Thursday, February 10, 2022

Rap, Culture, and Politics

One downside of podcasts in the truck versus radio or CD is the difficulty of changing if I decide I don't care for something. On the hit music podcast, I'm not much interested in the episodes after about 1977, except for occasional periods where my sons were following what was current and I listened in. I am especially not interested in Rap and Hip-Hop.  I recognise the names of the artists, seldom the music. But there I am, stuck with it until I pull over, and it is interesting to learn some things about changes in the music industry itself. 

It was decades ago, during a music plagiarism controversy around something or another, that I said in my frustration to my brother "There's the melody and the lyrics.  That's what a song is." He gave me an amused look, replying "I'm not sure everyone would agree with you about that." It is true that those elements have defined what a song is for more than a couple of centuries now, though some exceptions have occurred to me since. Yet I grant that other musical expressions might rely on other elements. Rock songs were sometimes formed almost entirely around a bass line or a set of power chords, with the melody being quite flexible, even from performance to performance. And how different is that, really, from the Pachelbel Canon, where it is the bass line which is most recognisable, even when it is moved to another style.

(Though the piece dates from the 17th C, it went out of fashion until it was revived in the late 60s.  This was one of the two pieces sometimes credited with restarting its popularity, until it shortly became the Yuppie National Anthem.) 

And as for the song being the thing, what are we then to make of the classical composers who took simple songs from the villages and made complicated arrangements of them?  Is that still the same song? It was done frequently by Bach, Dvorak...and Bartok.

Rap and Hip-Hop are built around the rhythms, both the electronic background and the verbal complexity. Whereas what I call a song has a more definite rhythmic lyrical style that is not the same as conversation, those forms are something halfway between poetry and conversation. There is internal rhyme, uneven syllables per beat, and other attributes that require cleverness.  I'm still not fond of it, but I can at least grant that it is something different from my definition, not an inadequate attempt to do the standard song. Apparently the black R&B stations were among the last of popular music to accept the new forms, as so much of that music is melody and harmony.

The lyrics have been controversial from the outset, and I have heard the arguments at a distance. But listening to cuts from a couple dozen of them back-to-back I get it even more. There is a strong element, not only in Gangsta Rap, of adherence to the street value of asserting dominance and dangerousness. I am a bad m-f-.  I do what I want. I used to see it in my patients who lived on the streets, who resisted all attempts to get them to abandon or even modify that attitude. To them, hypersensitivity to people disrespecting you is mere survival, and communicating your constant willingness to defend yourself is ultimately a form of aggression. The intense sexism is part of that. I do what I want to women.  I'm important and everyone lets me. It's part of the shtick. The celebration of mere pleasure is also part of that, which is how you get women from that culture echoing the same values.  I also do what I want.

I's not hard to see how kids of any race who have no intention of living like that themselves find it exciting to hear about. It's why people used to watch Westerns and war movies.

So much I essentially knew, though I doubt I could provide examples. This discussion has been in the air for 30-40 years. What surprised me was a second theme of victimhood. It is not at all incompatible with the antisocial assertion of power, which is in fact usually a response to feelings of having to fight back against an unfair world. Antisocial and Borderline Personality Disorders express this all the time. This looks like aggression, cheating, and stealing to you, but I'm just trying to get some of my own back. The expression of hardship, unfairness, and abandonment is much more constant in Rap and Hip-Hop than I knew. It's really hard living out here, and you people just don't get how dangerous this is. I've seen friends get killed. There is assertion like this about the music itself, as if rapping were the weapon being used to fight back. They won't play my kind of music. They don't want to listen to people like me.  But I'm better than them and stronger and I'm gonna make them listen. Rock has always had a similar chip on its shoulder, and country as well. Different styles of music are better at expressing certain attitudes. You can express defiance with some types of classical music, especially a defiant paganism (Wagner, Stravinsky). But it's harder to express anger, and harder still to express resentment.  

We seem to have any number of modern forms that have resentment down pat, don't we? Folk protest does it as well. You can't do wistfulness with rap. When bluegrass does resentment, as in "Fox on the Run," it still doesn't sound resentful. Gee, maybe disco has more going for it than I thought.  Little resentment there, either.  

We have deplored the violence and sexism of rap and hip-hop lyrics, but maybe the resentment and victimhood have been the bigger problem all along. A lot of people, including especially African-Americans, look at this and say "Well, then move.  It's possible. You don't have to live like this." But reasons for staying even in bad places are hard to eliminate, and a whole generation - or two - has absorbed a narrative of victimhood and resentment that impedes movement and improvement. Why bother? You ain't gonna make it anyway. And you can be one of the authentic people here. Not like those others who don't get it.

Yeah, you could move.  But when drugs or making money from drugs are involved you want to stay where that is. And once you have the basic street skills, you aren't so sure you could get food and shelter, have friends or partners, or have any status somewhere else. This is what a lot of black churches are trying to provide, another way to have importance or meaning on the streets. We're back to Chris Anrade's Dignity again, aren't we?


Grim said...

Re: wistful:

It’s possible between man and mother, at least.

Zachriel said...

Assistant Village Idiot: I am especially not interested in Rap and Hip-Hop.

You have also suggested you're not always interested in literary exposition. So, putting it all together, here's a bit of exposition, setting the scene in a hip-hopera before the drama begins.