2022 SU General Election Full Supplement

Photo credit Henry Chalfant

Why you should listen to rap

By Salam Jesudamilola David, February 13 2024—

Rap is likely the art form that has been subject to the most social commentary in the 21st century, next to violent video games and cute pictures of cats wearing suits. On the occasion of Black History Month, I thought we could take a look as to why. 

The argument against rap is always the same: rap promotes violence and if left unchecked could lead to the very end of Western civilization. If you think this is a bit dramatic then you haven’t stumbled upon the dark alleys of Twitter and for that, you should be grateful. But even outside of the most conservative parts of the internet, the image of rap music as tough and rough has existed in the public psyche for a while now. And perhaps not undeservedly, rap has a reputation for brash depictions of violence, drinking and consumption of drugs, sometimes as a metaphor and sometimes in a very literal sense. 

Rap is a genre though, not a subject matter. Just as Taylor Swift can weave melodies that place us in the middle of an intense heartbreak one day and the next give us a tune for a night out, rappers are allowed to make use of their creative freedom to cover so many themes. There are rap songs out there about undying love, fatherhood, self-doubt and the choice between salvation and acceptance. You might ask, why don’t we hear any of these songs? And I could easily tell you to go on Google and find yourself a nice Kendrick Lamar song that would both break and remake you if you let it. 

But I realize that that would be me being unfair — I rarely seek out music, music finds me. No one Googles songs to listen to, you hear them on videos as you swipe by, in clubs, played again and again in the grocery store you work in until one day you decide to seek them out. To hear the hook to the verse and vice versa, to complete the melodies already in your head. In essence, culture feeds us the music we listen to.

Besides, that isn’t the problem. The reason you think you don’t hear these songs isn’t because they aren’t being fed to you, it’s because you aren’t hearing them for what they are. Rap isn’t simply an art form, it’s a culture and therefore listening to it as an outsider requires the same level of research and a keen desire to understand what goes into every choice that would normally be expected of a social anthropologist. The next time you listen to a rap song, listen, really listen to what’s being said. Don’t stop at the first cuss word or at the first imagery that makes you uncomfortable, try and understand what the artist is trying to convey. 

Misunderstanding and misrepresenting art is in no way a recent concern, it stretches back centuries. Probably since the first caveman drew a squiggly line on the wall to communicate he found a lake nearby and his friends all laughed at him for fearing a snake. With rap though, it is especially dangerous as it can feed into (and emerge from) dangerous stereotypes. Take for example a recent trend on TikTok using Kendrick Lamar’s “Money Trees” as a sound. The verses of the song the trend highlighted were towards the end with lyrics depicting a hustler attitude of getting rich at all costs. A random person sees that, and it reinforces their perhaps preexisting convictions of the callous morality of rap and yet the song is about Kendrick learning to let go of that life, of desperately seeking a way out of it so he could chase his dreams. Lamar compares his desire to escape the streets and chase music as a choice between “Halle Berry and Hallelujah” which must be one of the most unique poetic statements I have ever heard and yet this is all lost to anyone who doesn’t take time to understand what the song is trying to preach. 

Rap admittedly has a reputation for its vivid, sometimes violent metaphors. And yes, I do see the vast majority of the descriptions as metaphors, save for a fringe minority that either haven’t escaped the circumstances they tell stories of, are unable to let go of them or have the lines between fiction and reality blurred in their head. Some rappers want you to believe it’s real, understandable, as a desire to be seen as macho and tough isn’t uncommon. Add to that the self-made millionaire’s obsession with cultivating their image as unchanged and swimming in their roots then you understand why rappers think they need to keep up that image. However, I’m sorry but you aren’t going to convince me J Cole is being serious when he says, “Fool me three times/ f*** the peace sign/ load the chopper, let it rain on you” and his listeners don’t think he is, they understand Jermaine is simply trying to convey that he will never allow wool to be pulled over his eyes again and again.

Why these metaphors? Well, I could point you to the ancient tradition of artists building on the works of their predecessors, copying elements of style, flow and yes, metaphors. I could also tell you that the life being described is a genuine one for a lot of people and sometimes for the rappers themselves, a story they feel they must tell, a spot society prefers to keep in the dark that they must shed light on. I could simply tell you that these are just good metaphors. They effectively convey the intensity and severity of the situation. They’re also incredibly versatile. You can play a Dr Dre song right before an exam, a business meeting, a colonoscopy even and the bars still hit, still fill you with the same insane confidence to go in and get the job done. 

And if your question is “why all the cuss words?” rap is art, in my opinion the closest musical tradition to poetry, and since when has art not sought to provoke, to elicit a strong reaction from its observer? Rap is testing you, asking if you’re willing to give it a chance and if you do it promises to reward you with a good time — and sick rhymes. So start today because listening to rap, that’s where the true magic is.

Hiring | Staff | Advertising | Contact | PDF version | Archive | Volunteer | SU

The Gauntlet