Editor's note: This is one of several opinion pieces and articles the Herald-Press will run in February to observe Black History Month.
For decades, the nation's media have covered, and amplified, the controversies of rap music, from the hype of the East Coast-West Coast rivalry that framed the murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G. in the 1990s, to last year's murder of Los Angeles rapper and activist Nipsey Hussle.
Since rap went mainstream in the 1980s, political pundits and national media outlets have been quick to blame it for inciting youth violence. While critics have noted the violent lyrics of some rappers, they have failed to understand their underlying message and cultural significance.
Hip-hop cannot be understood outside its historical and social context.
Rap music reflects its origin in the Hip-Hop culture of young, urban, working-class African-Americans. What began on the blocks of the West Bronx in New York City in the early 1970s has now become a worldwide phenomenon, recognized for its lyrical brilliance and increasingly creative beats and melodies.
Kendrick Lamar, who won a Pulitzer Prize for music in 2018, is one of the many hip-hop artists whose spoken word poetry has elevated the genre to high art. It has become an important part of modern black history and culture.
Hip-Hop is often associated with bravado, conspicuous consumption, exotic cars, and beautiful women. Even here, the symbols mean something different in most black communities. Slick videos notwithstanding, the message is aspirational, the voice of the unheard. And as its popularity has grown, so has the commercialization and national appropriation of African-American culture.
History details how music was often the only way slaves could communicate during captivity. It united them as a group, giving them strength and solace.
Given the historical significance of music in the African-American culture, rap today has become a form of communication for America's black youth. It remains, as Chuck D of Public Enemy said 30 years ago, the Black CNN.
Certain artists, such as Tupac Shakur – my all-time favorite artist – are known for their ability to unite their community with descriptive, culturally and socially significant lyrics.
Rap can empower a young man or woman without power. The music and lyrics can make them feel in control of their own destinies. To a young black kid who struggles to articulate his own circumstances, rap music can express, channel, and order the near-nihilistic feelings of frustration, defeat, despair, and rage in communities plagued by violence and drug use.
By identifying with the music and lyrics, inner city youth can endure and even overcome circumstances that otherwise might destroy them. The music celebrate triumph over adversity.
Ultimately, the intent of violent lyrics is not to celebrate violence but deter it. The music too often, however, becomes a scapegoat for the dysfunctions the rapper and his audience seek to overcome.
“People need to take into consideration that hip-hop traditionally has been a reflection of the environment,” Atlanta rapper T.I. said in an interview with Trevor Noah on the Daily Show. “So if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist. And he won’t have such negative things to say.”
For those who live and love it, rap allows the listener to better understand his life and aspire to something better.