By: Allyssa (Ally) Robinson
Should the censorship of music – or any form of art for that matter – be allowed? The history of popular music has been plagued by the white-gaze – an assumption of white superiority, where art produced by a person of colour is seen as less than. Looking at the history of popular music, music has mainly been produced by white people and consumed by white people while isolating and looking down upon people of colour, especially black people. When rap music started to take-off in the 1980’s and 1990’s, it sparked a conversation about class, age, and gender differences and how these inequalities are experienced as a black individual as opposed to a white individual. Through hip-hop culture and rap music, the African American community was given an outlet to speak on their experiences and the struggles that they face on a daily basis. As seen in the past, these new ideas and fresh voices brought support, but it also brought enemies who would fight to undermine and censor the Rap Revolution.
Rap originally found its sound through Metal because both genres shared a commonality in their unique use of technology. In the past, producing music was a process of eliminating noise, but metal and rap artists used technology to create new sounds. The unique sound of rock coupled with the new use of technology predicted the formation of rap. Metal utilized distortion, and rap used sonic elements to create a new and edgy sound. These two genres pushed the boundaries of conventional music and in doing so, threatened the conventionally conservative listener while redefining the boundaries of youth culture.
Unlike rap, there was little to no representation for the black community in rock, even when the genre was at its peak popularity. This disparity in representation is often explained away by stating that metal originated in Britain – a predominantly white country – as a working-class style, or by claiming cultural self-segregation, but it ultimately boils down to racism within the popular music schema. Throughout history, black artists had been repeatedly put down, censored, and disrespected, but rap was preparing to break this pattern.
In the 1990’s, rap began to push aside metal as it became a staple genre for teenagers and youth culture as a whole in the United States. Rap, though important, plays a minor role in the larger social movement of Hip-Hop which originated in the South Bronx and Harlem. As the music genre developed within gang cultures and ghetto communities where unemployment rates were on the decline, hip-hop would rise out of an environment where there was no work and definitely no silver spoon.
In the early years of hip-hop, DJ’s were the initial carriers of rap music. DJ’s would use turntables to spin beats and produce music (break-beats) for people to dance along with – these dancers would soon become known as breakdancers (b-boys and b-girls). During this time, Grandmaster Flash set the standard for DJ’s everywhere by working on a turntable and using his hands as a break-beat marker so as to create a cleaner transition from one record to the next (beat looping).
Grandmaster Flash came out of the South Bronx and is known for the unmistakable impact that he had on hip-hop. Not only did he perfect beat looping, but he also discovered many distinct beats that are still sampled in today’s music. ‘The Message’ by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five (1982) was sampled in Calvin Harris’ ‘Holiday’ ft. Snoop Dogg, John Legend, and Takeoff (2017). In 2017, Grandmaster Flash played a role in the production of a Netflix series titled ‘The Get Down’ which is set in 1977 New York and depicts the youth of South Bronx chasing the dream of becoming a hip-hop icon and rewriting the history of music. Today, Grandmaster Flash is 63 years old and continues to be a cultural force to be reckoned with.
As the popularity of DJ’s began to grow and expand into a larger market, the DJ’s began to recruit emcees (MC’s) as crew members to provide vocals on top of the break-beats. Similar to break-dancing, MC’s went in their own direction, developed new styles which soon became known as rapping, and fell into their own category under the larger umbrella of hip-hop. Rappers used – and continue to use today – music as a means to deliver a message. Though influenced by previous albums, the first recorded example of this was “How we Gonna Make the Black Nation Rise” by Brother D and Collective Effort in 1980.
Brother D whose real name was Daryl Aamaa Nubyahn lived in the South Bronx where he was a school teacher. It is the kids in his community along with his students who inspired him to produce this record. Brother D observed kids around the block rapping, and so he started to incorporate rap into his teaching, using it as a reward for successful students. As he gained some experience and motivation, Brother D was inspired to write. The goal of his record was to portray a realistic message instead of portraying the unrealistic fantasy that was often heard in mainstream rap lyrics. The song touches on the numerous disparities experienced by the black community including: racism, terrorism (the KKK), social injustice, unemployment, poor housing, lack of access to clean water, police brutality, and much more. The song even acknowledges people of colour who have famously spoken out about social injustices such as Martin Luther King, John Coltrane, Bob Marley, and Marcus Garvey. The song was extremely effective in portraying its message, but it did not gain much popularity within the hip-hop scene because of how highly politicized it was.
