Violence in Language: Is Rap Music Causing Violence in America?

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Violence in Language: Is Rap Music Causing Violence in America?

Violence - Realities and Concerns

Amal Saleeby Malek, Ph.D.

NDU, Louaize

Violence in Language:

Is Rap Music Causing Violence in America?

Abstract

Our exposure to violence is increasing worldwide, and the younger generation

is almost always the most affected by it. There is violence in family, in

schools and universities, in the media, in politics, in language. In language, we

use words to make people behave in a certain way. Violence is all around us. It

is often physical and just as often verbal, both in language and in music.

Violence is an expression. Rap, hip hop and gangsta rap are kinds of music that

often use violent lyrics and violent beats to reflect urban life. Rap is being strongly

criticized because it depicts violence, crime, racism, and misogyny. Is rap

music really being attacked for being violent, profane and explicit, or is it so fiercely

criticized because of who is using it to send their messages across, or to express

their rage and despair? Are we attacking the themes or shooting the messengers?

Does racial discrimination play a role in this controversy?

Violence in Language: Is Rap Music Causing Violence in America?

I- Definition of rap music and background

Violence. We are surrounded by it: in the newspapers we read, on the news

we watch, at the movies we go to, even in the music we listen to. Violence affects

both adults and children, and its effects are undeniable. However, violent lyrics

have existed long before the emergence of rap music. Nowadays some of the

most popular music genres are rap, hip hop or gangsta rap. Gangsta comes from

the word gangster, and gangsta rap, a variation of hip hop, is especially popular

in the United States among African-American youths, but its effects are felt

all over the world. Rap, which existed since the late seventies, gained popularity

in the nineties. This controversial style of music depicts urban street gangs,

described with violent, explicit often offensive lyrics.

In the seventies, for example, one of Bob Marley’s most famous and listened

to songs, “I shot the sheriff”, (Appendix 1) was very popular and did not provoke

such commotion. On the other hand, the lyrics of Ice-T’s “Cop Killer”

(Appendix 2) in the summer of 1992 evoked a loud outcry and a most heated

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debate about whether ideas about killing police officers should be expressed

publicly (Sieving, 1998).

Violence seems to dominate much of our daily conversations. We often express

ourselves by cursing or insulting people around us. Verbal violence occurs

as a “normal” way of talking. Similarly, the lyrics of some rap songs use foul language,

such as the F… word, a “bonafide” word in the English language.

(Appendix 2)

Moreover, the explicit lyrics in some rap songs highlight drugs, sex, misogyny,

promiscuity, racism, and crime. “Have you ever been hated or discriminated

against? I have; I’ve been protested and demonstrated against”, says

Eminem in his “Cleanin Out the Closet” album (Appendix 3). It would seem that

violent behavior is part of the process of searching for one’s individual or collective

identity (UNESCO, Language as violence). Could this be what rappers

do? However, some rap artists adopt friendlier beats and milder lyrics.

Most rappers claim that they are illustrating the real inner-city life although

they may not necessarily endorse it, much like an actor adopting a role in a

movie. This form of music is stereotypical of African-Americans and aims to

entertain. Many rap themes deal with street life including pimping, and hustling

as well as killing and shooting. Some musicians refer to their gang or pistol and

one can hear rough beats along with actual gunshots in the songs. RunDMC, a

rap group dresses in gang-like street clothing, displays abrasive attitudes and

uses foul language to send across their message. Schooly D, Ice Cube and Nas

are other rappers who adopt the same style. They have popularized “hard-hitting,

aggressive, often socio-political lyrics, sometimes revolving around street

violence, poverty, and gunplay” (Gangsta rap). There are many references to

guns and pimping in these songs. Boogie Down Productions released CDs describing

“shooting rival weed dealers after they try to kill [someone] in his home”

(Gangsta rap).

