Rapping Truth To Power


Pushing back against the idea that rappers frequently “glorify criminality”, Lisa Wade highlights a recent study that analyzed the lyrics of popular hip-hop songs:

[Criminologists Kevin] Steinmetz and [Howard] Henderson concluded that the main law enforcement-related themes in hip-hop are not pleasure and pride in aggressive and criminal acts, but the unfairness of the criminal justice system and the powerlessness felt by those targeted by it. Lyrics about law enforcement, for example, frequently portrayed cops as predators exercising an illegitimate power. Imprisonment, likewise, was blamed for weakening familial and community relationships and described a modern method of oppression.

The study’s authors concluded that “the overwhelming message in hip-hop wasn’t that the rappers disliked the idea of justice, but they disliked the way it was being implemented.” More insights from the authors via Meredith Mohr:

“[T]he music is maturing, evolving,” Henderson said. “Take Jay-Z for example. If you look at his lyrical content from 1990-2012, you see the evolution from talking about drug selling at the beginning of his career to now talking about meeting with the president, helping with the campaign. It’s a very different conversation. We never saw an artist go backwards. You only saw them mature as they age, and experience and their music changes with them.”

Part of this, Henderson said, is because the audience has also changed with the artists. “Jay-Z’s listenership has aged with him,” Henderson said. “Part of it is that artists recognize that if they go back and talk about that very animalistic behavior, their listeners are going to say, ‘hey listen, this is not what I want to hear,’ and they’re going to go somewhere else.