Rick Ross as a Mirror for the Music Industry and Culture as a Whole
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If we are going to hold artists accountable for their morality, then we have to hold all artists accountable, including the writer of the Star Spangled Banner. If you aren't troubled by a song sung in schools glorifying the horrific experience of American slavery, then how can you explain being troubled by one hip hop lyric? Hip-hop music, like all American modern pop music, is the offspring of a background of violence, materialism, and extreme sexism. We live in a nation that displaces art with corporatism and feigns to have ethical intentions. But behind the scenes, art programs are cut from schools under the pretense that our national budget can't afford it -- a budget that spends $680 billion on war every year. Yes, artists can be reckless with their work, but they are reflecting the zeitgeist we live in, not necessarily declaring it.
Art is a subjective experience, and it is important to allow for a variety of interpretations and not make assumptions on how things will be construed. For example, when NWA came out with "Straight Outta Compton" there was public outage, and a campaign was launched by Tipper Gore to put warning labels on NWA recordings. Although many people were affronted by their lyrics, and thought them to be inappropriate for children, these same lyrics at that time taught a 9-year old white girl like me about police brutality and sparked an interest in social justice that stays with me to this day. Music ultimately tells a story, and "Straight Outta Compton" taught me about the oppression of black people in the inner city. Even though Dave Chappelle pokes fun at white people learning about police brutality through rap, saying "apparently, the police have been beating up negroes like hotcakes," the narrative that was being told did ultimately expose an experience many were previously ignorant of. The NWA lyrics "Fuck tha police comin' straight from the underground. Young nigga got it bad cuz I'm brown. And not the other color so police think, they have the authority to kill a minority" spoke to a generation, and many tried to silence them.
The movement to censor artists like Rick Ross makes us no better than Tipper Gore trying to mute NWA. Rick Ross is no NWA, and his messaging is not something that is inspiring revolution -- but applying this same logic of quieting down what we find belligerent to say, Dead Prez, would be an injustice to music. As much as I would never listen to music that I perceived as violent towards women, many might feel the same regarding aggression towards white people. But both messages have a right to exist, even if one of the two is less intellectually driven than the other.
Just as music can have a positive impact on culture, it can also have a negative one. Yet is it worth losing all the good that music can accomplish because we fear the bad? In Plato's Republic Socrates bans fiction and myth from his utopian society -- and many consider that to be an act of a totalitarian regime. Plato's logic, however, cannot be explained by claiming that he wasn't moved by art. He was a poet himself. Still, because he saw that art could be easily misunderstood and have a harmful impact on society, he felt that the risk of fiction and myth was too great. However, in the last few paragraphs of The Republic, featuring the "Myth of Er," Plato's Socrates readmits the art of making fiction and myth as part of his utopian society, but only through the marriage of art and dialogue. Rather than trying to control art, perhaps we can recognize that all music, even music we find insulting, in an opportunity to talk to each other and our children about the greater issues in society that are the real problem.