The case study: Censoring hip-hop music in London
“Guns, bitches and bling were never part of the four elements of hip hop and never will be.” Scroobius Pip, ‘Thou Shalt Always Kill’
Recurrent themes in discussions on popular culture are the origins and impact of violent imagery and music. Outlandish, atavistic and brutal content seems to be a naturally occurring part of imagined and narrative culture. All societies experience violent conduct, many societies tell stories involving violence, and most societies are likely produce cultural expressions that glamorise violence in some way.
Debates over the content and censorship of these forms of media have become increasingly prominent as mass production and communication technologies have enabled books, songs and images to be circulated to ever wider audiences.
During the last two decades, the musical genre known as hip hop has found itself at the forefront of this debate. Throughout the 1980s a trend towards realist lyrics that reflected the poverty and dispossession of the black communities from which hip hop emerged led to the creation of the “gangsta” rap genre, which fixated on gang violence and drug consumption. Feuds between commercially successful rappers during the 1990s culminated in shootings and deaths. Links between hip hop music and violence in inner city areas remain largely unexamined. However, hip hop’s apologists point out that gangs and crime are more closely linked to poverty and poor policing than to rap lyrics.
In January this year, a large “urban” music event in south London was disrupted when police officers conducted searches of eighteen performers and a number of young people, looking for concealed weapons. Such searches are justified by the terms of a risk assessment form- a “696”- that organisers of events in London venues must complete and submit to the police, at the risk of losing their licence. The form requires organisers to state the type of music being performed at their event. Up until 2008 the form asked organisers to give “demographic” details of an event’s likely audience, including their age and race.
“Proposals of this type often tend to focus on one particular musical genre. In the case of the example above, the genre targeted for increased regulation is hip hop. Many critics, from both inside and outside the hip hop industry have noted its increased focus on themes of gang violence, misogyny and aggressive materialism.
Those at the most extreme end of the critical spectrum claim that feuds between hip hop artists demonstrate that it is an art form that trades exclusively in images of cynical brutality, and that by equating thuggish behaviour with a glamorous lifestyle, it encourages other individuals to act in a similar way. As noted above, this viewpoint is often used to make the case that hip hop’s fans are likely to engage in criminal behaviour.
The use of 696 forms to shut down urban music events or to justify intensified policing at concerts touches directly on many of the issues contained in principle 1. Plainly, closing down a musical event based on a tenuous connection between the style of the music that will be performed and the behaviour of the audience is denial of self-expression. Crucially, however, the disproportionate targeting of hip hop and associated musical forms by the police, taken alongside comments made by high ranking politicians such as David Cameron also suggests that it is seen as an inferior form of speech, one that can be freely censored and displaced because it contains no socially valuable content.
The capstone of this misleading approach to the sometimes violent and controversial content of hip hop music is the attitude of public authorities to those who consume and produce it. Broadcasters of hip hop music have been accused of encouraging knife crime and violent muggings; stickers advising ‘Parental Guidance’ are regularly attached to hip hop albums. At the height of civil unrest in London during 2011 the prominent historian David Starky commented that ‘A particular sort of violent, destructive, nihilistic gangster culture has become the fashion,’ and that ‘Black and white, boy and girl operate in this language together. This language, which is wholly false, which is this Jamaican patois that has intruded in England [sic].’
The result of such comments is the demonization of hip hop artists and the infantilisation of their fans. Both these trends are effective in obstructing free speech. Once again, they deny the veracity and authenticity of a particular type of free expression under the aegis of protecting the public from criminality. In addition, such comments seek to portray the audiences that hip hop attracts as gullible and overly impressionable, adding an additional stereotype to a constellation of already damaging assumptions.
Reactionary attempts to shut down music venues and censor hip hop are no replacement for an equitable and even handed assessment of the content of hip hop music. Violence, even in its glamorised form, will always be part of popular culture, but it is telling that we only begin to find it objectionable when it threatens to bring the problems and realities of life at the margins of society into the mainstream – when fictional glamour reflects too closely on real-life social breakdown.”
