The Music and the Message

Image from Independent Lens website: http://www.pbs.org/independentlens/hiphop/

Using a critical lens can sometimes mean having to re-evaluate things you hold dear. Byron Hurt, documentary filmmaker and anti-sexism activist, knows this. In his excellent film, “Beyond Beats and Rhymes”, Hurt talks about his love of hip hop, the place it’s had (and still has) in his life. He tells of how as he started working as an anti-sexism activist he couldn’t ignore the pervasiveness of misogyny, violence and homophobia in hip-hop any longer. Obviously he doesn’t paint the whole genre guilty but wonders what the effect it’s having for so many rappers to be celebrating violence as they do. And that raises the question of where that leaves the fan when their ears and their hearts can no longer agree. What do we do when the music, films, books, etc we love turn out to take problematic views on issues of race, sexuality, ability and so on.

Sara Quin (of Tegan and Sara fame) asked an apt question in her piece, “A Call for Change”, which she posted on her website back in May. The question being: “When will misogynistic and homophobic ranting and raving result in meaningful repercussions in the entertainment industry?” Unfortunately, the answer is that such meaningful repercussions will only come as we move further away from the deeply held beliefs in mainstream culture. The piece was about then rising rapper Tyler-the-Creator that questioned his popularity and how, as Sara put it, “an artist who can barely get a sentence fragment out without using homophobic slurs is celebrated on the cover of every magazine, blog and newspaper.” Quin’s absolutely right. It doesn’t make any sense that someone can be so revered while so openly using hatespeak and speaking so casually about rape. At the same time it makes perfect sense when considered in our culture that objectifies women and continues to casually use oppressive pejoratives. And so on the one hand it’s great that huge gains are being made, with attitudes shifting toward more inclusive terrain for the LGBTQ community; yet, it’s important to remember that our dominant culture is still very much a heteronormative and homophobic one.

Remembering that you can do something is an important step forward in challenging dominant viewpoints. So for example, yeah, Tyler-the-Creator is still going to make music and will (probably) continue to use hateful language to do it and that you can’t change. But what you can choose to do is not buy into it, just as you can choose to use the music as an opportunity to engage in discussion with fellow listeners about the message attached to that music- why they may think it’s okay for Tyler-the-Creator to use the type of language he does. And no, I’m not saying that all art has to be made out of butterflies and hugs. Art should be a site where issues and differences are explored but when that comes at the expense of denying the validity of who people are then there’s a problem with that.

One Response to “The Music and the Message”

  1. Guest January 24, 2012 12:33 pm #

    This is a really interesting post and one that brings up a lot of questions that I see as very timely right now. There were rumours that Jay-Z was no longer going to use the “b-word” in his songs since becoming a father. Although this story is apparently not true (see: http://www.guardian.co.uk/music/2012/jan/18/jay-z-bitch-lyrics) it still raises some very important issues that are not often discussed. The tone of recent articles (like: http://music-mix.ew.com/2012/01/18/jay-z-poem-bitch/ for example) is almost one of relief because now that this story is a hoax, we don’t have to ask difficult questions regarding the use of language in music. This, to me, is really unfortunate because I totally agree with your point that we need to be talking about this and being critical of messages in music. Like Byron Hurt, I think that you can still enjoy music and be a fan of certain artists while still being critical about the messages, the industry, and the language being used.

    As an aside, Byron Hurt’s movie is available for free online via YouTube for all those who are interested. It is well worth your time!

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