Music is a way that humans have expressed themselves since the beginning of history. It is an aspect of culture and a melodic way to communicate. Hip-hop and rap music has become extremely popular and mainstream, but pioneers within this genre have not always been appreciated.
N.W.A. (Niggaz Wit Attitudes) was a hip hop group from Los Angeles, California that was active in the late 80s and early 90s. Their tracks exemplify hip-hop music’s roots in protest music. While I do not appreciate the glorification of drugs and crime that was apart of the gangsta rap subgenre, the group expressed real experiences that marginalized communities face. N.W.A. rapped about their experiences facing racial discrimination and excessive policing. One of their most famous tracks is “Fuck Tha Police” where Ice Cube starts with the iconic lyrics: “Fuck tha police coming straight from the underground/A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown.”
These lyrics caused major controversy and more conflict between the N.W.A. members and police. The group was even told by police not to perform the song before a concert in Detroit, but in support of free speech, they performed the song anyway. Although there are conflicting reports from the police and the band members, police allegedly stormed the stage and chased the group before arresting them.
N.W.A.’s music was banned from several popular American radio stations yet they continued to sell millions of copies of their records. Their music spoke to many communities of color and are one of the most influential groups in the history of hip-hop music.
Fast forward to 2014, where a case was brought to Pennsylvania’s Supreme Court to judge whether a rapper’s anti-cop lyrics were constitutional. Jamal Knox, also known as Mayhem Mal, was sentenced to two years in prison for his lyrics on the song “Fuck Tha Police” while a part of the Ghetto Superstar Committee. While the officers named in the song said they felt threatened, Knox explained his lyrics were not to be taken literally and was just merely expression.
It is extremely unfair to prosecute a rapper for making a song and labeling it as an actual lethal threat. Is it anymore of a threat than putting an unarmed Black man in a chokehold while several other officers arrest him? In that same year, we lost the life of Eric Garner, a Black man killed by a New York city police officer. The officer was not charged for killing an unarmed human being.
It is clear that people of color are held to a discriminatory standard when put through the justice system.
This ruling represents the justice system’s deep misunderstanding of hip-hop music. The lyrics that are seen as harsh are actually a way for marginalized communities to experience a fictional version of justice when it doesn’t appear in our everyday lives. You can find violent lyrics in several other genres of music, like country and folk songs about murder such as “Goodbye Earl” by the Dixie Chicks in 1999 and “Pumped Up Kicks” by Foster the People in 2010. These songs and artists’ lyrics are more widely accepted and are not viewed in the same way.
Murder ballads are songs that tell stories of revenge fantasies and cautionary tales mainly at the expense of women. They tell a sympathetic story of a murderer, whose victim is almost always a woman, and were inspired by stories of murder, crime and revenge that originated from 17th century Europe. Common in country and folk songs, murder ballads are rooted in traditional American music from the South and Appalachian heritage.
A musical duo called The Louvin Brothers recorded the Appalachian murder ballad, “The Knoxville Girl” in 1956. The song is entirely about a man who takes a woman for a walk and decides to kill her. Because of stories like these from the 19th century, the term femicide was coined. The threat of violence against women was never argued to be unconstitutional mainly because of their rights being removed in the original U.S. Constitution of 1787.
I am positive there were many women who felt threatened by the popularity of those kinds of songs. Even today, people still appreciate Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” where he sings about shooting a man just to watch him die. But do people think Johnny Cash is actually a murderer?
In Knox’s case, his lyrics were labeled as unconstitutional because they threaten a supremacist structure that enforces individual prejudice to uphold the system of white privilege.
Hip-hop and rap music has always been judged unfairly by people outside of the community. Kendrick Lamar, a phenomenal rapper, emphasizes this in his latest solo album “Damn.” The first two songs on the album, “Blood” and “D.N.A.”, sample audio from a Fox News segment where Geraldo Rivera and other news anchors negatively comment on his B.E.T. awards performance of “Alright” in 2015. They criticize him for his anti-police attitude.
Lamar stands upon a vandalized cop car and raps “We hate po-po/Wanna kill us dead in the street for sure.” This lyric is what the anchors find “unhelpful,” “unexciting,” and “spreads the wrong message.” Lamar is responding to the disheartening amount of deaths caused by police brutality.
Instead of responding to how a community is threatened, the way hip-hop expresses pain is criticized.
“Hip Hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years,” Rivera said.
This ignorant comment reflects white privilege, how people of color can contribute to it, and how it ignores the role in oppressing Black and brown people. Racism is systemic and appears in the everyday lives of many minority communities throughout institutions and society. To blame that reality on the people themselves and to censor their expression is oppressive and an attempt to strip away pride.