Facing the Music: The Politics of Rap on Radio and in Courtrooms

By Kenyamarie Mahone (PO ’23)

Rap has always been protest music. Sprouted in the soil of the civil rights movement and War on Drugs, rap functions as a platform for African Americans to express frustration with institutional and interpersonal oppression. The caricature-like portrayal of black men in the music industry relies heavily on stereotypes of criminality and hyper-sexuality that historically have been weaponized to marginalize black men. Investigating the real world consequences for rappers and rap-music, specifically through the lens of the justice system and criminal proceedings, offers valuable insight into the nature of racism in the mainstream media. 

A Brief History of Rap

Rap music emerged in the 1970s as nightclub MCs searched for new ways to keep crowds energized after long nights on the dance floors. With roots in genres like disco and soul, rap gained traction in the music industry in the early 80’s. Songs like “The Breaks,” by Kurtis Blow and “Rappers Delight” by The Sugarhill Gang earned their claims to fame on the radio and put rap on the map:

“Brakes on a bus, brakes on a car,

Breaks to make you a superstar!

Breaks to win and brakes to lose,

But these here breaks will rock your shoes” 

— “The Breaks” by Kurtis Blow

While these songs lacked the wordplay and bass-heavy trap beats that have become characteristic of rap in the 21st century, they laid the foundation for future rappers. In the late 80’s and 90’s, rap took shape as just one aspect of a larger hip-hop culture.  As KRS One describes in the song “Hip-Hop vs. Rap,” “rap is something you do, Hip-Hop is something you live”. As the war on drugs, poverty, and incarceration ravaged black communities across the nation, hip-hop culture began to see rap as a way to discuss more poignant social issues through vivid rhyme schemes and storytelling.  

Law Enforcement and the Inception of “Gangsta-Rap”

Throughout the 90’s and early 2000s rap took on a new shape and message. Before Ice Cube, Eazy-E, and Snoop Dogg became household names, there was O’Shea Jackson, Eric Wright and Calvin Broadus Jr. They walked the streets of California like most young, working class, Black men at the time, exposed to gang violence, drug use and rampant poverty.  In his song “Words of Wisdom”, released in 1991, Tupac Shakur, the California based artist describes the ramifications of public policies on the Black community:

“This is for the masses,

The lower classes, 

The ones you left out, 

jobs were given, better livin’, 

But we were kept out.”

Shakur references the impact of the New Deal and the GI Bill in the lines “the ones you left out, jobs were given, better livin’, but we were kept out,” highlighting the way policies from as far back as the 1930s and 1940s disproportionately benefited white Americans, leaving many Black Americans without equal social protections. Despite the promise of jobs and housing these acts offered, Black people were largely excluded from the social or economic benefits. 

Shakur continues, addressing the impact of the War on Drugs and “Just Say No” rhetoric of the Nixon and Reagan eras:

“Say no to drugs but the governments’ keep it

Running through our community, killing the unity

The war on drugs is a war on you and me

And yet they say this is the Home of The Free”

As Shakur mentions, the War on Drugs had disastrous consequences for low-income communities of color.  Between the years of 1980 and 1989, the Reagan administration increased incarceration in the US from 329,000 to 627,000. 2pac addresses this rapid incarceration of predominantly black men in his song “Changes”:

“The penitentiary’s packed, and it’s filled with blacks,

But some things will never change, 

Try to show another way but you stayin’ in the dope game.”

From Biggie and The Wu-Tang Clan on the east coast, to N.W.A and 2pac on the west, rappers’ personal experiences of systemic poverty and police violence became characteristic of what many called “gangsta-rap”. In his controversial hit song “Cop Killer,” Ice-T says:

“I’m ‘bout to bust some shots off.  

I’m ‘bout to dust some cops off.

I’m a cop killer, better you than me. 

Cop killer. F*ck Police Brutality!”

Mainstream society did not welcome the message of Ice-T’s song. As hip-hop gained traction, so did fears that its contents were harmful, incited violence, and promoted lifestyles that threatened the well-manicured suburbs so many had become accustomed to. 

In 1992, an LA Times report found, in response to Ice-T’s booming album sales of Body Count, (which contained the song “Cop Killer”) police advocacy groups like Houston’s “Combined Law Enforcement Association” called for a boycott of Time Warner, the album’s distributor. But the song was not all bad. Many believed the song provided valuable insight into the nature of police brutality through the lyrics which highlighted the killings of unarmed black men at the hands of law enforcement:

“F*ck the police, for Darryl Gates.

F*ck the police, for Rodney King.

F*ck the police, for my dead homies.”

Nevertheless, police protests and political pressure ultimately forced Time Warner to pull the controversial song from their label. In a later defense, Ice-T said, “if you believe I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is an astronaut.” Despite this justification, law enforcement agencies and their families continued to fear that the increasing popularity of songs depicting violence against police would become a reality. The dispute between rap and law enforcement would soon play out in courts across the US.

Rap Takes the Stand

In 1992, Ronald Ray Howard, a 19 year old in Jackson County, Texas, was stopped by state trooper Bill Davidson for a broken headlight. Howard, driving a stolen car, shot Davidson in the neck during the stop, ultimately leading to Davidson’s death.  Howard fled the scene and later pled guilty to the murder of Bill Davidson. During the trial, Howard told the grand jury a small, but ultimately consequential fact of the case — he had been listening to Tupac Shakur before the shooting. Specifically, Howard was listening to 2pacalypse Now, 2pac’s highly political album which featured the songs “Young Black Male,” “Trapped” and most notably, “Soulja’s Story” in which 2pac raps:

“Cops on my tail, so I bail til I dodge ‘em 

They finally pull me over and I laugh,

‘Remember Rodney King?’ and I blast on his punk ass

Now I got a murder case?

