On Aug. 28, a man considered one of the most inflammatory mainstream musicians in recent memory won Best New Artist at the MTV Video Music Awards.
The Los Angeles-based rapper Tyler, The Creator, member of the hip-hop collective Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, took home the honor after a banner year where he transitioned from unknown rapper to best-selling artist.
Much of the attention heaped on Tyler and his counterparts stems from the inclusion of homophobic slurs, misogyny and rape fantasies in their music. Some critics praise their music as thought provoking, but many social activists deem it revolting.
Regardless, Tyler and his crew’s success sparked renewed discussions about the use and acceptance of hatred, raising questions about how much of this hatred is unique to the music scene and if hip-hop in particular perpetuates oppression.
“That Horrible ‘F’ Word”
Minnesota rapper Brother Ali sees hip-hop as distinct from other genres, partially because of the culture that inspires hip-hop songs and subjects. Ali said he regrets using homosexual slurs in some of his early songs.
“I said that horrible ‘f’ word on my first album twice,” Ali said prior to his scheduled Iowa City concert last fall. “I wasn’t talking about [homosexuals] specifically in my mind, it was just that in the street culture I come from we used that as a synonym for ‘weak’.”
Ali credits his homosexual friends, who provided him with “teaching moments,” for aiding in his lyrical transformation.
On his most recent album, Us, Ali not only left out the slurs, but on the song “Tightrope” he rapped about a closeted homosexual trying to live within a homophobic world:
“He retreats inside himself/ Where he lives life itself in secret/ Daddy says people go to hell for being/ What he is and he certainly believes him.”
Rappers Won’t Change
Ali said criticizing artists who spread hateful messages is unlikely to make rappers change their music.
“Hip-hop is a music of oppressed people,” Ali said. “That’s where homophobia comes from. It comes from not being confident and secure in your manhood.”
However, other hip-hop musicians and experts focus on a bigger picture. Emcee and social activist, Juba Kalamka, said the hatred and oppression in hip-hop music reflects society’s views as a whole.
Best known for his work with the defunct group Deep Dickollective, Kalamka and his crew helped spur the development of the homo-hop genre – which, consists of homosexual artists claiming their space within the oft-homophobic hip-hop community.
“Hip-hop did not write the Defense of Marriage Act,” Kalamka said. “Hip-hop didn’t write ‘don’t ask don’t tell’. Hip-hop doesn’t create public policy or institutional policy that’s informed by homophobia.”
Is Society to Blame?
Lakesia Johnson, an assistant professor at Grinnell College specializing in the portrayal of women in pop culture, said she blames society’s negativity towards women for much of the misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop.
Some critics also point to the practices of the music industry as the source of hip-hop’s bad reputation for hateful lyrics.
Venise Berry, a bestselling author and a University of Iowa professor who writes and teaches about issues in hip-hop, argues that the music industry’s tendency to promote negative hip-hop artists over socially conscious artists created hatred in the genre.
“When you look at other types of music, and other types of images in media, film and television, you see a broader range and balance,” Berry said. “You don’t have that balance in popular rap music.”
Industry Profits from Hate
Berry notes that consumers and the music industry share responsibility for the hateful hip-hop music. She said music labels promote this music because there is a demand for it.
For the music industry, music is a product, said Kembrew McLeod, University of Iowa professor who has written and created films about hip-hop.
“They call it ‘units’ – they’re shipping units,” McLeod said.
The only example McLeod could think of where a major label backed away from controversial music comes from the mid-90s.
At this time, gangster rap was becoming increasingly popular. One of the biggest producers of the genre was the Time Warner-owned Interscope Records.
Time Warner eventually cut ties with Interscope when their stockholders demanded it.
Interscope was soon backed by another major label – MCA – who defended the acquisition by pointing out that many other record labels were also supporting controversial artists.
Berry said change is unlikely until the music industry starts supporting a wider variety of artists.
Some See Change
On the other hand, Kalamka and Johnson believe change in the music scene will only happen as quickly as social perceptions change; and some changes already have started.
Johnson pointed to a 2004 protest by Spelman College students. It prevented the popular hip-hop artist Nelly from coming to campus. The protest formed largely because of Nelly’s misogynistic music video “Tip Drill.”
Kalamka cited a recent incident involving his 17-year-old son.
“We were on Facebook, and he was showing me pictures, and [my son’s] like, ‘Here’s my best friend’s boyfriend’,” Kalamka recalled. “He had been talking to me about this friend for months, so I was like, ‘You never said he was gay’, and my son responded that he didn’t think it was a big deal. That’s a very different space than twenty years ago.”
Despite these incidents, Kalamka and Johnson expressed doubt that widespread change would occur in the near future.
“There are moments where people in the entertainment industry have had to respond when consumers say, ‘Look, this is ridiculous. We’re not going to support the rappers who do this’,” Johnson said. “But, I don’t know if that will stop the young kids in the suburbs from buying the albums. It’s still very profitable to be sexist and homophobic, unfortunately.”
Tyler, the Creator exemplifies some of the challenges presented to those who wish to criticize or change the industry. In May, Sara Quinn – a lesbian, and half of the famed indie rock band Tegan and Sara – wrote an open letter expressing outrage over the media’s adoration of Tyler.
Not to be cowed, Tyler ramped up the signature vulgarity and misogyny of his lyrics and went after Tegan and Sara with Tweet that might shock the bleepers in broadcast .
The message was clear – hate in hip-hop is here to stay.
(MacKenzie Elmer, IowaWatch web manager and staff writer, did the page layout.)
(Michael Gallagher is a graduate journalism student at the University of Iowa)