Gangsta Rap and the Media, Part 1: The Media Tries to Undermine the Political Discourse of Gangsta Rap

By Doctor Comrade

[This is the introduction to a four-part series on gangsta rap, Black Nationalism, and representations of political discourse. Part 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?” | Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”]

In the late 1980s, following the increased popularity of “gangsta rap,” a sub-genre of hardcore hip hop music, prominent news media outlets demonized its performers as violent, misogynistic, homophobic thugs. Gangsta rap certainly contained violent and sexually explicit lyrics, but its central themes also included nuanced and highly-developed critiques of racism and police brutality. Packaged in an increasingly fashionable medium, gangsta rap was not only dangerous in terms of its expression of black liberation, but also because it was becoming popular with teenagers of all ethnic groups. The predominantly-white and elite media reaction exemplified wide-ranging efforts on the part of white elites to silence and marginalize the political messages of gangsta rap. The first pattern to develop was the disparagement of rap as a violent genre that was indicative of deviant thug culture. The second pattern delegitimized the political statements of gangsta rap because supposedly legitimate political discourse did not contain the violent imagery of rap music. And the third pattern was comparisons between gangsta rap and alternative rap, another hip hop sub-genre that was lauded by media outlets because it promoted non-violence. This paper also analyzes how these trends echoed the glamorization of Martin Luther King Jr. and the non-violent Civil Rights Movement and the denigration of Black Nationalist figures like Malcolm X who believed violence had legitimate political uses. This paper seeks to explicate how violence and non-violence came to be valued differently based on experiences with the African-American liberation movements of the 1960s and 1970s through parallels between alternative rap and Martin Luther King and gangsta rap and Malcolm X.

Essentially, the media focused on gangsta rap’s themes of violence and misogyny to marginalize and discredit rap’s underlying political critiques and revolutionary rhetoric. I argue that gangsta rap contained thorough critiques of white supremacy and structural racism, while the media focused on the culturally-constructed “negative” aspects of gangsta rap rather than the critical subject matter, and they privileged non-violence in both music and politics. Newspaper reports attempted to discredit the political discourse of gangsta rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s, which I see as part of a trend of conveniently relying on the rhetoric of non-violence to undermine Black Nationalism. National and regional newspapers provide an overabundance of sources because they were written by white writers for principally white and upper-class audiences, and they help encapsulate the white backlash to young black men attempting to assert their own political power.

The term “media” refers to various news outlets, including major television news networks and newspaper organizations. The primary sources for this study mostly include news reports from prominent national and regional newspapers such as the New York Times, Los Angeles Times, and the Boston Globe. The selection of “mainstream” newspaper stories is meant to convey the ways that supposedly unbiased news carries underlying cultural messages. In the late 1980s and early 1990s, journalists were writing for a predominantly white and elite audience: newspapers were made available almost exclusively through subscription services, a luxury afforded by highly-literate, educated, and economically established individuals. The articles themselves usually fall into one of two categories: either they were buried deep within newspapers in later sections like the “Culture” or “Music” sections, suggesting that only readers who had ample leisure time or sufficient interest in culture would read them; or articles were featured on either the front page or in the important news sections because rap was associated with recent crimes or controversies.[1] This study also focuses on the rap group NWA because their breakthrough in 1988 catapulted them into notoriety, and they were portrayed in the press as the faces of gangsta rap. In discussions of rap, media critics targeted NWA directly, making media portrayals of NWA exemplary of the whole genre.

The sources were drawn from mainstream news reports in order to capture the complex interplay between elite media sources in the form of the written word and the rap artists’ music. Newspapers privileged the narratives crafted by educated white men who were writing for predominantly-white audiences. In order to contextualize these narratives, a brief discussion of journalism’s history is necessary. Consumers of the news in the late-twentieth century generally expected the media to be impartial, fair, and objective.[2] “Objectivity” in a journalistic sense is a concept that developed in the 1920s around journalistic professionalism: around the end of World War One, journalists began developing and standardizing their own professional ethics; objectivity referred to writing an unbiased account in which all the facts about an event could be externally verified and validated by the journalistic community.[3] Some historians have argued that objectivity developed as the result of technology and commercialization, which allowed newspapers to reach larger and politically heterogeneous audiences, so news organizations attracted revenue from advertisers by reducing the number of consumers who would become alienated by politicized news.[4] Later, many journalists largely abandoned objectivity by the 1960s during the rise of advocacy journalism.[5] “Objectivity” was perceived by this new wave of journalists as a refusal to “examine the basic structures of power and privilege” and therefore reinforced the same powers that had, for instance, perpetrated McCarthyism, racism, or involved the US in Vietnam.[6] Journalists came to understand their role in larger society as authors of cultural narratives that would contain notions of justice, equality, and liberalism.

