Hip-hop was a problem because an underclass that had been left to die didn’t, and instead created a music decrying their conditions that was vivid, troubling and beautiful, a declaration of existence in the face of those who’d condemned them to oblivion. It screwed up the narrative, and thus was born an anti-rap racism in which symptom became cause, laments of violence and deprivation becoming justifications for violence and deprivation. Anti-rap racists hear rap music as proof that black men pose a uniquely violent danger to the American status quo, even as the entire trajectory of that status quo suggests it’s the other way around. As theories of history go it’s both aggressively incorrect and depressingly unoriginal.
Disliking hip-hop doesn’t make you a racist any more than liking hip-hop makes you not a racist, and I’m sure there are plenty of Stormfront enthusiasts with Rick Ross in their iTunes. If you don’t like Jay-Z because you just don’t like the way he sounds, or you’re sick of his cloying ubiquity, or you wish he’d talk about something other than where he’s from for five seconds—hey, I’m not mad, I don’t like Bruce Springsteen for the same reasons. But if you don’t like rap music—a genre that contains multitudes—because of a self-satisfied moralism, or because you’re scared of it, or because you wish those people would stop talking about their problems and get out of your television and radio and kids’ bedrooms: well.
And I’m not just talking about the American right, I’m talking about all the well-meaning white folks who’ve told me how they want to like Lil Wayne but lo, the misogyny, the violence, the drugs. But, but, I’ll say: Bob Dylan aced misogyny; the Rolling Stones sang about violence; the Velvet Underground knew their way around some drugs. Yeeeah, but it’s different, they’ll say, elongating that “yeah” with conspiratorial inflection: you know what I mean. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
Rap music doesn’t get unarmed kids shot to death, “it’s different” does. “It’s different” infuses “these assholes always get away” and gives solace to people who hear that sound bite and nod their empty heads in agreement. “It’s different” is the same logic that suggests a teenager’s skin color combined with the music he listened to means he had it coming, and it’s the same logic that lets a bunch of people feign outrage over a teenager’s use of the n-word to describe himself when they’re really just outraged that he beat them to the punch.