I grew up with the notion that hip hop was opposition to mainstream culture. Regardless of lyrical content, hip hop (and hip hop fans) were deeply mocked and policed for years. Rappers might have been saying mundane things but if you rhymed over beats, you carried the weight of the genre.
You could get in trouble for playing hip hop lyrics. Radio stations would proudly broadcast that they played everything “except rap.” There was a kind of stigma that stuck with hip hop artists and fans. Hip hop concerts weren’t booked at Madison Square Garden until Jay-Z broke through with the Black Album.
It seems so clearly racist from my current perspective.
We might add in capitalism. The nineties saw a rush to absorb, market and exploit hip hop culture by advertisers. The stereotypes and old discourse lingered as hip hop became mainstream culture.
It doesn’t surprise me that the choice of hip hop as a medium stigmatizes the participant. (It saddens me).
Taylor Bell, a thoughtful high school senior was informed that two PE coaches were commenting and touching female students, Bell wrote a rap song. Instead of praising this whistle blower, Bell was kicked out of school and had to go to an alternative school for his senior year.
His eventual lawsuit hinges on the ability of a high school student to express their political views outside of school. This seems like a first amendment no-brainer to me . . . so of course it is before the Supreme Court.
Killer Mike (Michael Render), Erik Nielson, Travis Gosa and Charis E. Kubrin submitted an supporting brief to the court. Here are my favorite parts:
- It is actually the bad words that disturb administrators, not the report of sexual harassment.
Following a lengthy decision-making process, Bell was suspended and sent to an “alternative school” by the school’s Disciplinary Committee. A Committee member suggested that Bell’s use of profanity in the song was the reason for his suspension: “Censor that stuff. Don’t put all those bad words in it . . . The bad words ain’t making it better.”
2. Hip hop is an alternative to fighting.
Hip hop—a cultural movement comprised of performance arts such as MCing (“rapping”), DJing (“spinning”), breakdancing (“b-boying”), and graffiti (“writing”)—began as a response to these dire conditions. Pioneers like Afrika Bambaataa (once a gang leader himself) used spiritual and political consciousness (“knowledge of self”) to develop hip hop as a tool for ending gang violence by providing an outlet that transformed the inherent competitiveness and territoriality of gang life into something artistic and productive. Dance competitions, rap battles, and other competitive performances replaced actual fighting , and rap in particular eventually became an alternative, legal source of income for blacks and Latinos otherwise cut off from labor market opportunities. Travis L. Gosa, The Fifth Element: Knowledge , in T HE CAMBRIDGE COMPANION TO H IP -H OP 56, 58-61 (Justin A. Williams ed., 2015).
3. Bell was intending to spread the word via hop hop.
Like Tupac Shakur, Taylor Bell was using his music to effect changes . In the final portion of the video for his song PSK da Truth , Bell says that in rapping about sexual misconduct at his high school, he is trying to raise awareness about similar injustices around the world: “It’s something that’s been going on, you know, worldwide for a long time that I just felt like, you kn ow, I needed to address.”
4. Threatening gun metaphors are widely used in hip hop.
When Bell raps, “fucking with the wrong one gon’ get a pistol down your mouth (Boww!),” he is channeling well-worn phrases used by popular and established artists like Lil Wayne (“Pistol in your mouth, I can not make out what you tryin’ to say”), Gucci Mane (“Put the pistol in ya mouth like dentures”), Waka Flocka Flame (“Niggas know I got a pistol in his mouth”), E-40 (“Put the pistol in his mouth and make it hurt, ooh”), and Scarface (“Put a pistol in his mouth, and blow his fucking brains out”). L IL WAYNE , Bill Gates, on I A M NOT A HUMAN BEING (Young Money, Cash Money & Universal Motown 2010); GUCCI MANE , Texas Margarita, on BRICK FACTORY : VOLUME I (available for download from http://www.livemixtapes.com 2014); WAKA FLOCKA FLAME , Where It At, on DU FLOCKA RANT : HALF -TIME S HOW (available for download on http://www.livemixtapes.com 2013); SCARFACE , Diary of a Madman, on M R . SCARFACE IS BACK (Rap-A-Lot Records 1991); E-40, It’s On, On Sight, on T HE ELEMENT OF SURPRISE (Jive & Sick Wid It Records 1998).
5. Discourse influences stereotypes about hip hop: experimental studies
A handful of studies have examined the direct impact of these stereotypes. In these studies, people who are given identical sets of lyrics—but who are told these lyrics come from different musical genres—are asked about their perceptions of the lyrics. One study, for example, presented respondents with sexually explicit rap lyrics or sexually explicit non-rap lyrics. Importantly, the researchers discovered that the sexually explicit music was considered more offensive and less artistic when it was rap compared to when it was non-rap. Dixon & Linz, supra , at 234-35.
In a related study, participants read a set of lyrics from folk group Kingston Trio’s 1960 song, Bad Man’s Blunder , and were told that the lyrics were either from a rap or country music song. After reading the lyrics, participants evaluated them and responded to questions about the offensiveness of the song, the threatening nature of the song, the need for regulation of the song, and if the song would incite violence. The responses were significantly more negative when the lyrics were represented as 24 rap, revealing that the same lyrical passage viewed as acceptable in a country song is considered dangerous and offensive when identified as a rap song. Carrie B. Fried, Who’s Afraid of Rap: Differential Reactions to Music Lyrics , 29 J. A PPLIED SOC . PSYCH . 705, 711 (1999).
All of this research reveals that stereotypical assumptions play a far greater role in our decision- making than we may realize. And some of this stereotyping may account for what happened in this case. If we don’t work to acknowledge and, when necessary, combat these stereotypes, the consequences can be serious and life altering— particularly for a young man like Taylor Bell.
I think this brief is a strong set of arguments. It also makes several key arguments about hip hop and metaphoric violence that need further discussion. Good opportunity for amplification and discussion.