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Law and justice goes hip-hop style

Observer Viewpoint | Thursday, March 17, 2005

Samuel Johnson, who was not reticent in his opinions, once said that “the law is an ass.” His observation sprang inevitably to mind this January when, in one of the more surreal moments of American legal history, the judges of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals found themselves forced to rule on the question of whether the lyrics of Juvenile’s “Back That Azz Up” infringed the copyright of D.J. Jubilee’s “Back That Ass Up”.

The judges eventually decided that Juvenile had not stolen Jubilee’s property because the “hook” of his – admittedly homonymous – song was not its lyrical refrain but the sample of The Jackson Five’s “I Want You Back.” In the through the looking glass world of intellectual property law it made some sense, but the fact remains that if they had put the courtroom footage on C-SPAN it would have made more entertaining viewing than anything MTV could offer.

Plato called songs “spells for souls” and the influence of hip-hop has long been a source of concern amongst anxious parents and lexicographers. This suits the rappers just fine; musically hip hop has its deepest roots in soul and funk – along with Jamaican dub – but its taste for outrage is pure rock and roll.

Plato was an old man when he warned of music’s bewitching power and there are some who dismiss concerns about the influence of hip-hop as just the latest instance of the perennial concerns of the old about the music of the young. Others detect a double standard in the way hip-hop performers are viewed when compared to contemporary rock musicians, few of whom, it must be said, are exemplary role models.

While there is some truth in both of those replies, other defenders of hip hop overreach. Toni Morrison has argued that it is a sign of racial prejudice that we take Shakespeare’s vulgarities to be quaint and yet treat hip-hop lyrics as a cause for concern. But Shakespeare’s double entendres are not the Elizabethan equivalent of 2 Live Crew’s “Me So Horny” and anyone who says otherwise has spent too much time surrounded by sycophants and lost all sense of reality.

The lyrics of much hip-hop music are pornographic in a straightforward and perfectly literal sense. Male emcees frequently boast of their sexual prowess and recount their conquests, real or imagined, in terms that would make Casanova blush. Female performers who are eager not to be outdone typically focus on their high sexual demands, making it clear how few men will measure up. In both cases they present themselves as paragons of unapologetic self-confidence, but it is hard not to notice the similarities with the image of the hypersexualized black that has long enjoyed prominence in the racist imagination.

The upshot of all this is that if you listen to Lil’ Jon and Lil’ Kim in quick succession it’s uncomfortably like overhearing a couple on the phone, with a scratched copy of James Brown’s “Funky Drummer” skipping in the background. Edited for the radio, it’s like listening to a cardiograph singing to a beat it didn’t write.

While humanities professors are not well known advocates for supply-side economics they are becoming increasingly savvy at producing work that succeeds in the intellectual marketplace by flattering the pre-existing tastes of students. A prominent example took place in 2003, there was an academic conference at Harvard devoted to Tupac Shakur, sponsored in part by the W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for Afro-American Research.

Mark Anthony Neal, an English professor from the State University of New York, Albany, argued that Shakur is best understood as an example of the “organic intellectual” who expresses the concerns of his group, a concept articulated by Antonio Gramsci, the Marxist political theorist. Participants at the conference who shut their eyes and listened hard would have heard the sound of W.E.B. Dubios spinning in his grave at just over 33 revolutions per minute.

Of course, hip-hop music is much more diverse than the debates around it typically suggest, and there are a great many artists, like KRS-One, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli to name just a few, whose music does not rely on posturing and provocation. But in general the more outrageous the content the better the albums sell and it is hopeless to criticize the artists for misogyny and homophobia when to a large extent they are deliberately setting out to outrage not as an expression of prejudice but as a declaration of independence, to prove that they won’t let anyone else dictate what they can and cannot say, to show that they can get away with it.

People do not automatically imitate the values of the music they listen to, and to speak as if they do both insults them and absolves them of responsibility. Hip-hop music often seems to express a worldview in which other people must always appear as either obstacles or means to one’s own satisfaction, but this view is widespread in all genres of popular music, and contemporary culture generally. No one who looks to any sort of contemporary music as a guide to life is likely to be well-served by it. Rappers rarely make good role models, but the same is true of rock stars, and – rather than expressing outrage over particular songs that set new standards for vulgarity – we should be more concerned about the factors which make some people treat them that way.

Songs may be spells for souls, but the magic is weak. It works only on those for whom songs are all they have.