- Alexander Cavell
We should expect fans of an art form that is subjected to public criticism and vilification to leap to its defence. Some of these aficionados- whether the medium in question is cinema, fine art or pop music- make the case for the value of their favourite mode of expression by overstating its positive effects.
Hip hop has long been the focus of controversies surrounding violent music. Hip hop is closely associated with low-level criminality, as noted above. A number of highly successful hip hop artists have been attacked or killed as a result of feuds within the industry and links between managers, promoters and criminal gangs.
As the academic John McWhorter has pointed out in numerous publications, the positive political and social impact of rap music has been massively overstated, as a result of highly charged media coverage of hip hop-linked violence. As a result, attempts to address some of the hips hops most objectionable content- lyrics that are misogynist and blankly and uncritically violent- have been condemned as unjust assaults on the right to free expression. Attacks on negative content in hip hop have been made all the more emotive, because they appear to be an attempt to restrict the speech of members of vulnerable and marginalised communities.
Side proposition agrees with McWhorter that listening to music that contains violent themes will not, in the absence of other factors, cause individuals to behave in a violent way. However, the content of rap, and its strong links with the youngest inhabitants of marginalised, stigmatised urban areas mean that it damages the developmental opportunities of teenagers and young people, and harms others’ perceptions of the communities they live in.
Hip hop trades on its authenticity – the extent to which it faithfully portrays the lived experience of the inhabitants of deprived inner city areas. The greater the veracity of a hip hop track, the greater its popularity and cache among fans. Musicians have gained public recognition as a result of being directly involved in street crime and gang activities. 50 Cent, a high profile “gansta” artist owes his popularity, in part, to a shooting in 2000 that left him with 9 bullet wounds. This supposed link to reality is the most dangerous aspect of contemporary hip hop culture. Unlike the simplistic make-believe of, say, action films, the “experiences” related by rappers are also their public personas and become the rationale for their success.
Rap, through materialist boasting and sexualised music videos tells vulnerable young men and women from isolated neighbourhoods that their problems can be solved by adopting similarly nihilistic personas. The poverty that affects many of the communities that hip hop artists identify with does more than separate individuals from economic opportunity. It also confines the inhabitants of these communities geographically, politically and culturally. It prevents young men and women from becoming aware of perspectives on the world and society that run contrary to the violence of main stream rap. With television dominated by the gangsta motif, marginalised youngsters are left with little in the way of dissenting voices to convince them that hip hop takes a subjective and commercialised approach to the lives and communities that rappers claim to represent.
In effect, controversial hip hop is capable of sponsoring violent behaviour, when it is marketed as an accurate portrayal of relationships, values and principles. Under these circumstances, adolescents, whose own identity is nascent and malleable can easily be misled into emulating the exploits and attitudes of rappers.
Side proposition advocates the control and classification of controversial forms of music, including but not limited to hip hop. Consistent with principles 1 and 10, classification of this type will follow similar schemes applied to movies and videogames. Assessments of the content of music will be conducted by a politically independent organisation; musicians and record companies will have the ability to appeal the decisions of this body. Crucially, the “ban” on music containing violent lyrics will take the form of a categorisation scheme. Content will not be blocked from sale or censored. Instead, as with the sale of pornographic material in many liberal democratic states, music found to contain especially violent lyrics will be confined to closed off areas in shops, to which only adults (as defined in law) will be admitted. Its performance on television, radio and in cinemas will be banned. Live performances of restricted music will be obliged to enforce strict age monitoring policies. Online distributors of music will be compelled to comply with similar age restrictions and intentionally exposing minors to violent music will be punishable under child protection laws.
This approach has the advantage of limiting access to violent content only to consumers who are judged, in general, to be mature enough to understand that its “message” and the posturing of singers does not equate to permission to engage in deviant behaviour.
