3 reasons it’s ridiculous to blame rap music for racism

Everyone look out, because hip-hop is eating away at the moral fiber of society yet again.

At least, that’s what’s happening according to Joe Scarborough of MSNBC’s Morning Joe. Reacting to the recently released video of University of Oklahoma’s Sigma Alpha Epsilon fraternity spewing racist chants, Scarborough chose not to target the students involved; instead, the host went after rapper Waka Flocka Flame, who had performed for SAE before but has since pulled out of a return performance at Oklahoma, telling CNN that he is “disgusted” with what the video showed. 

However, as Scarborough sees it, Waka has it all turned around. He explained that Waka’s music is “full of ‘N-words’ and ‘F-words,'” declaring that “it’s wrong.” In fact, Scarborough went so far as to argue that the rapper “shouldn’t be disgusted with [the Oklahoma students]. He should be disgusted with himself.”

Since then, Scarborough has stuck by what he said, while Waka Flocka Flame has weighed in, too, telling MSNBC: “This isn’t about rap. This is about what happened on that bus.” Meanwhile, Rush Limbaugh also felt the need to throw in his two cents, unsurprisingly remarking, “If this had been a song by Kim Kardashian‘s husband and then sung this song at the Grammys, it’d be a hit.”

Of course, the best reaction to the whole thing came via the Internet, where the sarcastic #RapAlbumsThatCausedSlavery began tending following Scarborough’s comments.

Anyone familiar with Scarborough knows this isn’t the first time he’s acted like an idiot, and it seems unlikely it’ll be the last. However, his attacks here merit some consideration, because they are so ridiculously tired and worn out. Hip-hop does not cause racism, plain and simple. And although, for some reason, people like Scarborough have yet to learn this essential truth, there are perhaps a few points that could help them understand it.

1) Rap is art

So simple, right? Nevertheless, here we are.

No matter how many awards hip-hop music gets, it’s still judged more unfairly than any other type of popular entertainment. Charis Kubrin, who gave a TED Talk on this matter, wrote in the New York Times, “The most vulnerable form of expression is rap music, especially gangsta rap, where artists take on larger-than-life criminal personas and boast exaggerated, graphic accounts of violence in their music.” As Kubrin notes, rappers like Waka Flocka Flame make music that is purposefully jarring and violent.

But rap music is hardly the only art form to frequently include depictions of violence, although it’s the only one that’s so closely policed for it. Where this becomes a problem is that, since rap is primarily a non-white genre, targeting rappers for their lyrics is in essence the same as racial profiling. Kubrin goes on to point out that “the burden of increased monitoring, restrictions or criminality would be disproportionately borne by young black and Latino men, who are the most significant group creating and producing rap.”

This “increased monitoring” Kubrin is talking about comes down to more than just music restrictions: Hip-hop has been the target of criminal investigations in a way that no other type of popular entertainment ever has been.

“As recent research has revealed, rap lyrics have been introduced as evidence of a defendant’s criminal behavior in hundreds of cases nationwide, frequently leading to convictions that are based on prosecutors’ blatant mischaracterizations of the genre,” wrote University of Richmond Professor Erik Nielson and rapper Michael “Killer Mike” Render in a USA Today column from last December. “Ignoring many of the elements that signal rap as form of artistic expression, such as rappers’ use of stage names or their frequent use of metaphor and hyperbole, prosecutors will present rap as literal autobiography. In effect, they ask jurors to suspend the distinction between author and narrator, reality and fiction, to secure guilty verdicts.”

It’s important to keep in mind that when a violent, primarily white film like American Sniper gets criticized, the response is to call its critics unpatriotic, and in some cases, actually threaten them with more violence. Sure, American Sniper’s violence may have been sanctioned by the U.S. military, but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily any less harmful than your average rap song. While the circumstances surrounding a white man killing Iraqis during a war and violence in the streets of black neighborhoods are very different, one depiction of violence isn’t automatically more likely to “influence” the way people act than another.

Moreover, this is a very limiting view of hip-hop’s legacy, ignoring the wide diversity and the myriad of experiences the genre offers. “In fact, the history of hip-hop tells a very different story,” observe Killer Mike and Nielson. “In its formative years, for example, it was explicitly conceived by many as an alternative to the violent gang culture that consumed cities like New York. Since then, it has offered countless young men and women opportunities to escape the poverty and violence in America’s urban centers.”

As Nielson and Killer Mike put it, “the kids spending hours per day writing rap songs aren’t a threat to society; they are often trying to escape the threats from society.” This, rap does not cause racism, rap is a reaction to racism. It is an artistic expression that screams: “We are here. We demand to be heard.” Yes, rap can be violent and angry, but that’s the nature of art; it’s not always about playing nice. While all art forms should be criticized from time to time, none should be dismissed. Unfortunately, with hip-hop, criticism and dismissal too often become the same thing.

What’s really sad, however, is when hip-hop becomes a talking point in someone else’s agenda. Nielson and Killer Mike warrant that the “story of hip-hop has been frustratingly difficult to tell, especially when the murder of Jordan Davis can be framed in the media as the ‘loud rap music‘ case or Michael Brown‘s association with rap music becomes part of a tragic story line that has far more to do with inequality, police brutality, and racial discrimination.” 

