Gangsta Rap and the Media, Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the final part a four-part series on gangsta rap, Black Nationalism, and representations of political discourse. Read the introduction herePart 2: “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge” | Part 3: “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so Help Your Black Ass?”]

In 1965, while not explicitly condemning violence, Malcolm X told Young Socialist magazine that he would prefer for black Americans to gain respect and recognition without resorting to violence, yet he also stated that “nonviolence is only preached to Black Americans, and I don’t go along with anyone who wants to teach our people nonviolence until someone at the same time is teaching our enemy to be nonviolent. I believe we should protect ourselves by any means necessary when we are attacked by racists.”[1] Malcolm X was alluding to the schism in the black liberation movement that developed between the Martin Luther King Jr. faction and the Black Nationalist faction. Martin Luther King was later celebrated for deploying tactics of non-violent resistance to Jim Crow laws and segregation, and he is remembered fondly in American textbooks and historical narratives of African-American struggle for winning civil rights through peaceful resistance.[2]

A less-lionized figure is Malcolm X, who was a more radical leader. Though his philosophy shifted over time, he continuously argued that violence could have a place in black liberation, especially in self-defense against the agents of oppression.[3] Malcolm X does not, however, enjoy the same historical glamorization.[4] He was more controversial and more radical, he was a felon and a Muslim; he advocated black power and helped inspire the dubiously-remembered Black Panther Party. A positive version of his legacy, instead, is carried on by rap lyrics: rappers routinely sampled his speeches in their songs, 2 Live Crew dedicated an album to him, NWA included pictures of him in music videos, and MC Lyte named an album “By Any Means Necessary” in honor of Malcolm X’s most famous pronouncement.[5]

Martin Luther King became valorized while Malcolm X had to wait decades before being reclaimed by another radical branch of black liberationists. In a parallel fashion to Malcolm X’s marginalization for being too radical, the press marginalized gangsta rappers for being too violent, preferring instead to laud the non-violent “alternative” rappers. In 1989, following the release of “Straight Outta Compton,” numerous rappers in New York formed the Stop the Violence movement, including some rappers like Public Enemy who had previously been associated with gangsta rap.[6] The media reacted to this seemingly new split in rap culture by praising the new class of alternative rappers for their “positive lessons.”

The Stop the Violence movement was celebrated for its decision to “stand up, grow up and be an adult…. What positive raps can certainly do is to encourage forward-looking attitudes and establish new wavelengths of communication. For instance, while rap is an avenue in which African-American men can affirm their manhood, it has not yet progressed to the point where even the most political of male rappers have sat down to concoct a sensitive opposite to [NWA’s lyric from ‘A Bitch iz a Bitch,’] ‘slam her ass in a ditch.’”[7]

This journalist’s argument is a perfect example of equating violence to illegitimacy. By focusing on a (at least overtly) non-political aspect of gangsta rap, he delegitimized its discourse. In this way, the author is not forced to make a substantive argument against violent political action, instead relying on an ad hominem attack against one line in order to undermine the rest of the album.  The criticism of infantilization is also of note because it essentially casts gangsta rappers as immature, underdeveloped, and stunted children. Telling rappers to “grow up” constructs these powerful black males as children, beings that are incapable of making their own decisions because they are incapable of rational thought. The value on metaphorical adulthood, as the author implied, is a progression from an impoverished form to a better, more acceptable persona. Only through this process of evolution could a rapper ever hope to contribute legitimate political discourse to the rhetoric of black liberation.

Another article—from the front page of the Wall Street Journal—claimed that new non-violent rap bands were garnering more fans because they were a welcome reprieve from gangsta rap. In the article, the author praised Arrested Development, an alternative rap group that did not

“sound like the usual rap group, either. Arrested Development sings as much as it raps, and its favorite ‘F’ word is ‘freedom.’ … [The] dancing and the music remain infectiously upbeat… with a hint of Bob Dylan and an African drumbeat. While so-called ‘gangsta rappers’ like Ice-T, the Geto Boys and NWA attract far more media attention with X-rated lyrics that…offend women, affront police and deride rival rappers, the branch of rap music exemplified by Arrested Development is quietly evolving in a more positive direction.”[8]

Ironically, this author drew media attention to the “X-rated” lyrics of gangsta rap by commenting on how much media attention their lyrics received. This point only underscores the treatment of gangsta rap’s lyrical themes in the media: its explicit lyrics and themes are repeatedly criticized while their political discourses are ignored. Moreover, both Arrested Development and NWA promote freedom in the American polity, anti-racism, and community-based families.[9] Yet NWA’s lyrics are precluded from legitimacy because they are too violent.

By privileging these non-violent narratives, both in historical memory of Martin Luther King and alternative rap, journalists also privileged both uniformity and conformity. In terms of uniformity, these authors suggested that all rappers should adopt the same political messages, rhetorical styles, and off-stage personas. And through this uniformity with the narrative of non-violence, they can be forced to adopt conformity. In this sense, conformity means participation in and legitimization of bourgeois politics. In essence, the violence of gangsta rap embodies its radicalism; gangsta rap’s most stunning, most provocative, and most deconstructive aspects are in their nature violent. By depriving gangsta rap of radicalism, it can be reduced to politics that are amenable to the white power structure.

