I recently read a piece my friend sent me entitled “Is It Ok for White Critics to Like Violent Rap?“. I’m glad she did, because it was a great article thoughtfully discussing the ideological debate on white music critics being some of the loudest supporters of violent black rappers.
My perspective on this issue is very………..broad. As a young, black man, artist, writer, journalist, poet, intellectual, etc., I’m compelled to view this debate through a vast spectrum of ideological lens. But for the purposes of this piece, I want to narrow my focus to the realm of the functionality of art (while also operating from the premise that though a person’s race should not preclude them from commenting on a cultural art form, their commentary still may be wrong, incomplete, problematic, etc.)
Most blogging proponents of trap rappers assert that as a listener, they enjoy this music purely off aesthetic value. My opinion is that idea, though logical on the surface, is simply untrue. Their reasoning also seems like an attempt to distance their intentions for promoting this type of music from the actual effects that their promotion has on the media, and on us as listeners, bloggers, etc.
In a response to critiques of his blog posts promoting rappers like Chief Keef, Cocaine Blunts blogger Andrew “Noz” Nosnitsky said critics of Keef act “As if Chief Keef’s music is so empirically horrible that there isn’t any possible way for a reasonably intelligent human to enjoy it without an agenda— despite the fact that thousands of people do just that!” He went on by saying, “Many of his detractors are simply coding their aesthetic objections as moral ones.”
I definitely agree with the first statement. Some critics go overboard on Keef criticism. Yes lyrically, he’s average at absolute best, and pretty much only talks about violence, smoking, and women. But musically, it would be hard to argue that his music has zero redeemable qualities (why else would anyone listen to it?). But in regards to the second statement, I disagree with Noz in two ways:
1) I totally disagree with his underlying art-for-art’s sake, aesthetic-for-aesthetic-sake premise. All art (especially music, and ESPECIALLY hip hop) is created with an agenda, no matter how trivial or grandiose it is, and even if it is unknown or unable to be articulated. All art is experienced with an agenda, even if that agenda is not perceived or intended.
2) I believe that Noz’s latter statement should be switched around. Supporters of artists like Chief Keef are often simply coding their moral acceptance of this music as an aesthetic acceptance.
I absolutely disagree with the idea of reducing a piece of art to just aesthetics, and that is what I feel like comments like “Fuck moralizing art” (by blogger Judnikki) do to hip-hop. That sort of reductionism undermines the multi-faceted, deep history that music hip hop music has, and the arcane transformative power it brings to the world. It also contradicts itself, implying that art only functions to sound, taste, feel, smell, or look good, even though moralizing art is something we have always done and always will do.
But in the hipster sphere where seemingly everyone aspires to be deep with overly-complex, avant-garde, re-appropriated interpretations of black artistry, their defensive stance resembles a need to reconcile the fact that though they may disapprove of the negative imagery, and remedial lyricism trap music is littered with, they enjoy the musicality enough to overlook these aspects. Their explanations are round-about ways of wanting to prove that their intentions are not the negative ones that critics subscribe to them; an intellectual plea of “I”M NOT A RACIST!”. That’s perfectly fine with me, and I actually don’t think these bloggers are trying to hide some latent bigotry as some may suggest. I just don’t agree their conclusions or how they suuport them.
Another thing that I find hypocritical about this art-without-morality conception is that hipster bloggers of trap rappers will defend that trap rap should only be critiqued on an aesthetic level, but then the very next day, they write a full artistic review on someone like Kendrick Lamar, exposing the social messages he inserts within his lyrical prowess (attaching morality to his art).
You can’t have it both ways. You can’t say music is only music when it comes to Gucci, but then say it’s mind-bending, world-changing, universe-influencing product of genius when the artist is Michael Jackson, Adele, Whitney Houston, Prince, etc.
