Jasper Jams: Why We Listen

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     On the title track of his 2012 album “good kid, m.A.A.d city,” Kendrick Lamar questions, “If I told you I killed a n**** at 16, would you believe me?” Some listeners would treat this question as a lyrical device used to further a story or support a musical persona. Others dismiss the line as just another example of the useless profanity characteristic of rap music. Law enforcement and legal teams across the country have a different take on the meaning of similar lyrics.

     As a recent New York Times article outlined, rap lyrics detailing assault and violence have been used as evidence in certain trials of violent crimes. The murder cases referenced in the article involve local aspiring rappers that have nowhere near the star power of artists like Lamar. Still, the idea of treating musical lyrics as proof in the courtroom raises several questions about the relationship between music and free speech.

     Rap music, and more specifically the subgenre of gangsta rap, has faced a history of heavy criticism for ties and references to gangs, crime and violence. Defenders argue that the tough lyrics of many rap songs are an authentic reflection of gritty urban life. Critics claim that the genre is a commercial ploy that reinforces negative cultural stereotypes, glorifies crime and misogyny, all while promoting destructive violence.

     The debate over the historical, racial and social implications of the rap genre and broader culture of hip-hop is a complex issue. A subject that has filled the pages of serious academic books, it goes far beyond the scope of a bi-weekly music column written by someone that is merely a music fan and not a cultural scholar. Yet even as average fans, there is the occasional need to step back and examine the social context of the art we consume on an everyday basis.

     Several of these lyrics may be true confessions by guilty offenders; others empty posturing and standard rap braggadocio. Either way, why do we listen to music like this in the first place? On the surface, stories of crime and violence have a special kind of “dangerous” attractiveness to them. For the same reason that everyday law abiding citizens devour factual articles and documentaries on serial killers, prison life, the drug industry and organized crime, they also are drawn to the colorful pictures of street life that are frequently portrayed in rap music.

     Yet something deeper in these songs gives the subject matter staying power. Mafia classics like “The Sopranos” and “The Godfather” received widespread popular and critical acclaim even with their violent depictions of crime. Beneath the blood and power struggles exist stories of believable human relationships and internal moral conflict.

     In a similar vein, many of the most powerful rap songs say something more about the world they portray than merely offering a snapshot of it. That is not to say that every rap song is a thoughtful reflection on the human condition — far from it. And not all of them should be. Music isn’t one-dimensional and does not serve just one purpose.

     Rap music does not face the public controversy today that it did 20 or even 10 years ago. It has gradually earned the music industry’s respect and been commercialized (for better or worse depending on whom you ask). Still, it is one of those genres that a number of people automatically refuse to listen to with little basis for their justification.

     While the genre has its flaws like any other, I challenge the immediate naysayers to give an honest chance to the simple beats and turntable scratches of founders like Eric B & Rakim, the jazz influenced lyricism of A Tribe Called Quest, the storytelling of Nas, the social commentary of Lupe Fiasco and the wordplay and musical innovation of Kanye West.

     It is natural to have a preference for a few specific genres of music and not immediately like every single song that hits your eardrums. Yet it is another to deny artistic merit to other genres and make sweeping generalizations about their respective worth or content.

     Frequently people make statements along the lines of “rap is vulgar,” “classical music is boring,” “jazz is too intellectual,” “pop is too mainstream,” etc. Genre labels are necessary to some extent for the organization of music, but far too often they can misdirect us from trying new sounds.

     One of the reasons I write this column is to hopefully persuade people to always be open to trying a song they haven’t heard before, no matter what genre it may arbitrarily fall under. You just might be surprised at what you hear.