In a metanarrative sense, rap can be categorized in two ways. The first is integration, in which rap is a “good” informational utterance “because [it conforms] to the relevant criteria…of justice” accepted in American political discourse.[10] The media portrayed the non-violent alternative rap as “positive” rap. The second way is more complicated because it does not involve a seamless integration into existing knowledge, but instead must embody an opposition that can be rejected. The examples of journalistic practices I have listed should demonstrate how gangsta rap had to be reduced to a misconstrued form so that it could be rejected in a metanarrative sense. Gangsta rap does have some values that are laudable within the metanarrative: Americans typically support anti-racist rhetoric in its broadest implications of political equality, as shown by the valuation of Martin Luther King. However, in its fullest form, gangsta rap cannot be integrated into legitimate narratives because it also values violence, which violates the metanarrative of American historical memory that rejects revolutionary violence. Violence committed or aspired to by black men is constructed as deviant and dangerous. Therefore, in order for its cultural information to be processed, language games strip rap of its ideologically problematic aspects, reducing it to pure violence, which can be rejected outright. What is left for gangsta rappers is to shed their radicalism, become more amenable to the system they criticize, and thereby allow themselves to be integrated into legitimate social discourse.

Gil Scott-Heron stated this point much more elegantly in 1970. Scott-Heron, a jazz poet and spoken word artist who immeasurably influenced rap, first performed “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised” as a poem in 1970 and then with a full band shortly thereafter.[11] The song contends that the revolution could not conform to the standards erected by bourgeois capitalism. The past-participle “televised” from the title carries at least two meanings in this context. First, the revolution would not televised as in it would not be played on television for audiences to witness because it would not be good programming for the corporate television producers; they do not care about black people, as shown by the lyric “there will be no pictures of pigs shooting down brothers in the instant replay… black people will be in the street looking for a brighter day… there will be no highlights on the eleven o’clock news.”

Secondly, and most relevant to gangsta rappers, the television is a metaphor for consumerism. “Consumers” would not participate in the revolution because the revolution would not conform to their understandings of reality that has been structured by television. For instance, Scott-Heron states that “you will not be able to… skip out for beer during the commercials,” meaning that the revolution does not take breaks like a TV program. The non-revolutionaries, those without the ability to understand the revolution, would not understand that the revolution would not conform to the expectations they have developed as a result of living in a consumerist society. For them, the dominant culture, the revolution would “go better with Coke,” or the theme song would be “written by Jim Webb or Francis Scott Key,” and it would allow them to continue caring about such menial subjects as “Green Acres, the Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction.” I have attempted to show that in the same fashion as an untelevised revolution, gangsta rappers do not conform to society’s narrative of how revolutionary rhetoric should appear. With radical discourse on violence, gangsta rap violated society’s expectations of legitimacy, and so society’s agents of information, its mainstream journalists, undermined rap’s legitimate political messages.

Gangsta rap remains controversial. Its lyrical themes are extremely problematic, and in many ways are anti-liberational for many classes of people, including homosexuals, women, and Jews.[12] Its portrayals of violence are not always aimed at figures of power or white supremacy, but often at other African-Americans and rivals. In some instances, gangsta rappers have been killed or injured in acts of gang violence, something they actively promoted through their music. Drug use remains a public health concern for many Americans, and gangsta rappers also unquestionably supported drug distribution and consumption, and sometimes used money from rapping to support those industries.[13] However, even while acknowledging all of these complications, gangsta rap remains a critical insight into African-American culture, a potent force of political opposition, and an excellent case study in counter-narrative politics, and therefore its discursive legitimacy cannot be dismissed solely on the basis of its problematic aspects.

Part 1: Introduction
Part 2: “You Are Now About to Witness the Strength of Street Knowledge”
Pa
rt 3: “Tell the Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but the Truth, so Help Your Black Ass?”

Footnotes

[1] Malcolm X, Malcolm X Talks to Young People: Speeches in the United States, Britain, and Africa, ed. Steve Clark (New York: Pathfinder, 2002).

[2] Sam Dillon, “Lessons About King For a New Generation; In Some Classrooms, a Freedom Fighter,” New York Times, January 17, 1994.

[3] Christopher John Farley, “King, Malcolm X Leave Legacy of Tactics,” USA Today, February 21, 1991.

[4] Timothy B. Tyson, “Robert F. Williams, ‘Black Power,’ and the Roots of the African American Freedom Struggle,” The Journal of American History 85, no. 2 (September 1, 1998): 541.

[5] Charisse Jones, “The Rebirth of Malcolm X The Voice of Black Nationalism Sounds Again in American Culture,” Los Angeles Times, February 4, 1990.

[6] Havelock Nelson and Genie E. Summers, “Rap Of The Ages,” Billboard, November 27, 1993, 44.

[7] Derrick Z. Jackson, “Welcome to the School of Rap Music It’s in Session Now, And There Are Some Positive Lessons,” Boston Globe, August 13, 1989.

[8] Meg Cox, “Rap Music Is Taking A Positive Turn And Winning Fans --- Arrested Development Pays Tribute to the Rural South; The `F’ Word Is Freedom,” Wall Street Journal, October 8, 1992.

[9] Beighey and Unnithan, “Political Rap,” 138.

[10] Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition, 19.

[11] Gil Scott-Heron, The Revolution Will Not Be Televised, 7-inch promotional single (New York: RCA, 1971).

[12] Jon Pareles, “Public Enemy Rap Group Reorganizes After Anti-Semitic Comments,” The New York Times, August 11, 1989.

[13] Erlewine, “N.W.A Biography.” Eazy-E funded his record label by selling crack, and may have used his label to launder drug money.