By Michal Shimonovich (Staff Writer)
Not everyone considers rap music an insightful critique of urban violence, income inequality and racism[i]. Often, it’s seen as a comprehensive list of derogatory terms used to describe women and opposing gangs, which can double as the backdrop to a frat party. The appropriation of rap music by DJs has turned a soliloquy about inner city violence into a club banger.
But rap music is so much more than that. It can have the intimacy of a diary entry and has framed perspectives on politicized subjects in an approachable way. Yes it was a hit that became an anthem, but New York State of Mind by Nas also discusses a day in the life of drug dealers contending with police raids. By taking the time to grasp the context of rap music, I was able to understand the environment rap originates from and the people that give it a voice. But that voice uses a vocabulary we might need a different dictionary to understand.
Rap and hip-hop were my first introduction to New York. Before I saw my first rap music video on TRL – Mo’ Money Mo’ Problems from Notorious B.I.G.’s posthumously released album, Life After Death in 1997 – my view of the city was selective. I thought New York was Katz’s Deli and the Metropolitan Museum of Art on Sundays. The rap music I started listening to – Erik B and Rakim, Gangstarr, De La Soul – was the closest thing I had to a first-hand account of racial and economic diversity on the periphery of my New York. Rap music opened my eyes (and ears) to a part of the city I never ventured into.
There has to be an awareness of racial and socioeconomic differences when analysing rap music. As Kendrick Lamar says, “I’m not talking to people from the suburbs. I’m talking as somebody who’s been snatched out of cars and had rifles pointed at me.[ii]” However, it feels awkward because, simply, I am not, nor have I ever been one of those somebodies. Instead, I’m keenly aware of the fact that I most closely resemble peers that grew up in Fitzgeraldian suburban opulence. Rap music is the Triboro Bridge connecting me to the reality of Urban America I otherwise would have missed.
Casual listeners might miss the message in rap because the references are beyond our colloquialisms. Eloquent and poetic rappers rap about their struggles and the limitations of their environment. Without fully understanding the context of these references, we might miss the perspective of a black male trying to be both a supporter of his community and a successful musician in a post-Trayvon Martin/Ferguson/Eric Garner America. A recent example of a really insightful rap album is Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly. It discussed black-on-black violence, financial trajectories of wealthy black entertainers, and society’s perception of young African American men, just to name a few. Below are some references I selected that occur both in Lamar’s songs, and in other notable rap songs.
“35 years old”: There are many instances of rappers associating their fate and trajectory, whether it be death or success, with an age. Kanye West on We Don’t Care raps, “weren’t supposed to make it past 25 / Joke’s on you, we still alive.” Kendrick Lamar later samples – in the song Mortal Man – an interview with the late rapper 2Pac, who says that African Americans after the age of 30 probably have most of the fight taken out of them. 2Pac prescribes the fate of African Americans to make a difference to end at the age of 30. Lamar raps on Wesley’s Theory that his level of education (“remember, you ain’t pass economics in school”) is more likely to get him investigated for tax fraud, like actor Wesley Snipes, than make him capable of understanding finances. He says, “I’ll Wesley Snipe your ass before 35.” Lamar believes that even if he does beat the odds West and 2Pac prophesize, his lack of personal finance skills will threaten his financial success before he becomes eligible at 35 to become President of the United States. His success as an African-American is difficult to sustain: he reminds us later on the track that ”anybody can get it /the hard part is keeping it.”
“Negus”: Negus roughly translates to King, as it is commonly used in Ancient Eritrea and Ethiopia. A homophone to the n-word, this is an example of Lamar reclaiming a derogatory term by saying it has been used wrongly in rap music. King also has another connotation for Lamar because west coast legends Snoop Dogg, Dr. Dre, and The Game crowned Kendrick the “New King of the West Coast[iii].” King Kunta (see below) is the name of another song on the album and is used in conjunction with the name of a slave. Juxtaposing ‘king’, a slave name, is also a way Lamar reclaims his ancestor’s legacy and creates his own narrative around it:
“The history books overlook the word and hide it
America tried to make it to a house divided
The homies don't recognize we been using it wrong
So I'ma break it down and put my game in a song
N-E-G-U-S, say it with me”
Kunta Kinte: A Gambian who was enslaved in America, and whose story was made public in the novel and miniseries, Roots, Lamar uses Kunta in his song King Kunta to describe the range of achievement African Americans have faced – from slaves to kings (see above). Kinte had his right foot cut off for trying to run away from the plantation where he was enslaved, indicated in Lamar’s “Now I run the game, got the whole world talkin’, King Kunta / Everybody wanna cut the legs off him.”
Lucy: Lucy is a play on Lucifer or possibly “lucre,” money (which has a negative connotation. In Lamar’s sophomore album, good kid, m.A.A.d city, Sherane personifies temptation (“you said Sherane ain’t got nothing on Lucy/I said you crazy”). Here, ‘Lucy’ provided him with the means to move his mother into a better neighbourhood. But he also knows the evils of money/devil are all around him.
Trayvon Martin: Trayvon Martin was an unarmed black teenager who was killed by a night patrolman in 2012, and whose death drew national attention. Many rappers other than Lamar have referenced Martin in their lyrics. Rapper Lupe Fiasco compared Martin’s neighbourhood to that of war torn countries. But The Blacker the Berry is not a tribute song; Lamar is reflecting on his self-described hypocrisy at having experienced gang violence and also mourning a violent death. This might have been in response to the controversy Lamar stirred when, in an interview, he reflected that respect for one another within the community must exist before police will respect that community. Some supported what he said, while others felt that he was excusing the behaviour of those policemen. Even this common reference was used to give context to a greater debate about police brutality and, perhaps more importantly, a nuanced insight into the internal dilemmas.
Oprah Winfrey: Lamar dedicated a verse at the end of the first single of the album, i, to Oprah Winfrey (“So I’ma dedicate this one verse to Oprah / On how the infamous, sensitive N-word control us”). Oprah Winfrey has objected in the past (and in conversation with Jay-Z) to using the n-word in rap music out of respect to those who were derided and degraded by the term throughout history. The version of this song was different than the radio-friendly single that later won Lamar a Grammy. He added a post script to the album, and this amendment is another perspective of a word that turns communities “to a house divided.” His opinion on the n-word is less important here than his understanding that its appropriation in rap music has been divisive. Establishing its history allows Lamar to take agency of the word that has gone from archaic to derogatory to somewhat normalised. He concludes that respect for one another, even if “you wore a different gang colour than mine,” is the only way to win in “a war … based on apartheid and discrimination.”
Rap, like other mediums of expression, deserves a nuanced critique. Because it has historically been a significant forum of expression for the African American community, the attention listeners give it has the potential to bridge the gap of understanding with the community. Like all art, rap isn’t made in a vacuum. Its background and context gives it layers of depth that we should try and parse when engaging with all forms of music and art. Music is great in that way, as it is a soliloquy available to the masses. His references are biblical, historical and pop cultural in nature, and his message is political. While this sometimes makes the meaning harder to understand, doing so makes it much more valuable.
[i] The name of the 6th studio album of Atlanta-based rapper, Killer Mike. Kendrick Lamar references critics’ hypocrisy of hip-hop: “Critics want to mention that they miss when hip hop was rappin’ / Motherfucker if you did, then Killer Mike’d be platinum”