When I first heard of Rick Ross's now famous line about slipping a girl some "Molly" and having sex with her when she "doesn't even know it," in the song "U.O.E.N.E.O.," I thought it was distasteful. But I also remember feeling the same way when as an 18-year old I heard Eminem's lyrics about killing his wife — and he won a Grammy.
Many artists use the "first person" to reflect not themselves but others, or express ideas through persona. Embellishment or exaggeration does not necessarily mean that this is how an artist truly feels or acts. It seems that Eminem's creative brilliance has given him more of a pass to push these boundaries, or maybe it's that white men are able to get away with more? After all, Johhny Cash sang "I took a shot of cocaine and shot my woman down" — and he is a folk hero. But this issue is bigger than race alone. It is easy to criticize Ross because of his perceived poser identity. Ross may be a hijacked brand made possible by the CIA when they funded a covert war by trafficking cocaine into our country, and he may have disturbed many — including me — with his inappropriate lyric, but there is hypocrisy in wanting artists to have their "freedom of speech" while allowing some to get away with things we don't tolerate in the case of others.
Forcing an apology out of Ross does not address the pandemic of misogyny. This message of party culture and women as sexual objects is constantly perpetuated by the music business. Ross took an accepted paradigm and pushed it too far, but his words are just an extreme reflection of what is tragically a cultural phenomenon.
Rape culture and the exploitation of women is so deeply embedded in the media and in our psyches that executives who produced and vetted this song obviously also did not see an issue, and assumed it would just be another hit to make money from. It wasn't until feminists came out against the song that these men who previously thought it was acceptable had to backtrack. The solution is not just making each artist accountable but also the industrial music complex. The bar is set so low for pop culture — and that is the choice of corporations that promote and fund what gets mass-produced. Yet, instead of muzzling one man, it is time to take a look at the business behind music and use this opportunity to remember that the point of art is to evoke emotions and elicit thought and discussion.
As Hakim Green of Channel Live says, "I am definitely not supporting an artist encouraging rape in his music… but is it okay to encourage murder? How come no one is protesting the open encouragement of murder in most of commercial music on the radio?" The gangster identity, owning guns, and shooting people has become completely accepted by mainstream hip-hop music and the people who make millions off it. This subject of violence may seem unique to hip-hop because you don't see Maroon 5 singing about intimidating people with their weapons, but in reality the undercurrent of violence permeates so much of our popular culture that we don't always recognize it unless it is spelled out for us. For example, as Green goes on to say, "The Star Spangled Banner is a poem written about the war of 1812. Our national anthem is about violence, and the third stanza is about what they would do with a slave that sides with enemy forces. 'No refuge could save the hireling and slave / from the terror of flight, or the gloom of the grave' — and that song represents our nation."
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.
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