An album entitled Criminal Minded was released in 1987. After the release

of the album, the DJ, “Scott LaRock was shot and killed” (Gangsta rap). In 1986,

N.W.A., a rap group, released their first album, which introduced more violent

lyrics and rougher musical beats. The first major controversy was sparked regarding

hip-hop lyrics in their song, “F—- Tha Police”. The FBI sent a letter strongly

condemning the song. Other West Coast rappers began to use crime-related

themes in their lyrics (Gangsta rap).

The controversy and the “hype” over the rap lyrics attracted a lot of media

attention. Ice T’s releases in 1993 contained political material, “Bomb-Squad

style beats” and he even went on to publish a book: The Ice Opinion: Who Gives

a F—-?” (Gangsta rap). Dr. Dre and Tupac Shakur very successful and influential

West coast hip hop artists created Death Row Records, and East coast rap-


Violence - Realities and Concerns

pers, released Bad Boys Records, featuring a song entitled “Ready to Die” in

1994. It is widely suggested that the battle between the two companies resulted

in the deaths of Tupac Shakur, of Death Row, in 1996, and the Notorious B.I.G.

of Bad Boy’s in 1997.

Meanwhile Southern and Midwestern gangsta rap continued to flourish with

Scarface, a famous rapper, and in New Orleans, Master P’s added a new release.

“The Ghetto is trying to kill me” in 1994 (Gangsta rap).

II- Is rap music more violent than other genres: Western movies?

Rap is not the only rebellious music that has been blamed for society’s ills.

Musical genres (reggae and others) have often been blamed for socially inappropriate

behavior. However, violent and sexually explicit gangsta rap has raised

significant concern (Kirshheimer, 2003). Is it because it criticizes social injustice

and puts the blame on a deficient system?

Movies are one way we entertain ourselves. Western movies are engrained

in the American public’s mind. They are part of the American culture. Western

“cowboys” and “Indians” movies are all about “saloons, shotguns, and showdowns”

(Carter, 2002). But, the American public associates “The Myth of the

West” to American pride, and sees the violence in those movies as a sign of

valor. Actors such as Clint Eastwood, John Ford and Gary Cooper, are famous

for shooting Indians and no one would think of condemning them for their violent

scenes; and, John Wayne always won, in taking land from the Indians.

Cowboy movies are not censored nor criticized; they are accepted as part of the

American values, and are deeply respected and appreciated. In Western movies,

the public cheers with the hero’s violent response to various situations (Carter,

2002).

Nowadays, movies are more and more violent, from Pulp Fiction to Blood

Diamond, not forgetting the Last King of Scotland, just to name a few; however,

there does not seem to be any agitation or mental anguish about those movies.

So, “…what makes the violence in gangsta rap music more violent than the

bloodshed Americans applaud in Westerns”? (Carter, 2002). One may wonder,

is it because the rappers are mostly African-American in a white mainstream

America? Or, is it because music is more pervasive than a movie? (It may be

more difficult to control what people listen to; youngsters, for instance, can listen

to any kind of music, without parental supervision, whereas movies, which

are usually rated, need parental guidance). Is it the inability to relate to “the feelings

of these angry, black cowboys trying to survive in the modern Wild Wild

West”? Is it because white America cannot identify with the black” socio-economic

conditions”, and “the harsh living conditions of these rappers?” (Carter,

2002).

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Society reacts to rap themes with fury and condemnation; however, the plots

and devices in Western movies are not less violent or profane.

In addition to criticizing the violent lyrics in rap, rap is criticized because rappers

are known to “sing of guns with almost lascivious glee”. They talk about

their “pieces” or “glocks”, “ninas” or pistols as “the object of their affections”.

(Nordlinger, 2001). The rapper Notorious B.I.G. says: “Somebody’s gotta die.

Let the gunshots blow…Give them bullets room to breathe” (Appendix 4).

It is obvious that, contrary to their objections, Americans have shown that

violence as a theme is not the problem, since it is so well received and even

appreciated as a great moral value in Western movies. So, what is the real reason

for their condemnation?

I agree with Keonna Carter, when she says that rap music is being criticized,

not because it is too violent, too explicit or too offensive, but because of who is

using it as a medium. (2002). If violence is to be considered a threat to society,

then she says, it “should be consistently defined along non-racial lines” (Carter,

2002). Violent language dealing with crime, death, sex, drugs, profanity, should

be condemned regardless of who is expressing it.

