How Rich, White People Ruined Music for the Rest of Us.

In her book How Fantasy Becomes Reality, Dr. Karen Dill-Shackleford brings up an interesting point about how the lyrical content of rap music shifted in the late 1980s. She implies that it was only when corporate major label executives got involved in the rap music scene that the lyrical content changed to resemble the violent and misogynistic stereotype that we are all familiar with (Dill, 2009, pg 183). While I agree with this point and believe that corporate execs should stay out of most art forms, I do think Dr. Dill-Shackleford takes things a little too far and could be adding fuel to the fires of moral panic in America.

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A familiar sight, and a sign of good music, to many of us.

First, a bit of history. At its origin, rap music spoke mainly of community, sincerity, and anti-commercialism (Lena, 2006). However, by the late 1980s the most popular songs were being charted by major labels, not independent ones, and this correlates with the increase in violent and misogynistic lyrics (Lena, 2006). By 1994 only 5 companies owned 90% of all music revenue, and that’s not just for the rap and hip-hop genres (Myer, 2007).

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Rap and hip-hop became far too lucrative for the massive corporations not to notice.

Such a concentrated oligopoly has noted effects on the music produced by the corporate machine. These include a decrease in diversity, a decrease in creativity, and the death of the cultural values once espoused by the music (Myer, 2007). Letrez Myer and Christine Kleck put it best:

“Ultimately, rap music loses the value of its messages, social urgency, and authenticity as it gets watered down and formulaic with corporate control.” 

Now, about what I said in the first paragraph about Dr. Dill-Shackleford adding to the moral panic. She points out several studies in her book that point to rap music’s negative effects on women. I am not going to claim here that she is in any way incorrect since the corporate takeover of the music industry there has been a marked increase in the violent and misogynistic lyrics many people are familiar with (Dill, 2009).

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Hard censorship is rarely the correct answer.

But rap music has also proven useful as an education tool and effective in raising the self-esteem of students, as one Oakland, CA schoolteacher discovered. In the 1990’s Carolyn Plummer began making a student-produced show called “All Young Artists Need Attention” with the goal of raising student’s self-esteem and helping them to feel empowered (Powell 1991).

English rapper Akala examines the similarities between hip-hop and Shakespeare

In conclusion, the effects of popular rap and hip-hop music are powerful and far-reaching, and while the negative effects on women definitely do need to be addressed the genre is not something that should be feared or demonized. In my own opinion, the corporate oligopoly that plagues the music industry as a whole, as well as many other aspects of our modern lives, is the primary cause of the negative aspects of rap and hip-hop music, and it needs to be stopped. Unfortunately, I do not have any constructive theories on how to do this beyond some regulatory form of “Burn it all down!” but I do believe something needs to be done.

 

 

Dill, K. E. (2009). How fantasy becomes reality: Seeing through media influence. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Lena, J. C. (2006). Social Context and Musical Content of Rap Music, 1979-1995. Social Forces85(1), 479-495.

Myer, L., & Kleck, C. (2007). From Independent to Corporate: A Political Economic Analysis of Rap Billboard Toppers. Popular Music & Society30(2), 137-148. doi:10.1080/03007760701267649

Powell, Catherine Tabb. ‘‘Rap Music: An Education with a Beat from the Street.’’ The Journal of
Negro Education 60.3 (1991): 245–59.

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