I’ve been hoping someone would call me out online for liking certain suspect rap artists. It’s always a fun topic of conversation in public, especially when I get asked what my favourite rappers are. I can almost sense their cringing, anticipating a lecture from me about how “hip-hop is dead,” and that “I only listen to real hip-hop,” or something.
Currently my two favourite rappers are Freddie Gibbs and Future. If you’re familiar with either of their work, you know you shouldn’t really expect to hear them rap about, um, PG-rated content, except for their occasional bank on a Rihanna hook. Gibbs especially is one of the more gangsta rappers of the day, and I thought his collaboration EP with left-field L.A. producer Madlib was one of the best projects of 2012.
Both Future and Gibbs present, in their music, worlds that are very real, evolving (or devolving, depending who you talk to) by-products of systemic racism and long-term prejudice carried out into a society that, forever, has been stacked against them. They demonstrate a reality that continues the manifestation of a world built on colonialism, which is happening right now, in, presumably, today’s post-colonial, post-slavery, pre-equality West. Gibbs and Future paint, in their very differing style and technique, images of a world that is foreign to me, despite not even living that far away.
Hip-hop is black music, period. It was born in a black New York neighbourhood over 30 years ago, and it continues to be the tool with which those utilizing it as an art form interpret their world. It is the weapon of choice for those who, through systemic racism, have been othered. As art, it is a window with which those who share the artist’s same conundrum can contextualize their predicament, and for curious bystanders like me, it’s an opportunity to look into one of richest ongoing cultural movements in my life.
I’m not black. I’ve never felt racism, other than being called “Polack” (correction: I’m Polish-Canadian), or “Jew” (Well, I’ve been to a Bar Mitzvah before. Does that count?), but I wouldn’t call that racism. I’d call that name-calling.
I shared a room for the first half of my life, but I was not born in a shitty neighbourhood. In fact, I grew up in a small home on a great street for young families, surrounded by other kids, some of whom I have to thank for introducing me to rap.
I’ve witnessed a lot of parental missteps in my upbringing, but I still had a Dad and Mom at home. I never had many toys or things growing up, but I always had enough to eat. I didn’t ever have to resort to something illegal to get money for the things I needed.
All these examples are, unfortunately, common circumstances for black and minority kids growing up in Canada, and especially in the U.S. I’ve seen one of Peel Police’s finest call one of my best friends in high school a nigger because he refused to open his trunk for him with no warrant present; a right guaranteed to him in the Charter. I’ve heard high school teachers refer to rap as “monkey music” jokingly, in a class filled with more non-white kids than otherwise. And all of this occurred in Mississauga, one of the most multicultural cities in Canada.
Rap is music. In other words, it’s what artists use to interpret the world around them. I don’t live in the same world as my black friends, just like I don’t live in the same world as my women friends. Their world is stacked differently than mine, and it always has been.
Through their art, they let me attempt to understand the differences. It’s close as I could ever hope to get. Let’s not pussyfoot here, either; as artists, rappers owe nothing to you, or to anybody, for that matter.
So former drug dealers who make art inspired by their past offend you. That’s too bad. However, you might want to consider what’s more offensive; the creative work that may one day earn them a ticket towards living a more fulfilled life, gaining fans, friends, and opportunities along the way? Or the systemic, perpetual, ongoing racism and societal makeup that forced them into thinking selling drugs and gangbanging were their only choice to make something out of themselves? Think about it.
I’ll stop there.