Saturday, February 16, 2013

Death Narrative in Hip-Hop

           The lecture from Jeffrey Ogbar on Febuary 15, 2013 was titled “Ready to Die: Critiquing Hip-Hop’s Narratives of life and Death.” I found the lecture to be really engaging, interesting, and humorous. Ogbar talked about how central role of death within the music of hip-hop. We often simply expect to find death to be a central theme of the music. It is kind of sad, but we aren’t surprised by the death narrative within hip-hop. Ogbar pointed out that the theme was absent from the music until the 1980’s. Hip-hop first came on the popular scene when “Rapper’s Delight” came out. However that national song really wasn't a true depiction of hip-hop as it was happening on a more local level.
The presence of the death narrative was introduced parallel to the rise of the illicit drug trade. As crack cocaine began to take rise, so did the violence and death narrative within hip-hop. The drug problem was essentially ignored in popular music until it was simply too large to ignore. As the conflict within the community of hip-hop rises, so does the presence of the death narrative within the music.
There comes a divide in hip-hop out of the politics that surround the community. On one hand you have the ganster rappers who embrace the hardness of being from the hip-hop community. These artists include groups like NWA and later Cypress Hill. On the other hand you have groups such as Run DMC and Public Enemy who take on the black freedom or black nationalists view. Instead of talking about killing anyone in their music, black nationalist rappers such as Public Enemy talked more about killing their oppression or oppressors. They would single out politicians and cops to point the lyrical gun out, whereas ganster rappers would talk about killing anyone that got in their way. Then there are artists such as Ice Cube who breaks away from NWA and goes out to NY and merges the black nationalist rap with ganster rap with “Death Certificate.”
In the lecture, we discussed a little about the suppression of certain lyrics by the record labels and the effect that might have had. Certain record labels had to start denouncing artists because of the violent death narratives in their lyrics. Talking about killing other black people in their music was okay, but if they started rapping about killing cops they would have to change it. One question I had was how did these death narratives, and violent notions of killing people, affect (and possible hurt) the civil rights movement. These narratives paint a violent picture, and I wonder how representative the nation and the public saw this. Did these songs come to define the African American race for some people at the time, and how did the record labels deal with that. Or rather, did the record labels even deal with that? 


  1. Meg, great post. I went to the lecture as well. Although I am not an expert on how the United States public interpreted hip-hop and rap in terms of the Civil Rights movement, I will give the question you posed a go.
    First, I am not familiar with the music that Dr. Ogbar discussed during the lecture so for me, the death and violence that is present in hip-hop and rap (after the 1980s) doesn't fit in neatly with the message of the Civil Rights Movement. The Civil Rights Movement utilized non-violent protest to gain National attention and build more momentum for the Movement. We talked about in class how the few television stations that broadcasted nationally were all focused on the Sit-Ins when they started in North Carolina, which is what led to them spreading all over the country. James Lawson gave workshops and lectures on non-violence because he saw what a powerful effect the Sit-In Movement had and he did not want to lose the momentum created by it. When I compare this to the lyrics of hip-hop and rap, which focus on death, it's confusing at first.
    The only explanation that I have is that Dr. Ogbar talked about how this focus on death was not a universal focus for the African American community. The rappers who sung about it chose to do so because it was reflective of their lives in places violence was prevalent like Southside, Los Angeles. This is why the rap groups focused on different things depending on what their life experiences were. The gansta rappers glorified violence because of the necessity to endure violence and use violence as a threat against competing gangs. Ice Cube and Public enemy, located in New York I believe, sang about killing corrupt politicians and policemen because they were racist against blacks.
    In summary, I don't think that it is fair to cast a shadow on the Civil Rights Movement because of gangsta rap or violence in hip-hop. The Civil Rights Movement was dependent heavily upon non-violent protest. While the violence present in these songs in some cases relates to figures who utilized violence against white oppression in the past, it is not reflective of the black community as a whole.


  2. I find it interesting that there was such a divergence in rappers from gangster to empowerment. On that same note groups such as Public Enemy and NWA where created at roughly the same time period (1985-1990) but are so drastically different in what is stated and conveyed in their lyrics. Public Enemy is one of empowerment and NWA is one of violence on the streets. Looking at the official music videos for Public Enemys’ “Fight The Power” and “NWAs’ Straight Outta Compton” you see the difference visualized.

    Public Enemy’s’ “Fight The Power” is taken place in a Black rally. Hundreds of African Americans line the streets waving posers with such prominent figures as Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. It is important to see that the majority of the African Americans in attendance at this rally are Black youths. Its lyrics even comment on how rights need to be fought for “Gotta give us what we need / Our freedom of speech is freedom or death / We’ve got to fight the powers that be”. With all of the facets in place this song is powerful by making encouraging Black youths to continue to fight for rights.

    On the other side is “Straight Outta Compton” by NWA who gives a completely different story one of violence, guns, and drugs. The music video represents gang member going down the street causing mayhem, doing drugs, and murdering people. Even the lyrics show the point conveyed “When I’m called off, I got a sawed off / Squeeze the trigger, and bodies are hauled off / You too, boy if ya fuck with me / The police are gonna hafta come and get me”.

    In the end Nationalist Black music highlights killing oppression vs. Gangsta Rap of killing people.

  3. “Rappers Delight,” which is considered to be the first hip-hop/rap song, was released in 1979. At this time, the Civil Rights movement was beginning to wind down. The rap in the 1990s that is being referred to in this post is, for the most part, not directly related to Civil Rights. Very rarely do you hear someone rap about struggling through the Civil Rights Movement. Yes, Jay-Z has some references to the Civil Rights Movement, and Outkast even has a song titled “Rosa Parks,” but the majority of violence in hip-hop and rap lyrics is not about that time period. Most of these beginning of the genre songs talk about police brutality on gangs, not an innocent teenage boy walking down the street.