The Los Angeles rap scene was known for featuring harder rhymes than the songs coming out of New York. One rapper to come out of this environment was Ice Cube. At the young age of 16, Ice Cube released ‘Boyz N the Hood’ with Eazy-E on a rhythm produced by Dre and Yella. This song was sampled by Megan Thee Stallion in 2020 in a spin-off song called ‘Girls in the Hood.’ The collaboration of ‘Boyz N the Hood’ influenced the creation of N.W.A, a hip-hop group rising from Compton, California with Ice-Cube, Eazy-E, Dr.Dre, and DJ Yella as 4 of the 5 core members. The group contributed to hip-hop’s politicization when they released ‘Straight Outta Compton’ in 1988 which displayed gang life as a lifestyle with no moral obligations.
As hip-hop was becoming highly politicized and rap was gaining more popularity, it also gained more enemies. One voice who spoke out against this criticism was Bryan Turner, president of N.W.A’s record label, Priority. Turner stood with rap artists and groups such as N.W.A, stating that “These guys lived the things they talk about… When I saw what these guys wrote, it really hit me that their side of the story is important to tell.” Turner was open-minded and recognized that many people experience life outside of the white-gaze because they are born into poverty and are forced to live life at a disadvantage. Where white people are born into privilege and live life at an advantage, people of colour are not given the same opportunities. Of course, the majority of people chose not to be as open-minded and accepting as Turner.
Similarly to the opposition to rock ‘n roll in the 50’s and 60’s, rap evoked a sense of fear in consumers. The fear of sensuality in song lyrics rose from the idea that suggestive lyrics would overwhelm rational thought and influence the younger generation to neglect their moral values. The themes of drug abuse, uncontrolled behaviour, misogyny, and moral neglect that were often portrayed in rap music quickly began to be projected onto race. Consumers began to associate these themes with the black community, thus creating unjust fear and stereotypes against people of colour, mainly the black community.
Many of the criticism’s directed towards rap could be traced back to Christian groups, elite conservatives, and many more organizations whose main goal was censorship as a means of protecting the youth. One such group was the Parents Music Resource Centre (PMRC) which originally started in the 1960’s, targeting heavy metal, but soon shifting its target to rap music as it gained headway/popularity. The group was originally comprised of twenty prominent women in Washington D.C. – seventeen of which were married to influential politicians. This position of power combined with their far right political beliefs put them in the perfect position to create an opposition against hip-hop culture and rap music. Forming an alliance with the Parent/Teacher Association (PTA), the PMRC to develop a rating system for music that mirrored that of the film industry; A compromise was reached when the Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) created the generic ‘parental advisory/explicit lyrics’ warning. This compromise spurred the PMRC forward and they compiled their powers – particularly those of the members’ husbands – and commenced public hearings on the PMRC’s charges. The RIAA was forced to cooperate because they faced the powers of both legislation and regulation. The PMRC claimed that their actions were voluntary measures, not censorship, stating that they were not opposed to all music, yet their actions continually centered in on rap music.
The PMRC hearings of 1985 mirrored the payola hearings of 1959 because both events saw ‘morally obligated’ and high-status individuals attempt to censor music that featured taboo subjects. In both cases, individuals claimed that they took action to protect their children from the harsh sounds/lyrics of popular music, but a statement from the aforementioned youths themselves was never mentioned. Seemingly, the only change that had taken place since the 1950’s was a lack of clearly defined groups. Overall, both events proved to be another case of entitled individuals using political power to force morality on everyone around them.
In the history of popular music, country music has been a white-dominated genre and hence, only really looked at the world through a white-lens. Rap music on the other hand started as, and continues to be, a black-dominated genre. Rap music looks at the world through a black-lens and acknowledges the struggles and challenges that people of colour face on a daily basis – something that white people would not understand. Rap music does not represent the conventional lifestyle that is experienced by the majority of white people and the thought of a lifestyle, such as that written into rap music, comes across as foreign and thus, threatening. Simply stated, country music is not subjected to the same criticism as rap music because it coincides with the white-gaze, while rap does not. Rap music is black-focused and emphasizes the experiences of those who are living in poor communities such as Compton, the Bronx, and South Central Los Angeles. These experiences include drug use/trade, gang groups/rivalries, police brutality, racism, misogyny, and much more. Rap gives a voice to those who were born at a disadvantage and the black community deserves to be recognized and appreciated for the art that they produce, regardless of the music industries attempts to hold them down.
In order to grow as a society, we need to acknowledge the shortcomings and injustices in the history of music. It is important to be curious, ask questions, and make a conscious effort to be better. In question, would a white artist be subjected to the same criticisms as a black artist if both parties were rapping about the same subjects? Do These type of questions continue to spark debate in society today. Regardless, hip-hop and rap have proven to stand the test of time, and as rap songs from the 80’s continue to be sampled in todays music, there is no debating that the revolution of rap continues to move forwards.