The never ending struggle
More than a decade before the Patriot Act was even a thought; rappers had been vilified targets for both the government and the media.
N.W.A. transcended rap music in 1988, with the release of its first studio album Straight Outta Compton and were met with fierce disapproval from the federal government for it. Politicians, broadcasters, law-enforcement, hockey moms –everyone but whom the music affected most, was outraged by the graphic, violent but all together honest content on the album. Less we forget the public demonstrations, led by community leaders, which gathered people to collect and destroy N.W.A. CD’s with a rod roller.
Public Enemy was the next high profile group to face the wrath of public opinion. The group’s music, while less recklessly violent, was militant, revolutionary and just as threatening, if not more threatening to the establishment. After songs like “Fight The Power” and “Don’t Believe The Hype” gained popularity the media’s focus on the group became more and more apparent.
At the time that these groups rose to prominence in the late 80’s and early 90’s, racial tensions in the US had swelled once again over issues of growing income disparity and persistent and overt institutional racism. The media capitalized on the imagined fears of the upper class but coverage of the emerging rap scene also served as a buffer and conduit between the rappers and the ears of mainstream America, which they eventually reached.
Today, despite income disparity at its highest levels ever, rap music is far more palatable for the upper class. The most pervasive messages in hip-hop music have gone from uplifting the most deprived members of society to perpetuating a life of unattainable riches. Yet, even as rappers depict a lifestyle closer to that audience’s taste, they’ve received even more criticism from the public. In the last three months Rick Ross, Lil Wayne, J. Cole and most recently Kanye West have been cited for controversial lyrics.
Unlike the controversial rap lyrics of old, these lyrics didn’t have much meaning behind them but instead featured offensive messages and
metaphors. “Pop a lot of pain pills/ Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels/ Beat that pu**y up like Emmett Till,” was the line that got Lil Wayne in hot water. He faced a scolding and a request for an apology from Emmet Till’s family, as a result. Cole’s lyrics on “Villuminati” where he shouted “fa**ot” three times was expectedly, offensive to the gay community, although the rapper claimed the lyrics pointed to a larger message of acceptance. On Kanye West opening track for Yeezus “On Sight” he raps “A monster about to come alive again / Soon as I pull up and park the Benz / We get this b***h shaking like Parkinson’s,” which– you guessed it—was met with criticism from the American Parkinson Disease Association. And of course, we all know what Rick Ross said on Rocko’s “U.O.E.N.O.”
All the backlash that these rappers have received is evidence of the fact that public ridicule and popularity are synonymous. In a time when rappers are likely to make your favorite mixtape and endorse your favorite product simultaneously, they have also been forced to take on more social responsibility, whether they like it or not. How far they can go with their lyrics has become increasingly based on their celebrity stature; further distorting the already blurry line between artist and public figure.