A young student stands in the front of my classroom ready to perform. The students have just turned in their journals which contain four types of entries: literary, current events, composition, and creative. Students must present one of the entries to the class and this young man chooses to present his creative entry. This particular student is one of the really good kids; polite, eager to learn and participate, well-spoken, and hard-working. To enhance his performance, he asks the class for a beat. They all concede and begin to pound the table in a rhythm I have heard thousands of times before: in my class, in movies, driving down the street, on the radio I sometimes let my children listen to. It is a primal beat, the most basic one can imagine.
The class gets into it and becomes excited. This good student, this nice young man, starts bopping to the rhythm. He brings up his arm to join the dance, two fingers pointing; three curled under and shakes his hand in a staccato movement to the tempo: da da da dum! da da da dum! da da da dum! On the final beat his hand grabs his “package” (his privates for those of us who are older), not subtly, not sort of, but right on his crotch on each time. Once he has the beat, he starts to “rap”.
Out flows the same imagery, the same rhymes, the same trite structures I have also heard a thousand times before from a thousand students. And I sit and wonder how, after 30 years, our society could still consider rap to be an art form worthy of imitation or admiration, about how this decent young man can feel it is O.K. to grab his “package” in front of a class. Yet, it is ubiquitous. One must assume the people find aesthetic value in this art form as it will not go away, though I keep hoping and waiting for it to fade into oblivion.
Criticism of rap garners many outraged responses. Some say, “What right have you to judge?” Others say, “It is just as valid a musical form as Bach or Mozart.” Still others retort, “You should respect rappers because rap takes talent. Rappers are musicians as worthy of respect as any musician.” Why does this matter? Isn’t this all just a matter of personal taste?
I emphatically answer, NO!
Rap not only has no aesthetic value, but it is also destructive to the culture.
Before I get into a discussion of whether or not rap has any aesthetic value, I must say what this discussion is NOT about; it is not about race. I want that to be clear right from the start. Rap is consumed worldwide by people from all races and social classes. It may have started as African-American street music, but it has been international for decades. Therefore, for the record, this is not a discussion of race no matter how some hands might itch to throw that “racist” label on the table.
If we are going to call these rappers artist, then we must evaluate it as an art form. The arts reflect what we value in society. The arts teach our children what is important, what to honor. The arts influence the behaviors in the culture; the arts create the culture. “Artists raise questions and compel us to think. The best of poets, for example, have a certain power of observation that can be a remarkable force for good — and at the very least can jolt us out of complacency (Shannon Shull).”
But if artists can be great forces for good, can they not also be great forces for what is not good? What is good does matter.
The good, the true, and the beautiful have been honored and pursued since Plato first presented such ideas in the 4th century BC. Humankind has felt that this triad must not only be understood, but lived and actively pursued in order for the human race to continue evolving. If these values are ignored, humankind will stop evolving and begin devolving instead as is perhaps happening in society now as is reflected in rap.
Examining rap reveals how far it is from the good, the true, or the beautiful starting with a look at one of rap’s primary role models, a performer who goes by the name of Lil’ Wayne. He is the antithesis of good, truth, and beauty. A look at any of his lyrics reveals a focus on drugs, violence, vulgar language, gangs, and completely detached sex with any female anywhere, anytime. His lyric’s popularity evidences the quintessential devolution of humankind. He himself claims in his lyrics that he is not a human being. Here is a sampling of one of his latest songs to illustrate. I apologize in advance for some of the rude language that follows:
I am not a human being Uhh,
pussy for lunch
pop all the balloons and spit in the punch, yeah,
kush and the blunts
I ride through your block see a foot in the trunk
I don’t know why they keep playin
they better replay ’em giving them the blues Bobby “Blue” Bland (blues singer)
together we stand and fall on y’all
ballin’ with my bloods, call it b-ball
these days aint shit Young Money is
I got mars bars three musketeers
come through coupe same colour as veneers
and you know I’m riding with the toast, cheers! (reason he’s in jail)
yeah, now I’m back on my grizz
and y’all’s a bunch a squares like a muthafucking grid
shit fuck with me and get hid
I finger fuck the nina make the bitch have kids
just do it my nigga I just did
name a muthafucker deeper than me bitch dig
ya dig, this here is big biz and I scream fuck it whoever it is
If we apply an analysis of the good, the true, and the beautiful to these lyrics it fails completely. First, his blatant claim of “I am not a human being” is a rejection of his state as a man and reduces him to animal. Women are no longer women or even human, just “pussy”. He pushes sex without commitment, respect, or consequences to a new low with “pussy for lunch” and “make the bitch have kids”. He then offers the woman up to the next man with, “just do it my nigga I just did.” This “role model” moreover honors the Bloods, a violent gang responsible for thousands of death by violence and drugs, when he says “ballin’ with my bloods, call it b-ball”. Nothing that is good in society — respect for human dignity, respect for life, caring for one’s children, loving ones neighbor —nothing that is good is found in this piece. Instead, Lil’ Wayne only sings about those things that societies across the world and throughout history have considered evil.
