The day after the May 24, 2022 mass shooting at an elementary school in Uvalde, Texas, U.S. Representative Ronny Jackson was quick to blame the violence on rap music and video games.
“Kids are exposed to all kinds of horrible things these days,” the Texas Republican told Fox News on May 25, 2022. “I think about the horrible things they hear when they listen to rap music, games video they watch… with all this horrible violence.
For Jackson and other critics, rap seems to explain criminal behavior and signal moral decline. In the eyes of Fulton County District Attorney Fani Willis, the rap could also be something else — evidence.
Atlanta rappers Young Thug and Gunna were among 28 defendants charged under Georgia’s Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act in May 2022 with conspiracy and street gang activity.
They are now in jail in Atlanta awaiting trial.
In the indictment, prosecutors cite Young Thug’s song lyrics as “overt acts in furtherance of the conspiracy.”
Several tracks are cited, including “Slatty,” on which Young Thug raps, “I killed his man in front of his mama / Like f–k lil bruh, his sister, and cousin.”
Freedom of expression has its limits.
“The First Amendment,” Willis explained, “doesn’t protect people from prosecutors using [lyrics] as evidence if so.
Rap has long been used to ostensibly stereotype, caricature, and reinforce black mythologies. As a rapper and scholar, I wrote about this scapegoat in a book of chapters, “Rap & Storytellingly Invention,” published with the peer-reviewed album I released in 2020.
Since the rise of hip-hop in the early 1980s, critics of rap have sought to link the music to violent crime.
One of the first targets was Run-DMC, the rappers from Queens, New York, credited with bringing hip-hip to mainstream music and culture.
During the band’s 1986 “Raising Hell” tour, police and reporters accused his music of violence which occurred in the cities he visited. During his show in Long Beach, California, gang violence in the crowd was also blamed on the rap.
In the 1990s, politician and civil rights activist C. Delores Tucker became one of the most vocal anti-rap voices, focusing her anger on Tupac Shakur and the “gangsta rap” subgenre.
The finger pointing at rap — or some version of it — continues to this day.
The latest target is drill rap, a hip-hop subgenre that originated in Chicago and has since spread around the world.
New York Mayor Eric Adams condemned drill rap on February 11, 2022, after the murders of two Brooklyn rappers, Jayquan McKenley and Tahjay Dobson.
Adams said the violence depicted in drill rap music videos was “alarming” and that he would speak with social media companies to try to remove the content, telling them they “have a civic responsibility and to ‘business”.
“We removed Trump from Twitter for what he was throwing up,” Adams said, “yet we allow the music, the gun displays, the violence. We allow him to stay on those sites.
Similar tactics have been employed in the past to stop boring music.
The London drill rappers have been targeted since 2015 by the Metropolitan Police’s Operation Domain, a joint effort with YouTube to monitor “videos that incite violence”.
It’s as if the politicians and the police don’t understand that the music emerging from these places is a reflection of the crisis, not its source.
Tragic myths and realities
Despite hip-hop’s immense popularity, the culture and music continues to be portrayed as a cultural wasteland in both subtle and explicit ways.
Worse still, in my opinion, these harmful assumptions affect how ordinary people who experience tragedy are portrayed.
The word “rapper” is used to conjure up negative images. It leaves empty expectations in their place, filled with the specter of death and the spectacle of violence. The person he describes becomes a boogeyman in the public imagination.
In the most unjust circumstances, “rapper” has become social shorthand for presumptions of guilt, expectations of violence, and sometimes the dignity of death.
This was the case with Willie McCoy. In 2019, the 20-year-old was killed by six police officers while sleeping in his car at Taco Bell in Vallejo, California. The police claimed to have seen a gun and tried to wake him up. When McCoy moved, officers fired 55 rounds in 3.5 seconds.
While the rap music seems to have nothing to do with the tragic events of his death, descriptions of McCoy as a rapper have been reported more prominently and consistently than the 55 shots police fired at him during that he was sleeping.
Even playing rap music can lead to death. In 2012, a 17-year-old named Jordan Davis was shot and killed by a man who complained about the “loud” music Davis was playing in his car at a Florida gas station.
During the proceedings dubbed “the Loud Music Trial”, Michael Dunn said the music Davis and his friends were playing in Davis’ car was “thug music” or “rap shit”.
Dunn’s defense depended on his victims being considered thugs by association with rapping.
While in jail, Dunn was recorded on the phone speculating whether Davis and his friends were “gangster rappers.” He claimed he had seen YouTube videos.
In describing these tragedies, the words “rappers” and “rap music” are code for “black” and “other,” meant to instill fear and justify violence. There is no doubt in my mind that they would have been perceived differently if the words “poets” or “poetry” had been used instead.
Made in America
Indeed, the violence perpetuated by people who rap is as real as any other American violence.
Young Thug, Gunna or any other rapper accused of crimes are not exempt from responsibility. But, in my opinion, assuming that people are criminals just because they rap — even if they rap about violence — is a mistake.
Certainly, throughout the history of hip-hop, rappers have built characters like anti-heroes. Performances of masculinity, violence, bullying, gun ownership, and misogyny are meant to signal a kind of authenticity.
In his 1994 book “Outlaw Culture”, Bell Hooks included a chapter on “gangsta rap”. Hooks explained that the heinous behaviors examined and highlighted in rappers are American values that the people who live and survive here embrace.
In his December 1986 article on Run-DMCRolling Stone writer Ed Kiersh said aloud what many were thinking.
“For much of white America,” Kiersh wrote, “rap is synonymous with chaos and bloodshed.”
But those who still seek to vilify rap would do well to focus on the sources of America’s violence crisis rather than blaming the music that reflects it.
This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. Like this article ? Subscribe to our weekly newsletter.
It was written by: AD Carson, University of Virginia.
AD Carson does not work for, consult, own stock or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond his academic appointment.