It’s no secret that the mainstream rap industry has become almost synonymous with misogyny, violence, materialism, homophobia, and in some cases, just downright foolishness. The pervasiveness of these themes within the industry is what makes little gems like Frank Ocean’s “coming out” so extraordinary. Yet nevertheless, the ever-present reality is that the current orientation of mainstream rap is far from expressing the ideal sort of values that anyone should be trumpeting, let alone Black youth. But of course, we should also be careful to not completely write-off the music that youth all around the country are finding fun, catchy, and enjoyable. Generational discord is timeless, people who grew up listening to music in the 40s and 50s undoubtedly thought that the music of the 60s and 70s was just as shiftless and problematic. Therefore, finding conscious hip hop alternatives, that promote more substantive messages, but don’t merely impress a nostalgic hip-hop ideal maintained by those who grew up in the 80s and 90s, is a challenge for all of us. And frankly, is something that I think makes many youth suspicious of “conscious” rap.
I recently asked a group of six high schoolers (3 boys, 3 girls, all except one of whom are Black, the remaining female being of Polish background) in a program I work for about whether or not they would listen to music that promoted more positive messages. Their answers held a lot of depth, and reflected many misconceptions they might maintain about so-called “conscious” rap. As soon as I said the word “positive messages,” they all immediately grumbled and rolled their eyes. It would appear, that the very notion of positive rap maintains a stigma that is necessary to debunk.
For instance, one student said “…we want music that doesn’t pity us, just give us some information, and let us think about it.”
Another student added, “…yeah, and it has to be from our perspective. It can’t be some 40 year old-man or something trying to talk at us. It can’t be preachy either.”
First and foremost, the students seemed to suggest that the very thought of conscious music connotes a patronizing message. A message that promotes victimhood, and namely from someone that cannot even relate to youth. A “40 year old man,” as it were.
The comment I found most fascinating was when one girl mentioned that she wanted music, “…that doesn’t always tell us it’s gonna be alright…”
Interestingly, the young men in the room emphasized the lyrics and the beat foremost. They believed that if the music had a “good” beat, and no “weak” lyrics, then they would listen to it. When I asked them to name an artist that comes to mind with a good beat, he mentioned Drake.
Another boy said, “…it should be like what TuPac did…”
I mention these students’ quotes not to be prescriptive in suggesting what conscious rap should aspire to, (in fact I think conscious rap artists do all of these things and more) but rather to present a glimpse into what youth might feel the state of conscious rap to be. For these students, conscious rap is something that might be patronizing, projects an unambiguous “everything is gonna be alright” message, doesn’t have good beats, and most significantly, doesn’t come from their perspective, but from a preachy outsider. It also seems strange to me however, that youth might recognize the value of the last generation of rap, as evident by the young man’s mentioning of TuPac, but still think that more constructive rap is devoid of truth and substance. I also think it’s difficult to reconcile the idea that youth might accuse conscious rap music of lacking substance–is the implication that the rap music of today is more substantive?
Again, these were six youth, if we asked a thousand more we might get a thousand more layers of nuance. But if we are to begin promoting and supporting hip hop that does not revel in problematic “-isms,” we should start by making it clear that “conscious” rap is not a sort of kuumba ya enterprise, but rather something that can be just as real, relatable, and enjoyable as the music we currently enjoy. We should also stop writing off the music of today. The very fact that youth enjoy this music means that there must be some value there, some reflection of our current generations’ needs and anxieties, that needs to be explored–however troublesome that endeavor might become. And furthermore, we need youth to send this message to youth. Sure, we might all tremble at the Chief Keefs, Lil Bs, and Soulja Boys, of the world, but these are young artists, youth can look at them and see themselves. It’s just our job to start supporting some young artists that can hold up some different mirrors.