As I was driving home from work recently, I heard a new song on the radio. Encouraged by the driving beat and engaging tune, I turned up the volume, only to be sorely disappointed. At least every fourth word, or so it seemed, was deleted or bleeped. As near as I could make out, it was typical "gangsta" fare: guns, bitches, 187s, and their interplay in the life of the rapper.
Changing stations, I questioned why a radio station would play a song so riddled with expletives that the need to censor it rendered the end result a disjointed cacophony of bleeps. It seemed that a good program director could simply dig deep and find the intestinal fortitude to refrain from allowing the song air play.
A mid-twentysomething black woman, I’ve been an unabashed fan of rap music since its infancy. I’ve listened to it evolve, winding its way into our collective consciousness from the fringes of a young black subculture to its present status as an entrenched feature of American popular culture.
I’ve watched rap grow as an expression form. With a creativity reminiscent of the best pioneering blues and jazz artists, the best rap musicians have pronounced, proclaimed, provoked, and entertained my generation for more than a decade.
As recent media focus shifted to gangsta rap and its impact on the culture, I recalled being in college and listening to the underground debut album of a young group based outside of Los Angeles. I was compelled by the uncompromising lyrics and hard core baseline; I listened as much for the sociology as for its value as a dance track.
Four years later, as the video of a black motorist being savagely beaten by white police officers invaded our living rooms, the experts and social scientists that the networks paraded by to explain the tensions and anger of the community held less credence for me than that young rap group. I found the words of NWA political and prophetic as they dealt with the brutality and racial bias of the LAPD toward residents of South Central Los Angeles.
FAST FORWARD to 1994 on the heels of record-breaking homicide rates, well publicized run-ins with the law by many popular rap artists, and outcries and boycotts by many black leaders and organizations such as National Political Congress of Black Women. NWA has splintered into its component parts and joined the next generation of gangsta rap artists.
With albums that debut at number one on the billboard charts, gangsta rap has become a cash cow generating millions of dollars for record companies. Capitalizing on the desire of young listeners—many of them white suburbanites—to experience vicariously the gritty realism of the ‘hood, young rappers have eagerly waited in line to prostitute themselves and exploit and embellish their violent reality for the promise of money and fame.
Certainly the escalation of violence and misogyny is not unique to rap music. In fact, it is a phenomena endemic in our society today. Movies, music, video games, and even TV news subscribe to the "Madonna-ism" of the culture. Simply put, Madonna-ism is taking a marketing concept—in her case, sexuality—to its furthest limits so that every salable angle has been exploited. The culture is so numb, so inured to gratuitous violence and sex that it requires total carnage or total depravity even to register a blip on our collective consciousness—and even those are fast becoming commonplace.
Much of the creativity of black culture has always been rooted in hyperbole, exaggeration for effect. It is not enough to "get the girl"—you have to transform her completely, causing her to abandon any self-restraint. It is not enough to best your enemy—you have to strike abject terror in the hearts of anyone who would even consider opposing you.
Mix together people’s desperation for new and different stimuli with our society’s penchant for Madonna-ism and the hyperbole of the gangsta rap culture, and we have the basis of gangsta rap’s prominence—and its skyrocket flight out of the bounds of decency and humanity.
There is an end in sight to the upward spiral of the gratuitous gangstas. While Madonna-ism remains lucrative for a while, the experience eventually reaches an apex—after which it no longer holds any lure for consumers. There is nothing else Madonna could wring from her sexuality that holds the promise of novelty or the ability to shock. Similarly, just as I changed the radio station, other listeners will tire of the repetitious and ultimately dehumanizing world many of these gangstas occupy and choose to tune out of the experience—which might prove to be the most powerful dis’ of all.
A public outcry that affects the bottom line of record companies could speed the decline of gangsta rap. Record company executives will not be as eager to encourage young, aspiring rappers to outdo themselves as menaces to society when more radio program directors decide to leave the CD on the shelf. Consigned once again to the no-air-play world of underground records, artists so aflame with social commentary may very well take a drastic hit—for good and for ill.
Ultimately, the underlying questions this society must confront are not how to deal with gangsta rap, or nudity on television, or the portrayal of violence in the media—but their causes and cumulative effects. In the coming years, we will have to struggle profoundly with ourselves and what is required to stir us—what we call entertainment. At some point, we will have to do the work of fearless moral inventory and come to terms with the painful realization that many of society’s monsters are creations of our own appetites.