The latest backlash against top-selling but controversial rap music has hit the airwaves. The latest controversy centers on so-called “gangsta rap”—a term used by mainstream media in the late ‘80s to describe rap music, such as that of the group NWA (Niggaz With Attitude), whose lyrics often focus on the subject of urban violence. Teen-oriented stations across the U.S. are either editing its graphic, explicit lyrics, limiting its airplay, or banning it.
Many journalists charge that the lyrics of “gangsta rap” advocate violence and misogyny and that this advocacy may contribute to actual violent and misogynist attitudes and behavior among some of the music’s listeners. The recent arrests of rap artists Tupac Shakur, Snoop Doggy Dogg and Flavor Flav, along with anti-rap community protest and the decision of a few black radio stations to ban what were termed “Violent or misogynist” rap songs, set off an anti-rap chorus in papers across the country.
Typical of the coverage was a Dallas Morning News editorial (12/5/93) that asked, “Just how much does art imitate life?... These rappers are role models for millions of impressionable youths. Teenagers are already trying to emulate how the hip-hop artists dress and talk. Will they now act like their heroes? Maybe the more relevant question is: Why even risk it?”
Rarely did these articles discuss whether there was any evidence of a causal relationship between hip-hop lyrics and actual violence. In fact, the gun homicide rate has been steadily rising since 1984, which is five years before the first mass audience “gangsta rap” album (NWA’s Straight Outta Compton) was released. Yet lack of evidence did not prevent media pundits from making sweeping generalizations.
Like many genres of music, rap contains some sexist and violent elements. But why the disproportionate coverage of sexism and violence in rap as opposed to other media? All of a sudden, mainstream media have become concerned with the plight of black women. That wasn’t the case when they devoted massive coverage to the rape of the white Central Park jogger and almost no coverage to the rapes of 26 women of color also reported in New York that week. And not when black women are routinely stereotyped as “welfare cheats” and “irresponsible teen mothers.” (See Extra!, 7-8/92.)
Bad Boys vs. Gangstas
The double standard applied to rap—as compared to rock—was pointed out most clearly in a letter to the editor in the Washington Post (7/14/92), which commented on the outcry surrounding the song “Cop Killer.”
(“Cop Killer” was actually a speed metal song in the rock genre, but the singer Ice-T, an African American, was best known as a rapper, and the song was often mistakenly called a rap song in media discussions.)
Letter-writer Jay Marcus cited other songs that received rave reviews: Elton John’s 1977 song “Tickin,” about a young man who goes into a bar and kills 14 people; Bruce Springsteen’s “Nebraska,” featuring a couple on a shooting spree, and his “Johnny 99,” about a gun-waving laid-off worker; and Stephen Sondheim’s score for Assassins, which presented songs mostly in the first person about attempted and successful presidential killers.
“Each of the above songs uses an artistic device of extreme examples to help us understand antisocial behavior,” Marcus wrote.
All are sung either in me first person (that is, the singer takes the role of the killer) and/or with tremendous empathy for the killer. Each song seeks to point out social problems that lead to the killer’s actions. Only one, however, incited any sort of public criticism or controversy—Ice-T's.
Ice-T's “Cop Killer” and Paris’ “Bush Killa” became major controversies in the midst of Clinton’s campaign denunciation of rapper Sister Souljah. But prior to 1992 “gangsta rappers” had been talking about African-Americans killing other African-Americans for years with little to no media attention. Violence in rap music suddenly became a media issue when African-American artists began discussing violence against white authority figures—which says much about which victims mainstream journalists are most concerned with.
Media stereotypes of black men as more violence-prone, and media’s disproportionate focus on black crime (which is confused with the personas that rappers adopt), contribute to biased treatment of rap. The double standard applied to rap music makes it easier to sell the idea that “gangsta rap” is “more” misogynist, racist, violent and just plain dangerous than other music.
For example, an Orlando Sentinel article (2/26/92) managed to refer to the Geto Boy’s second album We Can’t Be Stopped as having “some horribly violent and misogynist imagery,” while in the same article Guns N’ Roses’ Use Your Illusion is called “merely obnoxious on songs like ‘Back Off Bitch’ in which Axl Rose declares war on women." Why is a “bitch” reference made by a black “gangsta rapper” considered more offensive than one made by a white “bad boy” rocker?