 McWhorter, J. “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back.” City Journal, Summer 2003. The Manhattan Institute.
 McWhorter, J. “All about the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”
Crime and deviance existed in marginalised communities long before the creation of pop music or hip hop. Side proposition is attempting to claim that a particular genre of hip hop is harming efforts to improve living standards and social cohesion within these communities.
Many of the problems associated with poor socialisation and a lack of social mobility in inner city areas can be linked to the closed, isolated nature of these communities – as the proposition comments correctly observe. However, these problems can be traced to a lack of positive engagement between these young people and wider society.
Violence may be discussed or depicted in popular culture for a number of reasons, but it is still comparatively rare- especially in mainstream music- to celebrate violence for violence’s sake. Violence is discussed in hip hop in a number of contexts. Frequently, as in British rapper Plan B’s single Ill Manors, or Cypress Hill’s How I Could Just Kill A Man, descriptions of violent behaviour or scenarios serve to illustrate negative or criminal attitudes and behaviours. These forms of conduct are not portrayed in a way that is intended to glorify them, but to invite comment on the social conditions that produced them. As the opposition side will discuss in greater detail below, the increased openness of the mainstream media also means that impoverished young people can directly address mainstream audiences.
Proposition side contends that the impression of the world communicated to potentially marginalised adolescents by pop culture is dominated by the language and imagery of gangsta rap. Proposition side’s argument is that, in the absence of aggressive and negative messages, a more engaged and communitarian perspective on the world will flourish in schools and youth groups from Brixton and Tottenham to the Bronx and the banlieues. By controlling access to certain hip hop genres, young people made vulnerable and gullible by the desperation of poverty will supposedly start to see themselves as part of the social mainstream. Nothing could be further from the truth. Why? Because efforts at including and improving the social mobility of these young people are underwhelming and inadequate. Social services, youth leaders and educators are not competing to be heard above the din of hip hop – they are not being given the resources or support necessary to communicate effectively with young people.
The nurturing environment that proposition side fantasises about creating will not spring into being fully formed if hip hop is silenced and constrained. The existence of an apparently confrontational musical genre should not be used to excuse policy failures such as the disproportionate use of the Metropolitan Police’s stop and search powers to arbitrarily detain and question young black men.
The enforcement of the laws proposed in this article will be fraught, complex and difficult. However, the difficulty of administering a law is never a good argument for refusing to enforce it.
The censorship of the written word ended in England with the Lady Chatterley and Oz obscenity trials, but this liberalisation of publication standards has not prevented the state from prosecuting hate speech when it appears in print. It is clear that, although we have more latitude than ever to say or write what we want (no matter how objectionable), standards and taboos continue to exist. We can take it that these taboos are especially important and valuable to the running of a stable society, as they have persisted despite the legal and cultural changes that have taken place over the last fifty years.
Hate speech is prosecuted and censored because of its power to intrude into the lives of individuals who have not consented to receive it. As pointed out in Jeremy Waldron’s response to Timothy Garton Ash’s piece on hate speech, hateful comments are not dangerous because they insight gullible individuals to abandon their inhibitions and engage in race riots. Hate speech is harmful because it recreates- cheaply and in front of a very large audience- an atmosphere in which vulnerable minorities are put in fear of becoming the targets of violence and prejudice. Additionally, hate speech harms by defaming groups, by propagating lies and half-truths about practices and beliefs, with the objective of socially isolating those groups.
Gangsta rap does all of these things, yet legal responses to the publication of songs containing such lyrics as “Rape a pregnant bitch and tell my friends I had a threesome,” have been timid at best. Even if we maintain our liberal approach to taboo breaking forms of expression, we can still link hip hop to many of the harms that hate speech produces.
