From Grandmaster to the Paralympics…a long and whining road

The adoption of Public Enemy’s track “Harder than you think” for the 2012 Paralympics has been one of Channels 4 better marketing decisions, highlighting the empowering beat of Rap.

This track, along with this summers film ‘Something from Nothing – the Art of Rap, have helped to raise the appreciation of Rap music as an art form. The track, comes from Public Enemy’s introspective album ‘How you sell soul to a soulless people who have no soul’, and is a great track to showcase Rap at its best, self critical, political and uplifting.

Harder than you think, it’s a beautiful thing… Live life like you just don’t care.. Get up, show no fear..”

This chorus comes after two verses reflecting on the state of Rap music today

Check the facts, expose those cats..Who pose as heroes, take advantage of blacks…. Show no love so it’s easy to hate.. I can’t repeat what other rappers be sayin’ ..If you don’t stand for something you fall for anything

Surely, this might move the long list of people who argue that rap music simply degenerates society, and has become the tune to stereotype black men, perhaps just a modern day minstrel tune.

Rap music evokes a strong reaction from people in a way which others forms of art don’t. People haven’t argued that French literature or French writers are racist and sexist because Camus produced a character such as Meursault or Sartre with Mathieu, instead they engaged with the themes of existentialism, disfranchisement, free will, and morality. The fictional characters created in Rap for example Redford Stephens created by the Roots, or even the fictional biography described by Tupac in Dear Mama are interesting tales of young men coping with isolation and racism in American society, just as Richard Wright did in the 1950’s with The Outsider.

The language and poetry of Rap is often dark reflecting the culture of resistance, and articulating the lives of young people, often young black men. Young men are generally not openly introspective, and you have to search amongst the bravado and violence to find real poetic gems of poetry. John Sutherland, Professor Emeritus of Modern English Literature at University College London, has often argued that Rappers like Tupac will be regarded as “one of the great American poets in 20 years time”. In his view one of the founding texts of rap, Grandmaster Flash’s The Message is as potent a protest song as Billy Holiday’s Strange Fruit.

Broken glass everywhere 
/ People pissing on the stairs,/ you know they just don’t care/ I can’t take the smell,/ I can’t take the noise/ Got no money to move out,/ I guess I got no choice 
/ Rats in the front room,/ roaches in the back 
/ Junkies in the alley with the baseball bat/ 
I tried to get away,/ but I couldn’t get far 
/ Cause a man with a tow-truck repossessed my car

The Art of Rap celebrates the art of writing rap lyrics, a skill, which is probably, less appreciated than many other forms of fiction. Rap should be treated like other fictional works, as poetry it wholly relies upon words.  Clever, provocative, and challenging lyrists have use words to entertain and educate young people, who are unlikely to get this lesson in language at school. Provocation is an inherent part of Rap. Rvd Jesse Jackson recently defended Rap music by pointing out that the provocative use of language in Rap is useful as it makes you think about words and semantics and how they are used in society.  In the language of war, for example, words as collateral damage, friendly fire, and preemptive attacks have all prompted less reaction and less calls for accountability from political leaders, than words used by Rappers.

During last summer’s riots, every young people who happened to get to caught up in the mayhem were treated by courts as a seriously criminal. Words like feral youth were used as a blanket description. Yet one year earlier, during the MP’s expense scandal, politicians used getting caught in the general of expense fiddling as a defense of their confusion. Semantics are used to stereotype black and working class communities so Rappers through this back.

We should ask why we condemn Rap artists more than any other artists?  For example, Johnny Cash sang

When I was just a baby,/ My Mama told me, “Son,/ Always be a good boy,/ Don’t ever play with guns,”/ But I shot a man in Reno,/ Just to watch him die,

His country songs based in the poverty of Southern America are littered with songs about killing. Eric Clapton is praised for his version of  ‘I shot the Sherriff’. Nick Cave, Talking Heads, The Clash, Thin Lizzy, The Beatles, are amongst the numerous artists who have written songs about murder, yet none provoke the reaction one sees to Ice T, or other rappers.  Yet, Rap songs as other songs, are simply works of fictional.

The relationship between criminality and rap music is fictional. A fiction that is now very much embedded in televisions and films, and every urban landscape on TV comes with a rap song playing in the background. Yet, there is little real statistical link between rap music and actual crime on the streets. In fact, if you examine crime data over the past 10 years violent crimes in the UK have actually fallen. As Ice T explained in defence of his song ‘Cop Killer’, “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality. If you believe that I’m a cop killer, you believe David Bowie is a astronaut. “

One of the questions which recurs throughout the film, the Art of Rap, is why doesn’t this art form get taken as seriously as jazz? One reason is probably because there is so much bad rap. The over commodification of rap over the past two decades has meant record companies often just push out material which perpetuate stereotypes. Guns, violence, and sexism often dominate in a way that makes Rap difficult to listen to with family members.

This point is not lost in the Raps community. As an art form, Rap has shown great maturity in openly using the art itself to be reflective and self-critical. Few other forms of art ever do this. Gil Scott Heron one of founders of rap with his 1970 song ‘The Revolutions won’t be televised ‘, wrote in ‘Message to the Messenger’s

You can’t talk respect of every other song or just every other day

What I’m speakin’ on now is the raps about the women folks

On one song she’s your African Queen on the next one she’s a joke

And you ain’t said no words that I haven’t heard, but that ain’t no compliment

It only insults eight people out of ten and questions your intelligence

Four letter words or four syllable words won’t make you important

It’ll only magnify how shallow you are and let everybody know it

The sexism and misogyny is rap is probably its greatest weakness. However, this is not to say that other forms of fiction are not riddled with misogyny and sexism. Anyone who has read Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad would probably argue that the treatment of women in Homers Odyssey was a bit shocking in places, and I don’t recall positive role models in Macbeth. Even most of the great religious texts are scattered with tales of misogyny and sexism. John Berger in the 1970’s talked about how adverts and art tend to sexualize the female image, and the sexualisation of women in advertising today is much worse now compared to the 1970’s.

There are stunning examples of women rappers Lauren Hill, Salt and Pepper, Speech Labelle, Queen Latifah, MIA, amongst many challenging sexism. In what other form of art would you expect a Sri Lankian girl from London sing?

I throw this shit in your face when I see ya/ Cause I got something to say/ I was born free    (MIA Born Free)

Rap does need more articulate woman, yet many blame the record companies for promoting people like Nick Minaj, who tend to play into the usual stereotypes. Saying this there is a huge diversity within rap music. The genre is just a catch all phrase for everything from The Roots, NAS, Jay-Z, Gil Scott Heron, Tupac MIA amongst many.

It is this diversity which has helped the art form to be the main form of music young people listen to if they want to get away from the bland messages of pop music. If you want to engage in politics and say something meaningful then Rap is the genre of music you turn to. It is has played important part in many recent political struggles, from Morning Editions and Arabian Knightz in Eygpt, El General in Tunsia, Rap has been at the forefront of the Arab Spring.

We should learn from this. There is no better way to engage young people with word play and poetry.  When Rap appears on the page, rhyme scheme, enjambment, similes and metaphors are all present, just as in the poetry of Dylan Thomas. What better way to discuss civil rights, poetry and language at the same time?


Something from Nothing – The Art of Rap is open in cinemas now.  Public Enemy’s ‘Harder thank you Think’ is back in the Charts and the record shops.


A long and whining road is derived from a Public Enemy track.


Jagdish Patel is one of the editors of the TMG website. The Monitoring Group is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the author.


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