III- Can violence be blamed on rap music?

Rap music is the black community sharing their culture and telling their stories

in their own special way. For example, “Runaway Love’ is a powerful song

demonstrating the plight of three, nine, ten and eleven- year old girls who are

“forced to think that hell is a place called home” (Appendix 5). The song tells

stories of drugs, rape, prostitution, hunger, abuse and lost childhood. This

shows how the violence and pain in rap music “is merely a reflection of the violence

that many urban dwellers deal with daily in America”. What should be

addressed are “the true problems that grip urban American cities”. (Should

Gangsta Rap Take the Blame for Violence in America?).

Thus, rap is not only music; it is a story. Rap music illustrates “life in the

hood”, and portrays the rappers true experiences and feelings. It depicts poverty

and homelessness, unemployment, and destitution, gang ties and cruelty,

bad, violent, home life and feelings of being persecuted by the police. Rappers

and members of their communities have to deal with these issues everyday of

their lives. This is not an imagined or imaginary world they fantasize about, this

is their everyday reality. Through their songs, rappers have been demonstrating

what goes on in their lives, the misery they experience and the despair they feel

when they think about suicide and about having a worthless future (Poggioli,

2005).


Violence - Realities and Concerns

If this reality (the conditions in which rappers live) is dealt with, then rap, as

an art form or expression will naturally cease to exist the way we know it, and

a gentler more perfect art form will emerge to depict the new realities of life.

If we agree that “art imitates nature”, we realize that rap music illustrates

“some of the most complex social, cultural and political issues in contemporary

American society”. (Should Gangsta Rap Take the Blame for Violence in

America?). Rappers usually live in the American ghetto, which is characteristic

of poverty, violence, crime, “the ugly reality of the streets”. For many young

black youths, this kind of music “is the only way to escape from the pain in

which they live”. (Should Gangsta Rap Take the Blame for Violence in

America?) It is a lament, a cry for help, a way to vent their frustrations. Rap

music “paints an ugly picture” of their daily life, but when audiences hear their

idealized or idolized artists experience their pain and identify with their plight,

it becomes more bearable for the rappers to deal with their situations and more

possible for them to hope for a better future.

These are the real issues that should be dealt with. The source of the problem

should be the main concern, not the manner in which the issue is expressed in

songs. It is said that language and culture go hand in hand, and words should

be understood in their context. Words are sometimes used to make people behave

in a certain way. It may be that this is what lyrics and other literary expressions

attempt to do. Rapper, Ice-T explains for instance, that within his community,

rap is considered “verbal combat” (Sieving, 1998). The “fighting words”

illustrate “angry verbal disputes”, sometimes including “insults and threats”.

Thomas Kockman (1981) in his book Black and White Styles in Conflict, explains

“fighting words” and says that violent language among blacks “can be maintained

by blacks at the verbal level without violence necessarily resulting” (in

Sieving, 1998).

Rap is certainly not understood by everyone. It is not a familiar art form,

which may be one of the reasons it is feared and perceived as a threat. Thus,

when rap is labeled as evil and as inciting violence, it is mostly ignorance that is

at play. Rap should not be considered a cause of violence.

Rap talks about violence, lays it out in the open, is not shy about exposing it,

is explicit and raunchy, but by no means does it create violence. When teenagers

listen to violent rap lyrics, evidently they may be attracted to them, or want to

imitate them, without knowing the reason behind the words. This is why their

parents object to the lyrics. But merely listening to foul or offensive language

does not mean that we will become offensive and violent ourselves.

What the parents can do is explain the bad conditions in which many of the

rappers live and thus, give the children a more comprehensive and educated

perspective on the issues at hand. This is not to say that parents are to condone

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the violent language, but to try to explain the reasons behind it so as to show the

youngsters a clearer, more realistic picture of the world they live in. It should be

the parents’ responsibility to guide their children and monitor what they watch

and/or listen to.

