Beats, Rhymes and Rape?: Hip Hop’s Lyrical Debate

April 5th, 2013

(Photos from left: Alexander Tamargo/Getty Images for Reebok, Steve Granitz/WireImage)

Hip hop is used to harsh criticism from those outside of the culture. From C. Delores Tucker to Bill O’Reilly, critics of rap music’s vulgar lyrics and raw content have never been shy about condemning the genre and its influence on popular culture. These clashes are never as black and white as the media makes them out to be, but they always shed light on both the culture and the society it exists in.Rick Ross and Tyga are the latest rappers to be tested by this dynamic. With Harvard University students protesting Tyga and Spelman College students condemning Rick Ross for lyrics that both student bodies believe encourage a “rape culture,” the hip hop community is being forced to ask itself tough questions about its values and beliefs. Unlike the 2011 controversy that saw Talib Kweli, 9th Wonder and ?uestlove stand up against Ashley Judd’s assertion that hip hop promoted rape and misogyny, the current controversies surround specific artists who are being held accountable for specific lyrics.

In Tyga’s case, Harvard student Leah Reis-Dennis has collected 1,900 digital signatures to support her wish that school officials rescind Tyga’s invitation to perform at their annual yardfest. Citing his songs “B—-s Ain’t Shit” and “B—h Betta Have My Money,” Reis-Dennis argues that “Tyga is not representative of hip hop as a whole or what hip hop can and should be.” She goes on to point out that “Frank Ocean is available to campuses for a similar rate.” Her assertion of what a culture’s music should or shouldn’t be seems presumptive, but most music fans would generally agree that Tyga is not the best representation of the genre. Still, many others would point out that Ocean, an openly-gay singer affiliated with the mosh-pit-diving, skateboard-riding Odd Future collective, is even less representative of traditional hip hop culture. Despite her own contradictions, Reis-Dennis raises rational questions about what a conscious society should deem acceptable.

Rick Ross mastered the art of contradiction in 2010, when he simultaneously acknowledged and denied the false nature of his gangsta lyrics. Though fans had understood the paradox of gangsta rap since the days of Chris Rock’s parody CB4, the contradiction of a pampered musician assuming the identity of true gangsters had never been as ironic as when it was revealed that Ross once held a job as a corrections officer. Still, the Teflon Don survived what seemed to be a career-ending revelation by acting like he was oblivious to the contradiction his situation presented.

He’s used the same strategy to address his latest controversy, the widespread interpretation of his lyrics on Rocko’s new song “U.O.E.N.O.” as encouraging the drugging of a potential sex partner without her knowledge. “Put Molly all in her champagne, she ain’t even know it,” he rhymed. “I took her home and I enjoyed that, she ain’t even know it.” Ross took to Twitter and radio airwaves to apologize for the “interpretation” of his lyric as condoning rape, saying he never actually used the r-word. But protestors who want his recent endorsement deal with Reebok pulled aren’t satisfied. “Not only does Ross brag about drugging and raping a woman, he is pushing the idea that if you don’t use the word ‘rape,’ it doesn’t count,” said women’s rights group UltraViolet in a statement.

In both situations, there is a basic disconnect between the standards American society has set for rappers and the standards they are willing to live up to. As defenders of rap music have long pointed out, equally offensive content exists in all other mainstream entertainment mediums. But are rappers being made society’s scapegoats or simply avoiding responsibility for the consequences of their art? Ross and Tyga are completely within their rights to create music that expresses their lifestyles, real or imagined, just as their protestors are within their rights to speak out against them. But until both sides take a step back to acknowledge the other’s perspective, this long-standing cultural disconnect will only lead to more controversy and less understanding.

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