp as it shaped the country through the declaration of independence, the abolition of slavery and the civil rights movement. It is still a struggle that is felt every day and from my outsider’s point of view, the American melting pot is mostly a nice utopia and anyone visiting the United States for a fair amount of time realises the big gap between Black and White people: the amount of talk about “Whiteness” and “Blackness” in itself was absolutely astonishing to hear, and revealed the extent of the ethnic struggle faced by the United-States. We aren’t even at a point where going past skin color and origins is fathomable.
After having discovered the full extent of this, paying attention to Gangsta Rap lyrics and understanding their full implication becomes clearer. The spirit of revolt, of rebellion, the rags to riches narratives of rappers coming from poor black neighborhoods and the fact that this vocal artistic manner of expressing it, just like what Jazz and Blues originally were, sparks so many tensions amongst people just turns into something obvious.
Because Rap culture is precisely a protest movement, the fact that we now talk of mainstream Rap is in itself a contradiction. The idea that it is as much a narrative of the African-American people as it is one of general social struggle against poverty as well as a rhythmic and poetic genre, triggers the very interesting and controversial question of white rappers and of cultural appropriation. Is the growing number of white rappers a case of social appropriation? Is Rap on the verge of turning into the opposite of its initial purpose? The case of Eminem, an exception in the mostly black rap industry, shows just how a white rapper can be conscious of his privilege as a star of the industry. Despite his considerable talent verbally and rhythmically, poor lower-class kid Marshall Mathers III had a hard time gaining the necessary “Rapper’s legitimacy” in the industry. In order to do so, he cleverly, and overall just naturally, avoided what white Rappers like Vanilla Ice had done earlier which was to adopt black mannerisms in rapping, like the African-American slang of the ebony, and never lied regarding his social background, similar to most original rappers. Instead, he revendicated his own struggles as a white man in an all black community and showed his talent and potential in a personal form ( he is known as one of the rappers with the most elaborate vocal technique) whilst also acknowledging his much more marketable image as a white man. This is the typical example of what cultural appropriation is not, and it is a notion that to this day, seems difficult to navigate.
I guess that in this whole lot of words, my point here is to shed a different light on the controversial movement that is Gangsta Rap. As you see, it’s social implication as well as technical difficulty ( although I did not expand on this, the idea of “Rapper’s legitimacy” derives from a rhyming and writing capacity and the use of slang and aggressive language in Rap does in no way mean an absence of technique or poetic mastery : it is a well thought through choice and the account of a social group) are enormous.
So I beg you to not get discouraged by some new, frightening and sad autotuned rappers pretending to have something to do with this strong cultural movement and rather embrace the beauty of one of the few remainders of fierce social responsibilization.
After all, what Ice-cube might tell you about my irresistible compulsion to write this article is that There ain’t nothing to it, Gangsta Rap made me do it.