For around a century now, African Americans have been disproportionately prominent in world music, inventing and reinventing unlike any other population or country. They’ve given the world jazz, R&B, soul, disco, funk, house and even scatting.
Rap, especially gangsta rap, is perhaps the most impressive of these genres—not because of its complex rhyme schemes, nor because of the way it recycles music, creating new sounds, but because of the rappers’ life stories and rap’s place in African American music history.
The rags to riches story is the epicentre of rap in almost all its many forms, especially since the introduction of gangsta rap. It emphasises being the realest, which usually involves having experienced real life violence, as victim or perpetrator, in a down-and-out world where everyone is seemingly both.
At some point, it became obvious that a person who had led a harsh life on the margins of society could reframe their life through rap and join the ranks of the most privileged, achieve the highest status and be the most respected in that space. 50 Cent grew up amid violence and murder: he became a big time drug dealer and got shot nine times, then he figured out a way to tell the world his story through rap and became an unprecedented success. Storytellers have done this kind of thing forever, but rappers do it far more directly.
The tragic facts about 50 Cent’s life that would have put him at a disadvantage in most of the interactions that go on in civilised society were the very things that earned him respect, and made him embraced and loved by the masses—once filtered through the mesh of gangsta rap.
Can you think of any other scenario—aside from therapy—in which an individual can talk about his Mum working as a prostitute, or about living with street hustlers and growing up to sell drugs and get involved in gang wars? How could that background help you get you far in life? Only by enabling you to sell your stories in rap. (Books and scripts about being a gangster don’t require first-hand experience and I don’t think they’ve made many real gangsters any money.)
Although the situation has been improving recently, throughout American history, most African Americans have found themselves at the margins of mainstream society. For a long time, hip-hop was the only genre dependent on the poor, disenfranchised people, who created it and helped it flourish. Battles, cyphers and freestyles were, for a lot of rappers, ways of proving how real they were and allowing them to reap the fruits of success. Although in theory they could have shit-talked their way to fame, most people wouldn’t put themselves through that kind of pressure if they weren’t hungry. That makes them more believable. This has perpetuated the idea of the value of being real.
All the other black music genres require musicianship and the gift of a good voice. Those things are important in hip-hop, too, but its culture is primarily based on realness. And what’s more real than tragedy? Hip-hop demands: can you make me believe in your struggle? Are you really telling the truth? Because there are a lot of people who know the truth and they’re gonna test you to see if you’re lying. What’s realer than gangsta rap?
Many young African Americans today have little interest in jazz and rock, even though those genres were created by young, disenfranchised African Americans decades earlier. Maybe those genres just aren’t as popular because every generation needs its trademark sound. But I think it’s more complex than that—since African Americans were uninterested in rock when it was still a force in the music world, as little as fifteen years ago.
In the 80s, when Lenny Kravitz first came onto the scene, people were perplexed by the fact that he was a black man making rock music. For a long time, an odd repeating pattern would emerge. African Americans created entire genres, then the dominant American culture would take them over completely, to such a degree that the following generation of ghettoised African Americans could no longer relate to those art forms.
Hip-hop bucked that trend. Throughout the late eighties, 90s, noughties and teens, it seemed that everyone creating that music came from working class or poor backgrounds. Its main values have nothing to do with being agreeable, nice or polite: what matters is spitting real shit. The levels of scrutiny rappers were under—from everyone in the industry from Radio DJs, to audiences and other rappers—to prove that they were the real deal, made it unlike any other genre.
Of course, some rappers lied, but for a long time those liars who were found out tended to disappear from the scene and those who weren’t believable enough lived under a dark cloud.