Gangsta rap gives the impression that African-American and Latin-American neighbourhoods throughout the USA are violent, lawless places. Even if the pronouncements of rappers such as 50 cent and NWA are overblown or fictitious they enforce social division by vividly discouraging people from entering or interacting with poor minority communities. They damage those communities directly by creating a fear of criminality that serves to limit trust and cohesion among individual community members. Finally, violent hip hop is also defamatory. It propagates an image of minority communities that emphasises violence, poverty and nihilism, whilst loudly proclaiming its authenticity. It is completely irrelevant that these images of minority communities are produced by members of those communities.
It is on this basis, however protracted the process of classification must become, that the content of hip hop songs should be assessed and censored. Liberal democracies are prepared to go to great lengths to adjudicate on speech that could potentially promote racial or religious hatred. The same standards should be applied to hip hop music, because it is capable of producing identical harms.
It is usually the task of movie classification organisations such as the MPAA and the British Board of Film Certification to judge whether the content of a film should be cut or altered. In most cases these groups will be politically independent, but may be politically appointed. They will make the decision to cut content based partly on the criteria described above. A movie will only be censored if it contains shocking or offensive images used in a way that suggests that violence is glamorous, entertaining or without consequences.
There is a broad consensus in western liberal democracies on what constitutes a highly shocking or offensive image. For example, in even the most permissive societies, open and public images of sexual intercourse would be considered problematic. Similarly, graphic depictions of violence against vulnerable individuals would be open to wide condemnation. The thing that unifies each of these categories of image is that they can be easily understood and interpreted by the majority of people. Even a casual observer can understand that pornography is pornography. This is part of the reason why some states try to control extreme images – because they are both powerful and emotive, and easy to produce, display and distribute.
However, music and lyrics are different from images. Language contains a degree of abstraction, depth and nuance that only the most unconventional (and non-commercial) film could replicate. This is problematic, because it is much harder for censors and members of the general public to agree on an exact definition of an offensive statement or form of words. Complex legal processes are used to determine whether or not offensive statements are sufficiently offensive to be classed as hate crimes. Even more complex are the legal procedures used to determine when an individual’s reputation has been damaged by allegations published in books or periodicals.
It will be much harder for ratings or certification boards to decide when a particular song is violent or offensive due to the range of meanings and ambiguities that are built into language. For example, the verse
“Got a temper nigga, go ahead, lose your head/ turn your back on me, get clapped and lose your legs/ I walk around gun on my waist, chip on my shoulder/ ‘til I bust a clip in your face, pussy, this beef ain’t over,”
can either be seen as a series of boastful threats, delivered directly by the musician, but it could also be reported speech – a lot of hip hop music is based on narratives or performer’s accounts of past events. It could also be intended to invite condemnation of the behaviour of the character that the speaker has assumed. Hip hop artists frequently use alternative personas and “casts” of characters to add depth to the narrative dimension of their tracks.
Under these circumstances, the process of classifying and censoring potentially violent lyrics is likely to become laborious. More important than the expense that this process will entail is the possibility that the chilling effect of a prolonged classification process will cause music publishers to stop promoting hip hop, metal and other genres linked with violent imagery. Lack of funds will curtail innovation and diversity in these genres.
The intervention of the state is necessary in order to ensure that aggressive forms of hip hop remain accessible only to adults, especially in neighbourhoods and home environments that are not part of a cohesive, caring community. Some degree of public control over the content of hip hop will also help to preserve the diversity, accessibility of the genre in the face of commercial dominance by violent forms of rap.
Mainstream success in hip hop has become synonymous with gangsta rap, and with artists who have backgrounds that lend veracity to their lurid verses. However, many of these supposedly “authentic” experiences consist of little more than exaggeration and invented personas. When being interviewed about the controversial content of her son’s single “Fuck tha’ police”, the mother of rapper Ice Cube commented that “I don’t see [him] saying those curse words. I see him like an actor.”