On the other hand, teenagers should realize that we live in an imperfect

world; hiding the truth from them does not help them. Teens must realize that

there is injustice and imbalance in the world, which some rap music deals with.

Issues such as police brutality and racial discrimination are depicted in rap

music. What society must do is try to improve everyday realities in order to

create a better world for the future generations.

On the positive side, it is worth mentioning that rappers are often young men

mostly raised in humble homes, who have tremendous talent and who through

hard work have made a place for themselves in the society. Their creativity and

talent, in addition to their hard work and dedication are part of the American

dream. All rap music is not about violence and foul language. Some rappers sing

about love, like NB Rudaz, and others (Appendix 6).

It is unfortunate that the death of Tupac Shakur is blamed on rap violence.

Tupac lived in the slums, where he developed a “negative outlook on life”, but

he also had many positive views. In his own words, Tupac wanted to “heal”

people and admitted his troubles but never asked anyone to follow his bad

example. Like many other rappers he admits to making mistakes but tells his

public to pay attention and learn from their mistakes. (Should Gangsta Rap Take

the Blame for Violence in America?). It should also be remembered that rappers,

although they may become role models to teenagers, are first and foremost

entertainment artists, not moralists. Their job is to entertain, not to teach. Many

rappers are perceived negatively and people tend to forget that they are playing

a role.

Misconceptions against rappers abound, and opponents of rap music should

concentrate on positive personal statements instead of violent lyrics in songs.

Rappers, after all, are “a product of a society” that, according to Tupac Shakur,

often tells them that their life is worthless. (Should Gangsta Rap Take the Blame

for Violence in America?)

As Tupac Shakur, says, “In any other country with any other skin color, I

would have been a great lawyer, like Tom Cruise in The Firm”. (Should Gangsta

Rap Take the Blame for Violence in America?). Tupac blames America for depicting

him as a black cop-killer. His music is his way of reacting against the system.

As mentioned earlier, rappers often have positive messages. “Keep Ya

Head Up” is a song for black women asking men to respect them. Another

example is “One Nation” which was Tupac’s way of asking his fellow rappers


Violence - Realities and Concerns

to unite and show the world a better black community. (Should Gangsta Rap

Take the Blame for Violence in America?)

According to John Leland of Newsweek, the negative connotation that rappers

acquire, cannot be avoided. However, urban violence, he warns, should not

be blamed on rap. The problem is that many rappers come from poor, low-income

communities. This is the issue that must be addressed. Moreover, it is presumed

that “violence is provoked by social shame”. According to a 1995 issue

of Journal of Black Studies, people who are considered inferior to others are

more likely to become violent. (Should Gangsta Rap Take the Blame for Violence

in America.)

That is why violence is high among poor blacks. Rap artists are mostly

young, black and poor, which accounts for the high incidence of violence in their

songs. Some use it to make their audience “feel the pain”, and others use fantasy

instead. And, certainly, expressing themselves in music is more desirable

than taking it out on the streets.

IV- Conclusion

The link between rap lyrics and violence seems overrated. The claim that violent

language causes violent behavior “is neither convincing nor conclusive

(United States Senate)”. Hip hop and rap are distinct forms of art like other

types of music. The violent lyrics in the songs reflect the violence found in many

American cities, rather than create it. It is not only unfair but also naive to blame

rap music for social violence (Violence in rap music).

When Stevie Wonder was asked about his thoughts on rap, he said:” I learn

from rap…Listen hard, and you’ll hear the pain. Without feeling the pain yourself,

you’ll never understand. And what we don’t understand, we can’t change,

can’t heal. I hate it when the very folks who should be listening to rap are attacking

it so hard they miss the point. The point is that children and the neighborhoods-the

whole country… is drowning in violence” (Smitherman, 1997, in

Carter, 2002).

So, hip-hop and rap music are rooted in violent, sexist and raunchy, profane

themes; however, they should not be the only genres to be criticized or condemned.

Violent movies and violence in the media have to be addressed as well.