Today, hip hop has evolved and become more inclusive of people from stable middle-class backgrounds: successful rappers like Drake, Tyga, Travis Scott and Chance the Rapper all come from basically decent places. In the future, rap could become like every other art form: flooded by the next generation of successful rappers, an industry filled with Jaden Smiths—and Jaden is likeable, he can rap and he’s authentic. The goal could be to broaden the definition of rap—and that seems to be already happening. However, once enough likeable, talented and privileged people enter an industry, they eventually take it over. The value system changes and the standard conventions of mainstream society become the norm within that genre, and then the raw roar of tragedy and angst is ignored and disappears until eventually it rears its head somewhere else.
It is common to see second and third generation celebrities in sports, acting and singing, so maybe rap will follow suit. When rap eventually dies, a new genre will arise, and, if African Americans have anything to do with it, it’s sure to be special.
Rap is impressive because it’s the only industry so far that has historically required its main agents of value to be not only disenfranchised, but the most disenfranchised. No other business prioritises potential employees from underprivileged backgrounds that way, effectively saying: You’ll only get the job if you can tell me your most tragic experiences and how they’ve made you strong. The process selects for the person with the most tragic background, as well as the one most capable of the job.
Sometimes normal businesses do ask about hardship. But employers are not usually looking for responses as personal as my mum was a prostitute, and here’s what I learned; I was tortured as a child, which taught me to love life; or my cousin coerced me into selling drugs and then I changed my ways. They want to hear something more moderate, a story like someone was rude to me once and I let it go. Rap will reward you for the nitty gritty: the grittier the realer, and the realer the better.
So far, hip-hop has been more resistant to nepotism than any other industry, and this is one of the most important aspects of the way it creates social cohesion. Gangsta rap and many other rap styles are directly aligned with experiences that fuel productivity. The biggest cheerleaders of the system are the rappers themselves—once they prosper, that is. They give others hope and become symbols of second chances, of ultimate redemptions. They represent a silver lining, an escape from an imperfect social system, providing hope for all those who are still under said system’s tyrannical thumb.
If the biggest and the baddest outcasts have a real shot at mainstream legitimisation, such as a really good record deal, serious money etc., there is a trickle-down of hope to those under them and to their audiences, who include poor people and the odd phenomenon of rap tourists, who, on hearing the rappers’ stories, realise their relative privilege and become grateful for their comparatively easy lives—which is a recipe for productivity.
Hip-hop is not even fifty years old and already it has directly lifted hundreds of thousands of African Americans and millions of disenfranchised people worldwide out of poverty. The value system of rap has ensured that it attracts mainstream American interest, but that the mainstream cannot take over the genre, altering it to reflect its own conventional values. Rap prevents this by dealing almost exclusively with the raw and tragic, by being on the nose and requiring its performers to be young and disenfranchised.
If you’re not a rapper, think about the kinds of things most rappers say. Now think about what would happen if you said those things and your boss heard you say them. Given the risks, would you still want to pursue rap as your life goal? The sound of hip-hop was appropriated by pop music from day one, yet most successful pop artists haven’t rapped along to those sounds. Rap is a billion dollar, self-sustaining system that’s made more poor people rich and integrated than probably would have become prosperous through any other means.
It’s one of the remaining spaces, where a life of tragedy, filled with the kinds of mistakes that usually shut you out of the system, can lead you right to the top. Antisocial behaviour shouldn’t be rewarded, of course, but when antisocial agents find redemption and share their stories, society reaps the rewards. When the class A drug dealer with guns and hoes turns rapper, if he shares his story honestly, people in similar situations and of a similar mindset may gain a clearer picture of the harsh realities of the game and decide not to follow that path.
Everyone from roadies to concert promoters, radio DJs, employees of record labels and fashion houses, producers and, of course, rappers themselves all live off this thing called hip-hop. This is a testament to its artistry, but also to its ability to define value in a way that insures that the most neglected, most destructive members of society can step up and add real economic, cultural and even spiritual value. This has been going on for four decades now.
I’m hopeful that in the future the down and out will still find their place in hip hop. I don’t just mean the poor—I mean those who come from poor and fucked up backgrounds, but who can achieve success by telling their stories.
Image by Joel Muniz