People like trap music, or all music for that matter, for a bunch of reasons. But when those reasons aren’t readily able to be articulated, the only interpretation in reach is a simple aesthetic rationale of “I just like the beat”. But this rationale is a logical fallacy. Our appreciation for music goes much deeper than we understand, and assuming that it is surface level kind of underestimates the true power of our minds, bodies, and spirits. Let me give you a different example of why I make this assumption:
I could survey a painting of a tree, and say, “This looks cool”. An art major could then explain to me all the aspects of the piece that goes into it looking “cool” (style, symmetry, shading, saturation, color, texture, contrast, balance, object placement, dimensions, stroke lengths, the medium, the tension, etc.). My reasons for liking the painting will be parallel to some the reasons the art major explains, even though my explanation for why is obviously not as astute as an art major.
What if instead of viewing a painting though, I was in an art class where the teacher told the class to draw their idea of a beautiful woman? I draw a brown-skinned woman with brown eyes, a voluptuous figure, gold jewelry, and a jet black curly afro. The person next to me draws a woman with milky white skin, blonde hair, blue eyes, slim physique, white dress. Would you honestly believe either artist if we told you that our idea of beauty is purely aesthetic preference (not also rooted in cultural, moral, historical, maybe even spiritual, beliefs i.e. “agenda”)? Doesn’t that prove that beauty is rooted in things way deeper than just what looks “good”?
Apply the same idea to music: If you asked two people what they think is the best music, one might tell you country music, the other might tell you R&B. There are several aesthetic similarities and differences between the two genres, but surely their reasoning goes far deeper than guitar vs. rhodes, twang vs. sang, whether they can explain why or not.
But let’s say you still don’t buy my argument. My ideas are rooted in meta cognition applied to art, and that may be a debate for another time. You believe that people can like songs for arbitrary, “just cause” reasons without an agenda. Well, let’s just operate on that premises while I ask these questions:
How is it possible for me (a young, black male who also grew up on the south-side of Chicago, who has been directly and indirectly affected by the epidemic of violence in my city, and the stereotypical depiction of black males) to listen to Chief Keef and strip away all, if any, moral value to his art? How could a white blogger (who is not affected to the same degree as I am by the promotion of stereotypical images in music that describes the ongoing plight of young, African-Americans males in the inner-cities of America) convince me that I should not moralize Keef’s art, to any degree?
“Fuck moralizing art”? Aw ok. Excuse me while I go draw a picture of a white police officer beating up a black women or a black man punching a white women in the face, and then post it on Instagram with the caption “You can’t moralize this. It’s #ART”.
As a young, black male who has experienced racism in both a passive and aggressive manner my whole life, it is problematic for me when someone tells me how I should experience a piece of art or its promotion, especially when the art involves a portrayal that can indirectly (to x degree) detrimentally affect me.
So to white bloggers who say that social critiques of the images of Chief Keef, Waka, Gucci, or other Trap Rappers are way off base, I will sum up this article to say this: I’m positive that the majority of you are absolutely truthful and sincere about your intentions.
But you can’t control how your promotion of this type of music is perceived, so stop acting like you’re so offended when it is taken negatively. And even more certainly, you cannot suggest that the effects of you, me, or anyone else promoting this types of music are ONLY the ones we intend them to be. Your blog posts do not affect you in the same way that it does someone who is younger, and/or blacker, and/or poorer than you.
It would be idiotic for me to surmise that all non-black people who like violent rap fall under the very problematic critique of hipster culture (bunch of middle class/rich kids gentrifying hip-hop by identifying with stereotypical definitions for, depictions of, and cultural aspects equated to the “hipness” that is tied to “blackness”), or act like black folk don’t have a good level of hypocrisy in all of this. But I beg you, please stop telling critics that they are over-analyzing things when they suggest that you posting a video of a young, black, dreaded-up inner-city male holding a gun and rapping about how he kills niggas can’t be perceived as promoting a stereotype, regardless if you intended to or not. It makes you look naive, and unfair or not, it may leave some of your more radical dissenters salivating at the chance to call you a racist.
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