What these incidents remind is not that rap has a race issue, but that there are a lot of people who continue use rap as a scapegoat for our bigger societal problems.

2) Rap is about self-love

One of the most infuriating things about Scarborough and Limbaugh suggesting that rap music encourages racism is that, as we’ve already established, rap music was born in the black community. So if rap music causes racism, then essentially, rap music is a form of black-on-black crime. 

This couldn’t be further than the truth, since a lot of hip-hop deals powerfully with issues of acceptance, community, and self-love. The genre is a testament to triumphing over adversity, to having enough confidence in oneself not to let the world drag you down, and to rising above the struggle, even when things seem hopeless. Being black in America is not easy, but rap music enforces the radical belief that #BlackLivesMatter and that merely having the courage to remind people you exist is essential.

When Kanye West sat down with the New York Times to discuss the upcoming release of his album Yeezus in 2013, a lot of what he said was, as per usual, written off as the “crazy” ravings of an egomaniac. But as BuzzFeed’s Heben Nigatu reminded us, when you’re black, your ego can be a valuable tool in and of itself. 

Kanye’s ‘vanity’ is meant to be inspiring; it is not a mindless arrogance but it is pointed and intentional. One of the most compelling things he says in his Times interview is that he views his work, in some ways, as an extension of the fight for justice of the activists and artists who came before him. In their traditions but also in his own way, he is fighting for justice: ‘I’m going to use my platform to tell people that they’re not being fair. … And when you say justice, it doesn’t have to be war. Justice could just be clearing a path for people to dream properly.’

This sentiment was also echoed by West’s Yeezus touring partner, Kendrick Lamar, in his single from last year, “i,” wherein Lamar tells us over and over again, “I love myself.” Discussing the song in a radio interview, Lamar explained, “A lot of cats that go to jail, be in these homes, or in foster homes they grew up in from these hoods, they never had that love within themselves. They thinking they get it from their parents or their mothers or big homies or grandmas, but it starts with themselves and that’s why we carry ourselves the way we do.”

Lamar’s thesis, that true love can’t just come from external sources, but that it must also reside within, disproves any notion that rap is somehow fueled by a kind of careless disrespect for the black community. If rap was really helping to encourage racism, then it would be performed by racists, not people who are actively combating racism through the assertion that being black and loving yourself is an amazing thing. 

Of course, self-examination isn’t always joyous. Lamar’s follow-up single to “i,” “The Blacker the Berry,” deals with the pain that comes from feeling you are part of an unending and hypocritical cycle of violence and degradation. In a poignant verse, Lamar interrogates the state of modern America: “You hate me don’t you?/You hate my people, your plan is to terminate my culture.” However, Lamar would not be able to grapple with the big questions he poses on “The Blacker the Berry” if he hadn’t already come to the realization that he’s stronger than the forces trying to hold him down.

3) Context is everything

When celebrity chef Paula Deen was taken to court for fostering an environment of racism and harassment in the workplace a few years ago, she told the judge, “I try to go with whatever the black race is wanting to call themselves at each given time. I try to go along with that and remember that” This blatant misunderstanding of who is and who isn’t allowed to say what words, shocking as it may be, cuts to the core of the “rap is racist” debate. According to Paula Deen, she’s allowed to say the “N-word,” because when she hears black people “wanting to call themselves” that word, it must mean they want others to refer to them that way, too.

According to Vanity Fair‘s Kim Makarechi, this core misunderstanding of black culture likely applies to Joe Scarborough and Rush Limbaugh. Makarechi writes:

One can forgive three middle-to-older-aged white people for not demonstrating a nuanced understanding of rap music and youth culture. But it remains upsetting that they can’t see the difference between a black artist using the ‘N-word’ in a song and young white men chanting about lynching black people while having a grand old time on a party bus. This is not a debate about whether it’s OK for white people to say the ‘N-word’ as they rap along to or recite lyrics from a song. As far as I’m aware, Waka Flocka Flame doesn’t rap about hanging black people from trees.

I myself have not always been thoughtful or sensitive enough when critiquing specific kinds of hip-hop in the past. However, moving forward, this is why we all have to stop equating rap music with the societal ills it is often portraying. Otherwise, we run the risk of endorsing the idea that the black artists who have re-appropriated the ‘N-word’ are no better than white fraternities like SAE who continue to use that word in a way which enforces the original hatred behind it.

The SAE scandal has proven, for the umpteenth time, that racism behind closed doors is still acceptable to many Americans and that we haven’t really gotten much less racist as a society overall. While race relations in America are severely fraught at the moment, rap music should not be the target. As rappers like Killer Mike, one of the most socially conscious musicians working in the industry today, fight for change, the boys behind the SAE video are working to ensure it remains the same as it was 200 years ago. And to suggest otherwise is not only disrespectful and wrong, but above all else, its own form of racism.

That’s what people like Joe Scarborough and Rush Limbaugh don’t get. It’s also why they don’t get rap music and probably never will. 

Screengrab via MSNBC/YouTube

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf

Chris Osterndorf is an entertainment reporter and movie critic based in Los Angeles. He holds a degree in cinema from Chicago’s DePaul University. His work has appeared on the Daily Dot, Mic, the Script Lab, Salon, the Week, xoJane, and more.