This softer treatment of white rock/pop stars by the same media that constantly flog rappers as irresponsible (Newsweek referred to rap as “sociopathic entertainment”—11/29/93) has existed since hip-hop became a popular phenomenon. Perhaps the apex was the 1990 controversy surrounding rap group Public Enemy, which was charged in nearly every major media outlet with being anti-Semitic, based on statements made by a group member who was later fired from the band.
During this same period of time, Guns N’ Roses’ lead singer Axl Rose made several homophobic, sexist and racist comments on his records and in a Rolling Stone interview. His album at the time had a song called “One in a Million” which attacked “niggers” and “immigrants and faggots,” who “start some mini-Iran or spread some fucking disease.” Yet the Public Enemy controversy received much more prominent coverage: References to Guns N’ Roses often seemed to be included as after-thoughts in coverage of charges of anti-Semitism by Public Enemy.
Journalists’ dominant focus on violence and sexism in rap lyrics parallels news media’s overrepresentation of negative news in African-American communities (see Extra!, 7-8/92). Largely missing from the coverage is an acknowledgment of the role rap plays as a political voice for African-American urban youth who rarely get to speak for themselves in mainstream media. Although journalists sometimes mentioned in passing the fact that largely white record companies decide which rap artists to market (often “gangsta rappers” that fit white stereotypes), there was almost no discussion of African-Americans’ lack of access to traditional forums of expression in mainstream media.
Media discussions rarely focused on songs that draw attention to issues that are undercovered in mainstream media. Examples include Public Enemy’s “One Million Bottle Bags,” about the deadly effects of alcohol and disproportionate alcohol advertising in communities of color, and Paris’ song about a sexual assault case against the Oakland police department which helped draw mainstream media attention to the case. Even articles that mentioned NWA’s song “— tha Police” almost never discuss the fact that it dealt with issues of police brutality and harassment
Who Gets to Speak—And When?
The experts promoted in media as credible black leaders when discussing the “problem” of rap music were not granted nearly the same access or credibility when commenting on problems whose perpetrators lie outside the black community. For instance. Rev. Calvin Butts of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem was quoted 37 times in stories in major papers about his anti-rap crusade in the eight months since it got underway in June 1993. Yet he was quoted in stories about his crusade against alcohol and tobacco advertising in African-American and Latino communities in 17 stories in the first eight months of that campaign.
When a group that Butts is affiliated with, the Committee to Eliminate Media Offensive to African People (CEMOTAP) held a protest at WABC radio against the racism of white hate-jock Bob Grant, there were no articles in major newspapers. (Grant routinely refers to African Americans as “sub-humanoids” and “savages,” yet his rhetoric has not been the subject of widespread media moralizing.)
An ongoing boycott of the New York Post by CEMOTAP, black churches and community groups was covered in only six articles in major papers over four years (all in Newsday). In contrast, the decision by black-oriented WBLS radio in New York not to air lyrics it considers violent or demeaning to women was covered in 33 articles over four months.
The issue of who gets access to mainstream media is fundamental to the rap controversy. As long as primarily white media decision-makers (a 1992 American Society of Newspaper Editors survey found that only 5.13 percent of daily newspaper journalists are African American) determine who gets access and when, people of color will get far more access to news media when their views agree with those in power.
This is a typically cynical use of the “even they” argument: If “even they” (black spokespeople) recognize the offensiveness of rap music, then there is no possibility that white media pundits, legislators and record company executives who have the power to restrict the public’s access to this music can be accused of racism or bias.
The issue with media coverage of rap is not whether African Americans engaged in a campaign against what they see as violent, sexist or racist imagery in rap should be heard—they should. But why are community voices fighting racism and sexism in mainstream news media, films and advertisements not treated similarly? The answer may be found in white-owned corporate media’s historical role as facilitator of racial scapegoating. Perhaps before advocating censorship of a music form with origins in a voiceless community, mainstream media pundits should look at the violence perpetuated by their own racism and sexism.