Since art mirrors life, whatever movie we watch or music we listen to is only

depicting this reality, it is not creating it. Although teens may be negatively

affected by violence, violence exists everywhere, even in their homes, schools or

work places. Rap music is not the only detrimental feature in their dysfunctional

or imperfect world, and, should not be singled out as the only or the worst

existing nightmare. Movies are often much more effective in depicting violence,

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rapes and killings, (a picture is worth one thousand words) and should be monitored

as well.

It is evident that we live in a culture of violence, and rap music is an art that

reflects this reality. If we lived in a non-violent society, rap, the way we know it,

would not exist. Rap, after all, is a form of entertainment. If a rapper is involved

in crime, it has to do with the individual himself, with his environment and

upbringing not with the fact that he is a rap artist. I agree with James Gilligan,

M.D. when he says: “People make choices and decisions for themselves”.

(Should Gangsta Rap Take the Violence in America?) People make their own

choices, and if they sing violent songs, it is because they themselves are violent,

not only the songs they sing. Thus, rap music should not be blamed for the decisions

people make. Since rap music mirrors urban American city life, the fight

should be against the causes of violence, not against its effects. The rappers are

not the ones causing the violence; they are merely talking about it.

“It is far too simplistic to portray rap artists as perpetuators of behavior deemed

socially deviant without placing the artists and their life experiences in

context” (Richardson & Scott, 2002). After all, we should be grateful that the

artist is expressing his anger in a song, rather than on the streets. (Should

Gangsta Rap take the Blame for Violence in America?)

In conclusion, to say that rap music causes violence is a “misdiagnosis”.

People concerned should look at the root of the problem and rap is only a symptom

of this illness. Rap is one way in which people express themselves, and thus

reflects a certain economic and social aspect of reality. The answer to ending

gang violence is not in limiting the artistic expression in rap music. Although it

has an influence on the public who listens to it, rap is not the reason for society’s

troubles. It is rather the consequence of those troubles. Those concerned

should concentrate their efforts “on the oppression, poverty, and destitution

that manifest themselves in urban lawlessness” (Dorn, 2003). Neither the artist,

nor his art form should be blamed; let us not shoot the messenger!


Violence - Realities and Concerns

References

Carter, K. (June 2002) “Rapping it Up”.

http://xroads.virginia.edu/~UG03/carter/rap/rapup/html Retrieved March

16, 2007-03-20

Dorn, D. (June 2003) “Gang Violence Spawns Rap Music”.

http://media.www.thelantern.com/media/storage/paper333/news/2003/06

/04/Opinion/G... Retrieved March 15, 2007

Example Essays.com “Violence in rap music”

http://www.exampleessays.com/viepaper/4608.html Retrieved March 15,

2007

Kirchheimer, S.(March 2003) “Does Rap Put Teens at Risk?” WebMD Medical

News. http://www.webmd.com/baby/news/20030303/does-rap-put-teensat-risk

Retrieved March 15, 2007

Nordlinger, J. (April, 2001). “Bang: Guns, rap, and silence – violence in rap

music”, National Review.

Poggioli, S. (December 2005) “French Rap Musicians Blamed for Violence

http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5052650 Retrieved

March 15, 2007

Richardson, J. W. & Scott, K.A. (Summer 2002) “Rap music and its violent progeny:

America’s culture of violence on context”

http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qa3626/is_200207/ai_n9085450

Retrieved March 15, 2007

Sieving, C. (Oct 1998 v22 n4 p334 v (20). “Cop out? The media, “Cop Killer”,

and the deracialization of Black rage”. Journal of Communication Inquiry.

“Should Gangsta Rap Take the Blame for Violence in America?

http://student.valpo.edu.nkinsey/research.html Retrieved March 15, 2007

UNESCO Youth Forum Language as violence, violence as language,

http://portal.unesco.org/culture/en/ev.php-

URL_ID=20100&URL_Do=Do_TOPIC&URL... Retrieved Feb. 26, 2007

Wikipedia. Gangsta rap,

http://www.answers.com/topic/gangsta-rap Retrieved March 16, 2007

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