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Hip-hop's bad rap

Commentators are quick to condemn it for glorifying violence and misogyny. But do they hear the positive messages within the lyrics?

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In the aftermath of the Don Imus debacle, everyone from conservative pundits to rap mogul Russell Simmons has pointed a finger at hip-hop, arguing that while Mr. Imus's rant was inappropriate, rap stars get away with such sexist and racially charged language on a daily basis. And sure, there are plenty of rap songs that celebrate homophobia, intolerance, and women-bashing. But to say that hip-hop comprises only those qualities is like saying that country artists croon solely about pickup trucks.

I grew up in virtually all-white McMinnville, Ore., and, save for the occasional minority scholarship I didn't qualify for, have never been discriminated against. Yet, thanks to the magic of MTV, I became transfixed by hip-hop at an early age – begging my mom for rides to the local record store to pick up releases by LL Cool J, Dr. Dre, and the Beastie Boys. In each album, I found something familiar and relatable. In the gangstas trying to escape the violence of Compton, Calif., I saw myself wanting out of a small, stifling farm town; their rants against the police reminded me of teachers and others who never took the time to understand my perspective.

The fact that I – a petite, well-educated blond woman – am rushing to defend rap music should at least make you think twice before condemning hip-hop as a genre that celebrates violence and sexism.

Never once did listening to rap make me run out and buy a gun or sleep around. Rather, I was empowered by Salt-N-Pepa telling me "fight for your rights, stand up and be heard/ you're just as good as any man, believe that, word" and impressed by Tupac Shakur's willingness to rap unabashedly about his love for his mama.

When I moved to Los Angeles for college, I joined other young intellectuals in classes on black pop culture and black literature, where I was often the only white student. I was inspired to study the lynching of Emmett Till after hearing him mentioned not by Bob Dylan, but in a song by rapper Kanye West.


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