--Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, Director, Institute for African American Studies, University of Connecticut and author of Black Power: Radical Politics and African American Identity (The Johns Hopkins University Press), 2004 and Hip-Hop Revolution: The Culture and Politics of Rap (University Press of Kansas), 2007.
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N.W.A's first album, N.W.A. and the Posse, was a party-oriented jam record that largely went ignored upon its 1987 release. . . . Late in 1988, N.W.A delivered Straight Outta Compton, a vicious hardcore record that became an underground hit with virtually no support from radio, the press, or MTV. N.W.A became notorious for their hardcore lyrics . . .
. . . Efil4zaggin was teeming with dense, funky soundscapes and ridiculously violent and misogynist lyrics. Naturally, the lyrics provoked outrage from many critics and conservative watchdogs, but that only increased the group's predominately male, white suburban audience.(From "N.W.A." by Stephen Thomas Erlewine, Allmusic.com)
According to Neil Strauss (The Vibe History of Hip Hop, p. 258), Dr. Dre of N.W.A. made a brilliant marketing move early in the history of the group. Dre decided that N.W.A. could not compete with the political rap of Public Enemy and other groups. Rather than attempt to be a lesser version of Public Enemy, N.W.A. decided to become the anti-Public Enemy. This strategic move to gangsta rap brought tremendous success to N.W.A. and its individual members.
Gangsta rap appeals to America’s appetite for sex and violence. It is probably also effective because it plays on longstanding stereotypes of blacks as hyper-sexual, violent and criminal. From a business perspective, gangsta-ism is a masterful marketing strategy.
Sexism can be profitable too. As Russell Simmons stated in Essence ("What They're Saying"), “We live in a very sexist society. Popular culture exaggerates everything, including this kind of sexism, for profit. That’s the nature of capitalist society and entertainment.”
Whether gangsta-ism and other characteristics of rap are good for black people generally or for American society as a whole is another question. Americans are increasingly saying that rap is not a good thing. Whether this will change the character of rap or affect the amount of rap Americans purchase is yet another question.
As early as 1993, in the National Black Politics Study, a majority of blacks agreed that “rap music is a destructive force in the black community.” More recently, the Black Youth Project Survey found that a majority of black, white and Hispanic youth think that there is too much sex and violence in rap.
Another recent survey on black attitudes by the Pew Research Center, also shows strong disapproval of rap. A majority of whites and blacks agree that “rap is having a bad influence” on society. These findings will likely provide encouragement to the prominent critics of rap.
The fact that so many blacks are critical of rap shows that we cannot jump to the conclusion that rap represents black values. The relationship of the music to the values of the people making is also more complicated than some critics will admit. For example, one record executive states (in "What They're Saying"), “I have a 7-year-old daughter, and she can’t listen to my music. She can’t listen to it in the car, not in the room, and she can’t watch videos.”
Last year, rap sales declined sharply. Will this trend continue? Will rap change? Only time will tell.
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--Algernon Austin, Ph.D.
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