With the increase in television journalism in the mid-1960s, journalism became a more lucrative career, and highly educated college graduates became attracted to it. The rise in education standards for journalism helped develop interpretive journalism. In effect, journalists were importing their rhetorical and interpretive skills from collegiate scholarship into journalism, and instead of just telling their audiences what happened, they also told them what events meant.[7] Over the last four decades of the twentieth century, credibility had to replace objectivity in order for journalists and newspapers to maintain their audiences because audiences expected not only coverage of events but also expert analysis and interpretation.[8] The presence of credible journalists allowed news corporations to maintain competitiveness against other outlets.[9] This points to how journalism as a profession is inseparable from corporate interests and the drive for profit, and several historians have taken a top-down approach by arguing that the corporatization of news and the competition over profit have deprioritized the search for “truth” and replaced it with fast-paced, sensational stories that attempt to capture the public’s attention.[10] This scholarship argues that the media was a product of capitalism, and that journalism relied on business ethics. This paper challenges the corporatization explanation because it does not account for underlying cultural factors that shape the discursive strategies deployed within media coverage. For instance, the media’s treatment of rap music conflated news gathering with editorializing. The media’s discourse was not simply a product of corporatized journalism, but rather followed the cultural attitudes of journalism’s entrenched elite writers and editors. Gangsta rap’s treatment can contextualize the history of twentieth-century journalism within a larger cultural framework that takes into account those broader social traditions that drive and define the news.

The narratives in newspapers’ coverage of gangsta rap underscore how news outlets became intimately tied to notions of justice and order rather than “truth.” They elided or excluded criticisms of white supremacy, choosing instead to focus on issues of violence and gangs, which illustrates how privileged writers chose to focus on the violent imagery rather than critiques of a racially unjust system. This cultural perspective can explain why news stories such as the coverage of gangsta rap emerge and conform to previously-established cultural beliefs. Jean-François Lyotard’s definition of “metanarrative” contextualizes these beliefs. A metanarrative is a comprehensive and systematic explanation of knowledge or experience, a mode of understanding information as “good” or “bad,” or perhaps “true” or “false.” In this way, a metanarrative is a pre-existing set of criteria that allows receivers of information to judge whether “[informational utterances] are… ‘good’ because they conform to the relevant criteria (of justice, beauty, truth, and efficiency respectively) accepted in the social circle of the… culture of a people.”[11] These criteria form the basis of how to integrate what could be called facts of reality into an apparatus that allows those facts to make sense to a culture. Metanarratives allow stories to make sense; they are the ways that society legitimizes its actions and attitudes with regards to its predominant beliefs. This suggests that metanarratives are ways of incorporating new knowledge into existing knowledge: new knowledge becomes legitimate, or comes to be understood, only by incorporating it into these existing cultural forms. The media, through its discourse, deploys particular narratives to frame current stories. These discursive strategies, which Lyotard calls “language games,” reinforce the metanarrative by contextualizing pre-existing beliefs within a current reality.[12] Culturally, violence conducted by black men was already seen as deviant, anti-political, un-American, unjust, or any number of other negative stereotypes, and therefore newspaper writers treated gangsta rap as a manifestation of a culturally demonized value. (It should be noted as well that violence perpetrated by whites—such as police violence against people of color, colonial violence against Native Americans and Mexicans, and acts of war against numerous countries—reflect the inverse of violence perpetrated by black men, wherein violence by whites is a culturally treasured patriotic commodity freely traded and defended by white elites.)

This theoretical approach problematizes the role the media plays in political discourse by contextualizing the history of journalism within these kinds of overarching social myths, which shows how the media plays an active role in cultural production and perpetuation. These metalinguistic concepts, like normality or justice, are established by underlying cultural attitudes, and they manifested in gangsta rap’s media attention. The metanarrative perpetuated by the media was how violence is inherently immoral, and therefore violent narratives are illegitimate discourse.

Part 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?”
Part 4: “The Only People in This Country who are Asked to be Nonviolent are Black People”

Footnotes

[1] For example, see Chuck Philips, “The 2 Live Crew Controversy: The View From Florida Obscenity: Two Members of the Rap Group and a Record Store Owner Have Been Arrested. Some See Racism in the Crackdown.,” Los Angeles Times, June 13, 1990; Bill Briggs, “Police Prepare to Avert Rap Concert Violence,” Denver Post, July 29, 1989; Brett Milano, “NWA’s Tough Rap Ignites Debate,” Boston Globe, June 9, 1989.

[2] Burton St. John and Kirsten A. Johnson, eds., News with a View: Essays on the Eclipse of Objectivity in Modern Journalism (Jefferson, N.C: McFarland, 2012), 1.

[3] Michael Schudson, Discovering the News: A Social History of American Newspapers (New York: Basic Books, 1978), 7, 122.

[4] Steven Maras, Objectivity in Journalism (Cambridge, U.K. ; Malden, MA: Polity Press, 2013), 28–31.

[5] Schudson, Discovering the News, 7–10; Michael Schudson, The Power of News (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1995), 6.

[6] Schudson, Discovering the News, 160, 178; Maras, Objectivity in Journalism, 1.

[7] Christopher B. Daly, Covering America: A Narrative History of a Nation’s Journalism (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 2012), 397.

[8] Schudson, The Power of News, 6–9.

[9] Daly, Covering America, ix–xi, 6.

[10] Ibid., xii; C. Edwin Baker, Advertising and a Democratic Press (Princeton, N.J: Princeton University Press, 1994).

[11] Jean-François Lyotard, The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984), 19.

[12] Ibid., 36.