Sunday, April 15, 2007

Sex, Guns & Violence: Why Hip Hop is All-American

Sex and violence are often cited in rap lyrics. But while these are themes in Hip Hop, they don’t speak for the totality of the culture. Furthermore, to single out sex and violence in rap lyrics is hypocritical—when sex and violence pervade much of what is considered 'Americana.' From old blues lyrics to rock and roll, from movies to militarism, America is a society where guns, masculinity and sexuality are glorified. This essay posits that graphic sex and violence in rap lyrics might be hyper-normal, for mainstream American culture, but it’s not abnormal.

Sex, Guns & Violence: Why Hip Hop is All-American

The recent controversy regarding talk show host Don Imus has turned into a debate about the state of Hip Hop. It was Imus himself who blamed rap artists for his slur against the Rutgers women’s basketball team, and the media followed along. In news stories video clips of scantily clad women were displayed alongside Imus, implying a double standard. Some in the black punditocracy, exploiting the issue to settle long-held disputes with Hip Hop, eagerly jumped in, pandering to popular beliefs of Hip Hop as a violent, misogynist, materialist-driven genre propagated in great part by black males. From Earl Ofari Hutchinson to Jason Whitlock, Hip Hop became the whipping boy for the sins of Don Imus. These were of course deflections, achieved often by shoddy journalism that omitted the totality of slights committed by Imus, and by perpetuating the false ideology that racism happens to black people because of something black people do to themselves—rather than a system of white power that seeks to control, define and restrict black life, existence and reality. [For deconstructions of these arguments, see the following: (1) The Martyrdom of Don Imus, (2) Passing the Buck and Missing the Point and (3) Don Imus, Duke Lacrosse, and the Imaginary Double Standard.

Of course there are problems within the Hip Hop community of sexism, misogyny and violence—most especially within the element dedicated to lyricism, referred to as emceeing, and most commonly called “rap.” These issues have long been discussed and debated both within and without the culture, at numerous conferences and summits, through visual artistic representations, scholarly articles, documentaries and even the lyrics of the music itself. Contrary to popular media folklore, the black community—including the Revs Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson—has engaged in this debate for well over a decade. That mainstream media is not aware of this highlights the lack of coverage given to such issues, at least until rap music is needed to draw parallels to crime or used to justify racism or sexism.

The first instinct of many, as they watch derogatory images in some rap videos, is to cry foul at the artists, and denounce themes like sexism and violence. But that’s being a bit unfair. Artists like Trick Daddy did not invent sexism in black music. G-Unit did not invent violence in black music. Go back to old blues lyrics, and one can easily find themes of violence and sex. Blues singer Josephine Miles in Mad Mama’s Blues in 1924 bragged she’d get her Winchester rifle and “have blood running through the streets…everybody [be] layin’ dead right at my feet.” Skip James in the 1930s crooned about his .22, and the violence he’d inflict on his lover if wronged. Bessie Smith’s lyrics were not only lewd, but she lived a life considered just as risqué by many. Fictional Blue’s personas like “Stagolee” became symbolic of the popular black bad man. And it would live on, through Richard Pryor and Parliament Funkadelic, through Blaxploitation flicks like Superfly, and even mainstream versions like Uptown Saturday Night—a movie about hustlers starring none other than the modern persona of black self-criticism, Bill Cosby. All of this is little wonder, as American culture has a long-standing obsession with violence, guns and sex.

From the old Westerns of the six-shooter slinging frontiersmen, to the anti-heroes of 1930s gangster flicks, all the way to modern day gun-laden crime dramas and action films—violence, and the glorification of both villains and heroes alike, along with a thriving gun culture, is quintessentially American. With a history of pin-up girls, playboy bunnies, and women as eye-candy to sell everything from cigarettes to cars, much the same can be said for sexism and exploitation. Popular white music has long been filled with themes of sex and violence. Johnny Cash sang about shooting a man "just to watch him die." Country legend Porter Wagoner told stories of men who kill and dismember their cheating wives. There are so many rock songs about narcotics it’s considered a third element of the genre (sex, drugs, rock n roll). So it’s not as if the vices denounced in rap music are unique; they fit well into the American norm.

But everyone knows America is about more than sex, guns and violence. Everyone realizes that this is not the sum totality of what makes up American culture. However, when it comes to Hip Hop, the most explicit and one-dimensional depictions dominate the face of the culture. Unlike country or rock, diversity in Hip Hop doesn't seem to be tolerated by the industry. Instead, graphic sex and violence are pursued and pushed as the norm.

Next: Their Eyes Were Watching Smut: Turning Pornography into Black Culture

For More on Sex, Violence and Guns in American Popular Culture:

Armed America: Portraits of America & Their Guns

Violence is the American Way

An American Century of Militarism

American Porn- PBS Frontline

Sex in American Advertising

Object Lessons- Girls Gone Wild

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