There has always been an uneasy, often-exploitative relationship between black creativity and white consumption. That conflict is most obviously crystallized in contemporary culture via hip-hop, an art form born of the triumph and tragedy of black experience and expression. So often, when black art presents black humanity unashamedly—that is, flaws and all—that presentation is used to justify the dehumanizing of black folks. Rappers say bad words and rap about bad things, so it justifies black people being viewed badly—that’s the general argument for most who blame rappers for racism.
And that argument has sadly been prominent among the more elitist corners of black culture. “Pull your pants up and the cops won’t shoot you.” But that position has always been inherently racist, and it’s long past time for the upwardly mobile black folks to stop co-signing the racism.
White pundits have made hip-hop the “problem” with black culture for years, and they’ve had lots of help. Jazz legend Wynton Marsalis, for what seems like the 100th time, recently reiterated his disdain for hip-hop. The crotchety Pulitzer Prize winner has been railing against the rappity rap music for years, and in a recent appearance on The Washington Post’s podcast Cape Up with Jonathan Capehart, he talked about hip-hop, the recent removal of Confederate monuments and what he feels is damaging to race relations in America.
“We’ve lost our grip on our morality in the black community… using pornography and profanity and addressing ourselves in the lowest, most disrespectful form,” Marsalis stated.
“You can’t have a pipeline of filth be your default position, and it’s free. Now, the nation is entertained by that. It’s not free,” he also said. “Just like the toll the minstrel show took on black folks and on white folks. Now all this ‘nigga’ this, ‘bitch’ that, ‘ho’ that, it’s just a fact at this point.”
It’s the kind of “we do it to ourselves” finger-wagging that became Bill Cosby’s raison d'être in his latter years, and it arms politicians and commentators with the sort of cultural co-sign they use to justify further stigmatizing of black communities and individuals who fit a certain demographic. It’s an indicator of how deeply some are invested in respectability. And right-wingers were quick to applaud the jazz legend’s position.
“He articulates a sensible and cerebral perspective on the race issue in America and refuses to buy into the empty racist narrative of the uber-left,” wrote Leesa K. Donner, editor-in-chief of LibertyNation, who is white. “Despite attempts by Capehart, Marsalis refused to be goaded into saying that incidents at Starbucks and Waffle Houses are at the heart of the race problem in America. Nor was he willing to call President Trump a racist.”
Downplaying the racism that permeates American culture while pointing the finger at the scary blacks who cuss plays well for the Fox News crowd.
Bill O’Reilly consistently slammed hip-hop, even blaming it for a decline in Christianity back in 2015. “The rap industry, for example, often glorifies depraved behavior, and that sinks into the minds of some young people—the group that is most likely to reject religion,” he pontificated on his now-defunct Fox News show The O’Reilly Factor. There has been no end to the crimes of which this art is accused; hip-hop killed the church, hip-hop concerts are violent bloodbaths that should be banned—and there’s the ongoing belief that hip-hop is the reason black people are economically and socially disenfranchised in America.
“We need to reestablish faith in our communities and the values and principles that got us through slavery, that got us through Jim Crow, and segregation, and all kinds of horrible things that were heaped upon us,” Ben Carson said in 2015. “Why were we able to get through those? Because of our faith, because of our family, because of our values, and as we allow the hip-hop community to destroy those things for us, and as we grasp onto what’s politically correct and not what is correct, we continue to deteriorate.”
The criticism levied at hip-hop from the right is a pointed indictment of black culture: Black people lost their way and this crude music was the culprit. It’s understandably popular because it feeds into the “pick yourselves up” rhetoric that downplays the oppression of black people while justifying it. That’s why a dastardly rapper like Kanye West could still become every conservative’s favorite name to drop after he basically blamed slavery on slaves. It’s not about moral virtue; it’s a need to disavow societal responsibility for ongoing despotism. And there are frustrated members of the civil-rights generation who are too ready to echo their right-wing brethren.
Since the 1980s, hip-hop has been a primary voice for black people who weren’t supposed to be “the” voice. The culture broke through to the mainstream around the same time The Cosby Show was presenting America with a safe, inoffensive presentation of blackness, and Michael Jackson was taking over the charts with music that demanded little of its white audience. But when acts like Public Enemy and N.W.A began to suddenly appear on MTV, there was now a sound and fury that made clear the level of unrest and rage in black America’s spirit. As the murder of Yusef Hawkins, Rodney King’s beating, and subsequent L.A. riots flashed across headlines, it was rappers who weren’t afraid to tell white America “we told you so.”
So what Wynton Marsalis once called “ghetto minstrelsy” back in 2007 has consistently been the most prescient art form in contemporary pop culture. It’s a reflection of the people most downtrodden, and that reflection has helped make those who aren’t living under the same circumstances nonetheless relate to the experience. And that is much more significant than just selling black pain to white audiences—it’s connecting black youth who may not have understood the world their brothers and sisters faced in some different locale across the country. It’s given us a broader view of black youth culture; we can see so many regional and generational nuances in that culture, even as we celebrate our oneness as black people. Black kids in suburban North Carolina got familiar with what black kids in South Central L.A. were dealing with. Those kids got exposed to the slang and styles of southwest Atlanta or suburban Long Island. And they were unified in their ostracism. Hip-hop hasn’t sought to displace all other black voices; rather, it was a type of black expression that was urgent and necessary precisely because it had been marginalized. It wasn’t only pushed to the fringes by the fears of white America—but by the embarrassment of black folks like Wynton Marsalis.
It’s made hip-hop the easiest target in the post-rock era for moralizing politicians who want to paint it as the source of societal ills.
In 2016, Trump adviser Katrina Pierson blamed rape culture on the music. “I find it quite rich that we have Democrats and the left talking about rape culture when they’re the ones backed fully by Hollywood,” she said. “This rape culture is purported by none other than the entertainment industry, none other than hip-hop music, which you can hear on local radio.”
Of course, the music isn’t above justified criticisms. Hip-hop’s misogynistic tendencies must absolutely be addressed constantly, and there can be rampant materialism and glorified violence in even the most accessible rap songs. The mainstream rap industry can be as commodified and cartoonish as WWE at times. We don’t have to pretend all hip-hop is thoughtful expression of sociocultural truths—sometimes music is meant to be an escape, and hip-hop doesn’t have to be the exception. But there is no winner when that music is painted as somehow the more insidious evil compared to the historic, deeply entrenched American racism that created the stew from which the music’s rage was born.
Hip-hop doesn’t need Wynton Marsalis’ approval, but Marsalis needs to be honest with himself and admit that these artists aren’t choosing to “publicly humiliate themselves,” as he wrote in his Facebook “clarification”—they are simply expressing themselves. He’s the one who is humiliated, so much so that he’s made it his stance to chide the art form wholesale. But this art form has had a whole lot to say for more than 40 years now. A lot more than just “bitch” and “nigga.” A lot more than just “a pipeline of filth.” Wynton Marsalis just hasn’t been listening. And those words arm so many of the bigots in power with the kind of endorsement that justifies their continued scapegoating of black youth.