“How many brothers fell victims to the streets.” Life Goes On, 2pac
I grew up listening to Gangsta rap, though I was listening about a decade after it it came to prominence. Of course, for many, the ideas espoused in Gangsta Rap were reaffirming rather than eye opening (though I grew up in Baltimore, I was a still a little white girl shocked by listening to 2pac). But the first critiques of police violence and incarceration I was exposed to came from N.W.A, Public Enemy, and 2pac. Same with my first exposure to the rhetoric of Black Power. I have often credited the work of Michelle Alexander with spurring my interest in incarceration early in college, but I think the credit should probably go 2pac. Much of his music critiqued incarceration and police violence, including changes
“Cause both black and white is smokin’ crack tonight
And only time we chill is when we kill each other
It takes skill to be real, time to heal each other
And although it seems heaven sent
We ain’t ready, to see a black President, uhh
It ain’t a secret don’t conceal the fact
The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks.”
These lyrics were almost certainly my first exposure to ideas that would come to define my intellectual life, though I had no idea at the time.
In Ibram Kendi’s Stamped from the Beginning, Kendi gives a brief overview of the ways in which rap contested Reagan era policies, particularly those surrounding the War on Drugs. Though his analysis is rather simplistic, and he’s certainly not the first person to make these arguments, the overarching nature of his analysis put in perspective the relationship between Gangsta rap and many of the prominent intellectuals writing and working now. How has Gangsta rap (and other forms of hip hop) informed scholarship and writing on incarceration, police brutality, and reparations?
This isn’t to say that scholars of Hip Hop Studies haven’t explores these ideas. But I am thinking more in terms of how rap and its influences should be discussed more amongst those who do not study hip hop specifically, including intellectually. I am interested in exploring the ways in which hip hop and rap influenced currently work intellectuals.
Writers and public intellectuals like Jelani Cobb, Ta-Nehesi Coates and MK Asante grew up during the 1980s and 1990s as Gangsta rap was increasing in popularity. They also grew up in cities during the crack epidemic (Queens, Baltimore, and Philadelphia respectively) and the beginnings of the war on drugs, which are memorialized in songs by N.W.A, 2pac, countless other artists.
But these men weren’t just exposed to rap and hip hop-it was integral to the development of their work. Cobb, Coates, and Asante all cite rap and hip hop as profoundly influential on their ideas and writings. In fact, Cobb’s book “To the Break of Dawn: A Freestyle on the Hip Hop Aesthetic” explores hip hop as an aesthetic style. And in a 2015 interview with Rolling Stone, after Coates was asked“How much has hip-hop informed your voice as a writer?, he said
“it’s the biggest influence on my aesthetic as a writer. It actually influences the atheism in the book. One of the constant questions I get is “Why are you so depressing? Why are you so dark? What about hope?” But hope is not very important in hip-hop. I mean, there are certainly hopeful songs, but if you listen to Illmatic, hope is not a very important sentiment. Hope has very little to do with Mobb Deep. I remember when Nas said on a Mobb Deep song, “Shoot at the clouds, feels like the holy beast is watching us.” I don’t know if Nas would describe himself as an atheist, but the music has a very atheistic, dark feel to it. That shaped me a lot.”
The ideas espoused about hip hop by Coates, Cobb, Asante and countless others were not always the norm. Intellectuals and public figures like John McWhorter, Stanley Crouch, and of course Bill Cosby publicly argued that Gangsta rap and other forms of hip hop normalized slang and improper language usage, encouraged violence and drug use, and promoted sexism. There is certainly some validity to the claims regarding sexism, but these critiques can now be seen as an element of respectability politics, a philosophy that intellectuals like Coates have gone out of their way to discredit.
This isn’t to say that the influence of Gangsta rap is entirely generational. Nikki Giovanni, afterall, has a Thug Life tattoo in reference to 2pac (“the hate you give little infants fuck everybody”). But it would behoove intellectual historians to follow in Kendi’s footsteps and include Gangsta Rap and hip-hop amongst the intellectual influences important in the late 20th century.