Additionally, the language, structure and schemes of his lyrics reveal limited vocabulary, ugly imagery, and tragically simple or nonexistent rhyme schemes. There is no beauty in the language, language which is reduced to either the monosyllabic or the most vulgar “muthafucking” and “shit”. The rhyme schemes and structures are so forced that they cannot be parsed out on the page. Slant rhyme is tilted off of the edge and the beat of words rarely matches the beat of the atonal background. Neither is there beauty in the images created, that include such things as “popping balloons” and “spitting” in the punch, which I must assume means breaking condoms and ejaculating in a “pussy” not a woman. Another image is that of a foot hanging out of a trunk, which must be interpreted as a dead body thrown haphazardly into the trunk of a car. Human beings are truncated into body parts throughout.
The whole and perfect image of a Michelangelo’s David, a sculpture that attempts to capture the beauty of what it is to be human in both body and soul, has been reduced to a foot in the trunk or a pussy. The “poetic” elements are so poor and elementary that anyone can mimic the art and, unfortunately for me, many of my students often do. In mimicking the form they are also mimicking the ideas, absorbing the amoral concepts as quickly and as easily as they do their sugary breakfast cereal.
Some students have told me that they don’t listen to the lyrics, but only move to the beat (additional proof of the base-level appeal of the form). Yet as my young student was showing me her favorite Lil’ Wayne video, she began rapping along with every word. These images have captivated the culture whether or not people are aware of the fact. These are not images and ideas that raise humans to a higher plane of evolution, but instead drag us backwards thousands of years. The images, language, and rhythm in these songs show man reacting only to the gut and the groin; higher thoughts of the heart, the mind, and the soul are completely disregarded. Truth, beauty, and goodness are nowhere to be found.
People, especially young people, are lead to believe that rap is just keeping it real, in other words, showing truth, but this type of violent vulgar imagery and language is clearly not truth. It may be a small part of a truth in the world, but only a very small rat-infested truth. Holding it up as “real” gives its images a power that they do not deserve. In giving them that power, civilization takes a step backward.
Additionally, Lil’ Wayne sells not only his CDs, but also his persona. Young high school girls sigh over his picture and talk about having his children. His image on magazine after magazine in the grocery store, images my children regularly see, shows a gold “grill” in a scowling face covered in tattoos depicting gang symbols and tear drops. These tear drops are a sign that he owns the murder of two people. True or not, none of this represents what is good, beautiful, or true. His image even transforms truth into lies by claiming through his persona that what is ugly is in fact beautiful.
The sense of aesthetics is being continuously degraded in our society, dragged down to the basest level of taste. This in turn is having an impact on society as a whole. Our values are undermined at every turn, murder is common on the streets of our cities, children are abandoned or neglected by parents every day, civility is a thing of the past. Rap is simply part of that overall degradation.
There can be no question that there are many other areas of the arts along with what passes as “music” these days that show a lack of truth, goodness, and beauty. An old acquaintance of mine, a professor at the Maryland Art Institute, exhibited a show called “My Food, My Poop”. A Madonna picture splattered with elephant poop actually caused a serious discussion on the validity of the “art” form a number of years ago. Perhaps there is a trend here. As society accepts crap as valid art, our culture is finding itself in the toilet. We should not be too surprised when we have wandered so far away from the noble ideas of the past several thousand years of humankind to find ourselves so situated. We should not be surprised to discover that the trend is the devolution not evolution of the human race.
Dana R. Casey is a veteran High School English teacher of more than two decades in an East-coast urban system. She is a life-long student of theology, philosophy, and politics, dedicated to the true Liberalism of the Enlightenment, as defined by our Founders and enshrined in our Declaration of Independence, Constitution and Bill of Rights.