You speak of heaven punk? I never heard of the place.”

The similarities between the situation illustrated in the song and Howard’s were uncanny. Howard’s defense attorney, Allen Tanner, hoped to use the song in a last ditch attempt for mercy by convincing the jury that the murder was not Howard’s fault, but 2pac’s. Tanner even going as far as describing Howard as a “rap addict”. In a bizarre moment, with earplugs in the Judge’s ears, Tanner played songs by 2pac, N.W.A, Geto Boys and Ganksta N-I-P for the predominantly white, middle aged jury. Tanner hoped that after the jury listened to the songs, they would understand the “uncontrollable passion,” that overcame Howard the night of the incident.

The jury had none of it, and delivered a guilty verdict, sentencing Howard to the death penalty in just one hour. In a later case brought against Time Warner by Davidson’s widow, she alleged negligence at their release of 2pacalypse Now. This court ruled similarly: rap lyrics were not a valid cause for violence. The court found that:

“calling one’s music revolutionary does not, by itself, mean that Shakur intended his music to produce imminent lawless conduct.  At worst, Shakur’s intent was to cause violence some time after the listener considered Shakur’s message. The First Amendment protects such advocacy.”

Behind the Bars 

Tanner hoped that he could convince the jury that 2pac’s lyrics were a call for immediate violence. His hope illustrated a persistent public opinion that rap incites violence rather than being a product of violent situations. It is notable to reflect on the origins of rap during a time in which the U.S. government and mainstream media actively perpetuated stereotypes of black men as “superpredators”. As former Nixon aide John Ehrlichman explained, “[w]e knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war or black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities.” Ehrlichman’s comments show that rap is a product of the circumstances the Nixon administration created during the war on drugs. Rap also highlights the administration’s success in promoting social acceptance of criminal stereotypes associated with black men.

Howard himself grew up in a similar environment as Tupac Shakur. Caught in a crime-ridden community, with easy access to firearms, drugs and other paraphernalia, Howard’s story, like too many others, is laced with systemic and interpersonal racism. Howard’s grandmother, who had been sexually assaulted by a police officer in her youth, taught him an important lesson: “never trust a white person — especially cops”. This distrust was reflected in much of the music Howard listened to throughout his youth. While anti-police lyrics have historically been met with community uproar, a discussion of the roots of black distrust of law enforcement are met with deafening silence.  In an interview with the LA Times, Howard described that:

“Where I come from people hate the police.  They harass you for nothing there, just because you’re a young black male, like Tupac says… To me rap never glorified violence. It just told the truth.”

Distrust of police in African American communities did not emerge during the war on drugs. Tough on crime, zero tolerance, policing tactics of the 1980s-early 2000s, were simply new forms of state violence used against black and brown communities. The experience of Howard’s grandmother with police violence is just one example of how the nature and circumstances of oppression may change, but general distrust of law enforcement remains constant.

For many, rap provided an outlet to discuss the police brutality they had experienced, or generational trauma that had been passed down to them. Tupac himself was raised by Black Panther, Afeni Shakur, who instilled in him values of justice.  After spending 11 months in jail due to accusations that Afeni and other Black Panthers had planned to bomb a police station, she was acquitted.  Tupac watched as his mother became addicted to cocaine — a far too common fate in Black communities at the time.  In his song “Dear Mama,” Tupac discusses this trauma and his relationship with his mother that many young black men could relate to:

“And running from the police, that’s right,

Mama catch me put a whooping to my backside.

And even as a crack fiend, mama

You always was a black queen, mama.

I finally understand

For a woman it ain’t easy trying to raise a man.”

While many are eager to discuss the violent imagery in rap music, society may be better served by an equally fervent conversation about the socio-economic conditions discussed in rap music.  The continued discussion of these social and political issues are generally overlooked, as focus remains on the violent themes or imagery in rap.  Popular artists who have often faced criticism for violence in their lyrics, like Migos, JID, Tyler the Creator and DaBaby, have all written songs that discuss the continued incarceration, poverty, and addiction that plagues Black communities.  It may be valuable to consider that if we want to rid music of violent themes, we should work to nourish communities that have been crippled by violence, poverty, inadequate healthcare, and underfunded schools. 

The persistence of violence and incarceration in rap music is indicative of a larger societal failing to adequately address the war on drugs, mass incarceration, rampant poverty and gang violence that has been left in their wake.  While much of the focus in the discussion of rap music is on black men, many black women have been integral to the rise of hip-hop as one of the most influential genres of music.  In her song “Black Rage” Lauryn Hill says:

“Black rage is founded on draining and draining,

Threatening your freedom to stop your complaining, 

Poisoning your water while they say its raining,

Then call you mad for complaining, complaining.”

Many opponents of the Black Lives Matter protests, calls to defund the police, and the exploration of new forms of policing claim that such activism is petty complaining by lazy people who lack the will or desire to improve their situations. But this criticism lacks the comprehensive understanding of the institutional racism that taints all systems in a country founded on the oppression of black and brown bodies.  While rap music may seem like a trivial avenue for social change, the success of the genre in the 21st century offers rap the credibility it lacked in the 80s and 90s. Rap music’s return to its political roots provides a unique and powerful way to speak truth to power, increase the visibility of marginalized communities and amplify the voices of people that are too often excluded from political discourse.  

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