The existence of pornography attests to the market for forms of media that fulfil base and simplistic human fantasies. Much the same can be said for the violent and cynical content of rap singles. Unlike the relationship between cinema and pornography, however, many commentators appear to regard gangsta rap as being synonymous with hip hop – a position as deceptive as a film critic claiming that all movies are inevitably tied to pornography.
The significant public profile and poor regulation of hip hop have meant that gangsta rap fans have become the genre’s dominant class of consumer. The amount of money that fans are willing to spend on singles, albums, concert tickets and associated branded goods means that labels that cultivate relationships with gangsta rappers have become the gatekeepers of the hip hop genre in general. “Conscious” rappers, who do not glorify violence, along with musicians working in other hip hop genres must work with labels that promote acts containing violent lyrics in order to publish their own music.
Either consciously, or by design, the terrain of contemporary hip hop is hostile to musicians who are not prepared to discuss “guns, bitches and bling” in their work. This constitutes a significant barrier to rappers ability to communicate novel messages and listeners’ ability to receive them. It could be called a market failure – the pervasive public presence of gangsta rap has effectively denied an audience to other rappers.
Classification has the potential to maximise the freedom and effectiveness of musical expression by hip hop artists who choose not to trade in brutality and misogyny.
The alternative is to allow hip hop to continue to be dominated by businesses such as Death Row Records, Low Life Records and Machete Music. This will lead to hip hop as a medium becoming inextricably linked with violent lyrics and the dubious businesses practices of gangsta labels’ bosses. Popular disengagement is much more likely under these circumstances, and will actively deny a voice, and opportunities, to musicians with a different perspective on hip hop.
Banning one type of hip hop is not an effective way to intervene in a market that is in danger of dismantling itself.
Governments are not record companies. They are not in a position to make nuanced judgements about the content, meaning and themes of singles and albums. In short, the state cannot be relied on to understand when a musician has produced a work of violent fantasy, or a piece of social commentary with broad appeal.
The state can perform a positive correction for inequalities and failures in the hip hop market by subsidising niche or experimental performers, in the same way that is provides financial support to opera, theatre and the fine arts.
The policy that proposition side seem to be advocating, however, would only do further harm the reputation of hip hop. Once officially censured by the state- which is still seen as a significant moral authority- it is likely that the public profile and popularity of hip hop will be further damaged. The ambivalent position of hip hop in popular culture, as both a commercially successful medium and the subject of wide scale condemnation, is a significant opportunity for the medium, rather than a spectre of its imminent demise. However, larger record companies will be more likely to disengage from hip hop culture if they believe that their businesses affairs might be compromised by intrusive government legislation.
Calls for a ban on music that references or glorifies violence are frequently based on an overly simplistic understanding of contemporary and popular musical genres. It is instructive that the loudest voices of protest raised against violent content in hip hop and rock music are, overwhelmingly, white, middle class, middle-aged newspaper columnists. Any ban created under these circumstances would reduce the diversity and depth of popular musical genres, by preventing musicians from commenting- in any way- on violent events.
Banning particular musical tracks due only to the fact that they discuss violent acts would be damaging to the creative industries and would not reflect methods currently used to classify and restrict content appearing in other media. Criminal acts are punished when an act results in a damaging outcome and because that act is performed with a particular dishonest or malicious intention. Generally, someone cannot be found guilty of murder if they did not intend to kill their victim. Similarly, it is unusual for films or videogames to be censored or banned because they happen to depict violent acts. The intention that underlies the use of graphic images or words must also be examined. As BBC director general Mark Thompson noted when discussing the controversial religious content of Jerry Springer: The Opera with freespeechdebate.com
“… Jerry Springer I saw without feeling that it was offensive to me because the intention of the piece was so clearly a satire about an American talk show host and his world rather than the religious figures as such.”
