I was driving around blasting The Notorious B.I.G.’s “Gimme The Loot” the other day when I realized what was missing from that song, and from most commercial rap today.
“Gimme The Loot” is – as the title suggests – solely devoted to tales of theft and robbery. There’s little backstory or explanation as to why Biggie and his unnamed sidekick – also voiced by Biggie – are so motivated to rob and steal. There’s no mention of the conditions that have prompted Big to assault people for cash, to run up on females and shoot strangers for some jewelry, other than stress, tight pockets and the fact that “mom dukes ain’t givin’ me sh*t.”
Someone could listen to that song and reasonably conclude that Biggie and his young partner are sociopathic criminals, not people who have been driven to desperate measures by structural racism and lack of access to educational, economic and employment opportunities.
And that’s dangerous. Because if you don’t understand the conditions that push normal people to engage in criminal behavior, then talk of ‘leaving n*ggas in the gutter for the bread and butter’ just reinforces stereotypes about the criminalblackman that racist whites have been trying to perpetuate since slavery to justify their own crimes.
So I realized that what’s going on in “Gimme The Loot” is what’s happened to mainstream rap as a whole – the disappearance of any discussion of oppression, and the total emphasis on the dysfunctional behavior oppression has produced.
Oppression leads to criminal behavior
The thing is, criminal behavior among disenfranchised groups doesn’t develop in a vacuum. It’s a response to societal restrictions that block traditional paths to survival and force people to live in squalor or take shady detours and shortcuts to avoid living in that condition.
When functional behavior doesn’t produce results, dysfunctional behavior will emerge. That’s not to say that personal responsibility and power of choice don’t play a role. People always have a choice. But when the rules are designed to impede your survival, surviving often means making a choice to break the rules.
Hip hop’s role in overcoming oppression
One of hip hop’s most important roles was examining the effects of oppression on the lives of black people and discussing ways to combat and overcome oppression. Like spirituals and jazz music, hip hop wasn’t just a form of music or entertainment, but a strategy blacks developed to survive in a world that was continually impeding their survival. Sometimes the talk of oppression was overt, sometimes it was subtle, but it was always there.
But art will always serve the aims of the people who control it. And as control of hip hop culture and rap music shifted from the black community to white corporate executives, consumers and journalists, the aims and purposes of hip hop and rap shifted from black self-expression, empowerment and activism to the protection of white wealth, power and privilege through the spread of negative black stereotypes.
Talk of oppression and how to overcome it was gradually phased out in favor of an endless celebration of the dysfunctional and destructive lifestyles that oppression produced.
Mainstream rap – jackpot!
In this way, mainstream rap is sort of like winning the white profit-power-privilege lottery. For one, the music helps to ensure that blacks will remain oppressed – since people can only overcome something they acknowledge and address, and few if any commercial rappers acknowledge or address the various forms of oppression facing the black community. It also promotes destructive lifestyles to impressionable black youth and demonizes blacks to those outside the community.
Overall, it’s an extremely effective and profitable system designed to foster negative opinions, emotions and attitudes towards black people, while encouraging black people to kill themselves softly, and as an added bonus, black people do the majority of the work in perpetuating the system. Hurrah!
So next time you listen to a mainstream rap song, don’t wonder why there’s no talk of Trayvon, or violence in Chicago, or the dismantling of the Voting Rights Act, or skyrocketing incarceration and dropout rates, or any other issue or form of oppression threatening the survival of the black community. Just understand that what you are listening to is not the true vision of an artist, but slavery-era propaganda about criminal, violent, sex-crazed savages – a racist white narrative sold by a black face.