A Conflicted Love Relationship
I was in middle school sitting front in center in our school auditorium. I was looking up at a guest speaker that seemed like a pretty cool guy. Then, he started to tell us how we should not listen to certain rap artists and their albums. One such album that was on the naughty list was Doggystyle by Snoop Doggy Dogg. You can probably guess what this young teen did later that day after school. I listened to Doggystyle! But, that’s not all. I also pulled out The Predator by Ice Cube and The Chronic by Dr. Dre. These were like my trinity of favorites as a kid, especially The Predator and The Chronic. I loved those albums. I think The Predator was probably one of, if not, my favorite album as a kid. I couldn’t get enough of that album. The Chronic wasn’t too far behind.
Many labeled these albums as “Gangsta Rap.” I have not liked that title for a long time. I still don’t. It feels too small: too simple for what I now would understand as complex. As a kid, I just listened to the music and enjoyed it. From time to time I would catch a word, phrase, or skit that did not sit well with me. It came across as vulgar or misogynistic even if I did not know the meaning of those words. I felt it. But, for the most part, it was just dope music to me. As a parent, spouse, and human being on this planet for several decades now I hear the music differently. I have more context and “Gangsta Rap” just doesn’t seem to do it justice. Some would call it denigrating. I’m not going to disagree. However, I think there is more there. To me, this music has always been thought provoking.
I remember the first time I heard “Just Don’t Bite It” by NWA. Oh my goodness, if my dad ever found out about this! I would only play it really low or in my headphones to ensure no one else heard it. Was that denigrating to women? Yeah, I would say so. However, it also really challenged me. Maybe not so much back then, but as I got older. Why would anyone make that song and particularly that skit at the beginning? Why would any woman even be involved in it? It was nothing more than audio porn. Is there anything redeeming about that? How could I in good faith listen to something like this? Is this okay? Is it okay to watch a movie with a similar scene in it? That actually has visuals behind it. This skit is just audio. Does that make it any better? The music, however it is labeled, made me think and continues to all these decades later.
Ice Cube and The Predator especially made me think. Ice Cube has rapped and tweeted several lyrics and memes that are problematic to me as an adult. Yet, I cannot deny how positively informative his music was to me as a young tween. I remember track #3 on The Predator was a skit where the listener kept hearing this phrase “What scares us is I think we hear is violence” from what appears to be a white woman. Then, what appears to be a black woman responds and says that when we look at the statistics black people are the ones who should be afraid citing that black people are the ones being killed by the “Police, the KKK, skinheads.” When Ice Cube was accused of being anti-Semetic on his groundbreaking album Death Certificate he defended his lyrics. “I’m not against Jews in either of those songs. I’m just doing what they do in the media. When they describe someone they often say he’s black or Korean or Muslim. That’s all I’m doing. Saying he’s a Jew doesn’t mean I don’t like Jews or I’m using a negative. I don’t like (Heller), but it’s not because he’s Jewish.” I won’t justify his lyrics or memes in question. However, what Ice Cube and The Predator did for me was provide me with a different perspective. It was not always one I agreed with and let me assure you I take massive issue with many of his lyrics as I reflect. But again, it was not as simple as saying he is an evil gangsta rapper and that I should burn his CDs as some did in the 90s.
The Chronic by Dr. Dre played a similar complex role in my youthful development. On one hand it was an incredible piece of art. The production was some of the best ever up to that point and the lyrical skill especially of a young Snoop Dog was nearly flawless. On the other hand there were misogynistic lyrics, lyrics that degraded other men, violent lyrics and more. Surely these lyrics are not good for the betterment of society. Can’t they in fact keep us from moving forward, inspiring people to do the very things they hear in the lyrics? I guess a lot of it depends on the ears that the music lands on. I remember taking a Psychology class in college. There was a study that the professor cited that concluded that aggressive violent music will not make an average person become aggressive and violent. However, if a person is already inclined to violence and if she or he is worked up and ready to be violent, the aggressive “gangsta rap” could be what pushes the person over the line to commit violence. When I hear problematic lyrics I don’t respond violently or anything like that. I respond by thinking. Art is an invitation. The lyrical content is a launching pad for a myriad of questions (see the questions I posed in the second paragraph above).
And herein lies my challenge with art. It is not the same for each consumer. Each person uniquely experiences art. The Predator and The Chronic are two of the worst, most misogynistic, violent albums in history, says one listener. Another hails these albums as two innovative classics, pushing the boundaries of what art can and should be. I settle down somewhere in the middle. I hear both sides and I appreciate the arguments for both sides. For me these two albums and several like it have had a profound impact on me and I think it's for the better. They challenge me. They inspire me musically. But I also see the other side. I see why some would invite us to rethink if albums and art like this have enough redeeming qualities to praise them and their creators. For me the answer is yes and. Let us praise these albums when we hear praiseworthy material and critique them when they need critiquing. Let us not just simply say, “don’t listen to this album or that'' like our guest speaker did all those years ago. Instead, let us enter into dialogue around such albums. And so in the spirit of that kind of conversation, what do you think?