From Jay-Z to Kanye West: Does Rap Music Promote Bad Values?

Imagine that you walk into a bookstore and head to the non-fiction section. As you read through the titles of the books and the short summaries of their plots, you begin to get very worried. These books have bad social values. There is an overwhelming number of tales of misogyny, materialism, narcissism, and racism. What can you reasonably conclude about non-fiction books? Some people will falsely conclude that non-fiction books, as a genre, promote bad values. These people seem silly, don’t they? 

Well, replace non-fiction books with rap music, and most Americans fall into this trap. Although mainstream rap music displays unhealthy amounts of bad social values, rap music itself does not promote bad values; rather, mainstream rap music reflects what sells in America coupled with what’s going on in America’s urban neighborhoods.

Mainstream rap music is filled with objectification, licentious lyrics, and lewd music videos. Unfortunately, music conglomerates believe, perhaps rightfully so, that sex sells. For example, Chris Brown, the alleged woman-beater, has a new hit song named “Strip,” where he sings, “If you ain’t freaking, we ain’t speaking.” Something is wrong when droves purchase blatant objectification.

Mainstream rap music also features high levels of violence. “I’m going to kill you” has been rapped so many times, in so many different ways, it may be the most common sentiment in rap music history. My favorite of these variations is Jay-Z’s, “I’ll have the paramedics breathing soft on you.” Americans love violence. 

Let’s not forget the last of the three evils in rap music – materialism. As Biggie Smalls notoriously rapped, “Money, hoes, and clothes, all a [sic] knows.” Accordingly, brand names take center stage in many rap songs, and cars and jewelry are often flaunted in music videos. So, that’s the state of mainstream rap music – misogyny, malevolence, and materialism.  

Well, let’s investigate the cause of it all. Eminem asks us, is he a “monger of hate” or “a media scapegoat, we can be mad at today?” The same question can be asked of rap in general, and I think rap music gets scapegoated. By shoving our base tendencies in our faces, mainstream rap music gets blamed instead of the root cause - American values crossed with the American underclass experience. Here’s my equation: mainstream rap music (=) what sells in America (x) the urban youth experience. Why urban youth experience? Rap music is primarily an urban youth created art (although suburban whites consume most of it).

As one rapper put it, “If you never had money growing up, and then all of a sudden you are surrounded by wealth, what would you rap about?” The American urban youth experience, especially for people of color, is one of scarcity. But, America values wealth – we hold up people like Bill Gates and Mark Zuckerberg as paragons of the American dream – and so, money sells.  And paradoxically then, even if you don’t have money, you rap about it.  

Next, why does rap music have violence? Inner-city America is caught in a violent battle. Urban youth of color witness the worst of it. Murder is normalized in their lives, and so, it’s normalized in their songs, too.  

Last, why does rap have misogyny? Men are in power in America. Couple that with the fact that in urban youth environments positive male role-models are hard to come by, and a tragic self-perpetuating cycle emerges. What youth observe in mainstream media, they perform in their real life, which cycles back into mainstream media. In fact, many rappers cite being “raised by the streets” or the television. 

So, rap music as a genre, doesn’t necessarily promote bad values, but right now, it has a lot of them. Will this disconcerting trend improve? I urge you to listen to rapper Mos Def’s song called, “Hip Hop” where he explains where rap music is going to go. In paraphrase, he says that rap music will reflect and analyze wherever we’re at in America. If we’re virtuous, so too will rap. If we remain a misogynistic, malevolent, materialistic society, so too will rap. But to provide some hope for the future of rap music, let’s end with a quote from a somewhat forgotten, but highly innovative rapper, Rakim, “It’s not where ya from, it’s where ya at.”   

[Disclaimer: Please look into the eclectic and electrifying world of underground hip hop, if interested in rap music with positive social values. One example is Seattle-based rap group Common Market.]

Photo Credit: NRK P3

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Jeff Mendelman

I am interested in many political issues. I have been active in rebuilding the Gulf Coast post-Katrina, most recently as a Teach for America Corps Member. I am also very interested in the potential of nonviolent freedom movements, especially the possibility for such in the Israel/Palestine conflict.

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