Classification boards will look at the context in which an offensive act is shown. The violence of war is portrayed vividly in Saving Private Ryan, but the film has not been banned on this basis. Private Ryan portrays violence and suffering in order to remind us of the inhumanity that pervaded the Second World War. It uses violence to make a didactic point, to move its audience to sympathy and disgust. If a film were to use images of extreme violence or suffering as a form of entertainment, inviting the audience to take pleasure in brutality, a classification board would try to restrict or censor its content.
Comparably, “violent” music can use brutal language and themes to make moving and engaging observations about the world. Violent music does not automatically glorify violence, nor does it cause its audience to see violence as something that is glamorous.
Listened to out of context, without any attempt to critically analyse the imagery of the song and the intentions of the artists, it is easy to condemn many acclaimed examples of popular music as containing violent lyrics. By giving into the populist pressure that is represented and generated by newspaper columnists and talk show hosts, we risk creating a chilling effect, not only on mainstream hip hop culture, but on any other musical form that dares to discuss themes that fall outside narrowly and arbitrarily defined limits of social acceptability.
Hip hop is a diverse genre. The quote that opened this discussion is taken from a song by the English surrealist rapper Scroobius Pip. His albums cover themes entirely different from those found in “gangsta” rap. Similarly, artists such as MIA, Optimus Rhyme and the Wilcania Mob have used hip hop to discuss the conflict in Sri Lanka, computer games and life as a member of the aboriginal community in Australia. Each of these artists share a single common link. They all cater to a relatively niche market and have encountered little in the way of mainstream success.
Rappers who write lyrics about cynicism and aggression- from Slim Shady to JayZ- have recorded numerous number one tracks and attracted a wide range of industry accolades. In 2006 the founder of Death Row records, a major gangsta rap label, was found to have assets valued at $7 million. It is clear that rap discussing crime and violence is the dominant genre within hip hop. It is clear that there is a significant popular and public appetite for rap of this type.
As the comment opposite notes, there will always be a need for classification boards, as gratuitous or pornographic content will always form a significant part of the media landscape. Moreover, despite efforts to control access to such content, pornography and wilfully violent movies continue to make money. Hip hop appeals to a similar market – individuals seeking to indulge violent fantasies via the safe, sanitised environment of their iPod’s headphones, as discussed above.
There are no nuances of context and meaning to discuss in gangsta rap, only potentially damaging content that, at best, should be regulated and monitored.
A new legal prohibition on any type of behaviour or conduct can only be set up by investing large amounts of political capital in order to transform vague proposals into a legislative document and then into a fully-fledged law. This expense can only be justified if the ban is effective – if it is seen as a legitimate use of a state’s power; is enforceable; and if it brings about some form of beneficial social change. The change being sought in this instance is a reduction in the violence, criminality and social disaffection that some people associate with hip hop music and its fans.
Laws do not create changes in behaviour simply because they are laws. It is unlikely that the consumers of hip hop will refrain from listening to it. The ease with which music can be distributed and performed means that any ban on violent songs will, inevitably, be ineffective. File sharing networks and cross border online stores such as eBay and Silk Road already enable people to obtain media and controlled goods with little more than a credit card and a forwarding address. The total value of all of the music illegally pirated during 2007 is estimated to be $12.5 billion. The same network of file sharing systems and data repositories would be used to distribute banned music if proposition’s policies became law.
Current urban music genres are already defined and supported by grassroots musicians who specialise in assembling tracks using minimal resources before sharing them among friends or broadcasting them on short-range pirate radio stations. Just as the internet contains a resilient, ready-made distribution network for music, urban communities contain large numbers of ambitious, talented amateur artists who will step into fill the void created by large record company’s withdrawal from controversial or prohibited genres.
Although a formal ban on the distribution of music has yet to happen within a western liberal democracy, similar laws have been created to restrict access to violent videogames. Following widespread reports of the damaging effects that exposure to violent videogames might have on children, Australia banned outright the publication of a succession of violent and action-oriented titles. However, in several instances, implementation of this ban led only to increased piracy of prohibited games through file sharing networks and attempts by publishing companies to circumvent the ban using websites based in jurisdictions outside Australia. Similar behaviour is likely to result in other liberal democracies following any ban on music with violent lyrics.
