“It’s Not Real Music”: Rap, Rock and the New Racism

image source: bet.com/news/music

We’ve all seen them. The youtube commenters lurking in the threads below every Led Zeppelin classic, every Nirvana lyric vid, bemoaning the state of modern pop. “This is REAL MUSIC”, they declare, because they have a real thing for capslock. “This generation’s music SUCKS”, they say with great critical acumen. Even Dave Grohl piled on, complaining that “pop music is so superficial right now“, and taking what certainly seems to be a jab at Nicki Minaj’s Anaconda. Feeling irrelevant, Dave?

Lists of the best-selling artists of all time, though hotly contested, pretty much unanimously feature names like The Rolling Stones, U2, Queen, AC/DC, Eminem, Pink Floyd, Led Zep, Garth Brooks, Elvis and The Beatles (there’s a few white female divas in there, but that’s an issue for another time. There’s also the major exception of Michael Jackson, and we all know how well everything worked out for him). Whereas the top twenty of Rolling Stone’s seminal Greatest Artists list includes Bo Diddley, Marvin Gaye, Muddy Waters, Sam Cooke, Stevie Wonder, Bob Marley, Ray Charles, Aretha Franklin, Little Richard, James Brown, Jimi Hendrix and Chuck Berry. These guys are the trailblazers, the ones who developed rock n roll, soul, funk; the foundations of music as we know it. And yet they are often overshadowed by those who stand on their shoulders, to mix my metaphors. White music-lovers find it easier to adore somebody who looks just like them.

And yet, artists like Kanye and Rihanna are starting to enter into the ‘most units sold’ lists. Which causes hurt feelings for nostalgic white people. There was once a time when Grammys were touched only by alabaster hands, a time when nice white fellas soared to multimillion dollar heights on the back of genres appropriated from African-Americans. But now, not only are black artists finding commercial success, they’re also talking about race. They’re bringing a black sound into popular music. Most prominently, Beyoncé and Kendrick Lamar have issued unapologetic statements about black identity and white privilege in massive, mainstream songs. And gosh darn it, that upsets us.
Hip hop isn’t real music! For further sulking, let’s take a look at that popular meme making fun of Rihanna’s ‘deep’ lyrics. You know the one; rihanna meme

Now here’s a gem of profundity from the emperors of white people music, and best-selling band of all time, the Beatles:

Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
So please, love me do
Whoa, love me do

Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
So please, love me do
Whoa, love me do
Someone to love
Somebody new
Someone to love
Someone like you

Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
So please, love me do
Whoa, love me do

Love, love me do
You know I love you
I’ll always be true
So please, love me do
Whoa, love me do
Yeah, love me do
Whoa, oh, love me do

Pretty complex stuff.
If you need further evidence that black music scares white people, remember how LA theatres beefed up security at screenings of Straight Outta Compton, and Don Cheadle was required to shoehorn a white co-star into Miles Ahead? Then there’s the Glastonbury attendees who threw tantrums in reaction to headliners Jay Z, Beyonce and most recently, yes, Kanye. Noel Gallagher, in a fit of entitlement, proclaimed “I’m not having hip hop at Glastonbury. It’s wrong”. Gallagher also accused Beyonce of “shaking your ass for a living”. This is a case of using moral outrage to dismiss talent. A similar approach is white media positioning black artists as abrasive and aggressive, demonising figures like Azealia Banks and Kanye for being confrontational on issues of race and power. Often, the criticisms of conduct spill over into claims that they have no talent, which is simply untrue. Both celebrities undoubtedly have an excess of ego and a willingness to offend, but that’s hardly unique among public figures. What makes it easy to vilify their behaviour is decades of framing black people as angry and violent. And this is the same blanket criticism that detractors level at hip-hop. It’s violent, it’s angry, it incites criminality.

And hell yes, some of hip-hop is angry. So what? It’s pretty damn easy to empathise, to drown in a tide of liberal guilt when you hear Killer Mike declaring “I have a 20 year old son, and I have a twelve year old son, and I am so afraid for them”. Could anything sound angrier than ‘Hell You Talmbout’, which desperately repeats the names of the victims who inspired Black Lives Matter; and shouldn’t it? But the ‘violent’ label is stupidly reductive; hip-hop (and R&B) can be moving, poetic, complex and nuanced. Soulja Boy is not a fair representation, and dismissing a genre this dynamic and encompassing is a knee-jerk, small-minded reaction.

There are, of course, many white people who love hip-hop and R&B; that’s part of what makes the others so nervous. And this starts to get into an altogether different set of issues, of appropriation, fetishisation, Othering, and belonging. But what I’m talking about is an insidious, covert racism masquerading as artistic preference, as the preservation of “real music”.

So, defenders of the Dad-Rock empire, recognise that what you are championing may not be just a genre. It’s a nostalgia for a time when full-maned white men were the only people who were awarded the title of musical genius. It’s a desire to reduce a crucial genre to merely angry noise and primitive sexuality, reserving claims of brilliance and integrity for People Like Us. It’s certainly possible that, all politics aside, you genuinely do not like these genres. But do ask yourself; have I actually listened?

4 Comments


  1. // Reply

    Straight Outta Compton sticks to it and basically picks one narrative, but the storyline it selects to tell is undeniably strong.


  2. // Reply

    To the stage, Wolverine (as played by Hugh Jackman) is the only character to appear in every single X Men movie… but whether or not that streak will continue with X-Men: Apocalypse is unclear as of this point.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.