If banned, controversial music will move from the managed, regulated space occupied by record companies and distributors- where business entities and artists’ agents can engage in structured, transparent debate with classification bodies- to the partly hidden and unregulated space of the internet. As a consequence it will be much more difficult to detect genuinely dangerous material, and much harder for artists who do not trade in violent clichés to win fans and recognition.
As discussed in principle 10, effective control and classification of controversial material can only be achieved if it is discussed with a high specificity and a nuanced understanding of the shared standards that it might offend. This would not be possible under a policy that effectively surrenders control of the content of music to the internet.
Modern policy making does not rely on the force of law to bring about social change. This is an archaic approach to addressing the harms and deficiencies that might appear in communities.
We can reasonably assume that any ban on violent lyrics will be linked to wider reaching education and information campaigns that attempt to address misogynist attitudes and violent crime. Concerns expressed above that other hip hop genres, and musical innovation in general, might suffer could be adequately countered by offering subsidies and support to non-confrontational forms of hip hop. In this way legal regulation and policy interventions could help the music industry to address the more pernicious aspects of hip hop, while promoting its more innovative side. This reflects the state’s role in promoting and safeguarding free speech, by giving those who do not have access to public forums the means to have their voice heard, while ensuring that the principle of free speech is not abused or used to limit the liberal freedoms of others.
These contentions adequately address the problems that the opposition side links to the distribution of illegal and unregulated content via the internet. The implication that a ban on music containing violent lyric might increase piracy is irrelevant – states will still act to address all forms of piracy, and measures taken against the violation of copyright online will be just as effective against prohibited content.
Hip hop is an extremely diverse musical genre. Surprisingly, this diversity has evolved from highly minimal series of musical principles. At its most basic, raping consists of nothing more than rhyming verses that are delivered to a beat. This simplicity reflects the economically marginalised communities that hip hop emerged from. All that anyone requires in order to learn how to rap, or to participate in hip hop culture, is a pen, some paper and possibly a disc of breaks – the looped drum and bass lines that are used to time rap verses. Thanks to its highly social aspect, hip hop continues to function as an accessible form of creative expression for members of some of impoverished communities in both the west and elsewhere in the world.
Point 7 suggests that free speech flourishes when we respect believers but are not forced to respect their beliefs. Free Speech Debate discusses this principle in the light of religious belief and religious expression. However, it is also relevant when we consider how our appraisal of an individual’s background, culture and values affects our willingness to accept or dismiss what she says.
The positive case for banning- or at least condemning- hip hop often rests on its ability to reinforce the negative stereotypes of impoverished and marginalised communities that are propagated by majority communities. Critics of hip hop note that black men have often been stigmatised as violent, uncivilised and predatory. They claim that many hip hop artists cultivate a purposefully brutal and misogynist persona. The popularity of hip hop reflects the acceptance of this stereotype, and further entrenches discrimination against young black men. This line of thinking portrays hip hop artists as betrayers or exploiters of their communities, reinforcing damaging stereotypes and convincing adolescents that a violent rejection of mainstream society is a way to achieve material success.
Arguments of this type fail to recognise the depth of nuance and meaning that words and word-play can convey. They are predicated on an assumption that the consumers of hip hop engage with it in a simplistic and uncritical way. In short, such arguments see hip hop fans as being simple minded and easily influenced. This perspective neglects the “recognition respect”, the recognition of equality and inherent dignity that is owed to all contributors of a debate. Moreover, it also bars us from properly assessing the “appraisal respect” owed to the content of hip hop and other controversial musical genres. When hip hop is seen as being inherently harmful, and as being targeted at an especially impressionable and vulnerable part of society, we both demean members of that group and prevent robust discussion of rap lyrics themselves. Academics such as John McWhorter see only the advocacy of violence and nihilism in lyrics such as
“You grow in the ghetto, living second rate/ and your eyes will sing a song of deep hate”.
But these are words that can also be interpreted as astute observation on the brutality that is bred by social exclusion. In point of fact, there is little in the previous verse, or those that follow it,
“You’ll admire all the numberbook takers/ thugs, pimps and pushers, and the big money makers”,
that could be interpreted as permitting, popularising or endorsing violence. That is, unless the individual reading the verse had already concluded that its intended audience lacked his own critical perspective and understanding of social norms and values.
Even if an observer were ultimately conclude that a particular hip hop track had no redeeming value, a broad interpretation of point 7 suggests that he should, at the very least, credit its artists and listeners with a modicum of intelligence and reflectiveness. When we approach music with a custodial mind-set, determined to protect young listeners from what we see as harm or exploitation, we prevent those individuals from access a form of speech that may be the only affordable method of expression open to them.
Just as we allow individuals the right to be heard in a language of their choosing (see point 1), we should also accept that perspectives from marginalised communities may not appear in a conventional form. Under these circumstances, it would be dangerous for us to curtail and marginalise a form of speech geared toward discussing the problems faced by impoverished young people that has, against the odds, penetrated the mainstream. We are likely to deepen existing prejudices by viewing rappers and their fans as infantile, impressionable and in need of protection.
This argument makes a claim of bias against academics and commentators who portray the audiences that hip hop music is targeted at as vulnerable. Unfortunately, this is a viewpoint that is closer to the truth than the aspirational narrative provided in the opposition side’s case.
Hip hop emerged from environments that were extremely poor and that had been pushed to the margins of society. This situation has persisted until well into this century. The cyclical effects of racism and discrimination continue to be felt in minority communities. Although anti-discrimination laws now protect access to employment and government services, inequalities in cultural capital and high-impact policing have led to the exclusion of large numbers of young men from the social economic opportunities that are made available to middle class society. Under these circumstances, it is entirely appropriate to describe the adolescent inhabitants of impoverished urban communities as vulnerable.
Poverty- either financial or of opportunity- breeds desperation. An individual placed in a situation of urgent need will not have the ability to reason clearly. This is especially true of young people undergoing the difficult transition to adulthood. Adolescence is characterised by a desire to test the boundaries of social norms and parental authority. Therefore, expression that legitimatises and encourages ever more dangerous forms of rebellion should be kept out of the hands of young people. They are unusually susceptible to the behavioural distortions that side opposition goes out of its way to deny.
We limit the content of the media that children and young people can consume all the time, recognising that the process of education and socialisation changes the individual’s relationship to wider society and their ability to which forms of behaviour will best help them to live freely and happily.
Children and teenagers are more impressionable than adults. Similarly, the rate at which individuals mature and develop can vary wildly. We recognise that, for example, exposure to pornography or violent cinema could have serious behaviour consequences for young children. Objections to the restricted availability of pornography are nonsensical, given that they do a great deal to protect children, and present only a minor inconvenience to an adult’s attempts to access such material.
Although we do not place onerous restrictions on the ability of adults to access media of this type, we can be strict in regulating children’s access. This does not constitute a permanent form of censorship, but instead fulfils the broad remit that the state is granted to protect its citizens. Moreover, classification of expression that is geared toward protecting the vulnerable also aids in protecting the primacy and utility of free speech itself. Free expression- as has been restated throughout this exchange- can harm as easily as it liberates. In some instances, the state must temporarily restrict the access of certain classes of people to certain forms of free expression, in order to ensure that free, frank and controversial discussion and expression can take place in society in general.
Waldron, J. “The harm of hate speech”. FreeSpeechDebate, 20 March 2012. http://freespeechdebate.com/en/principle/p-4/living-with-difference/
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