A short essay by Jeremiah Tucker on the quandary of our love for rap. Link

— Since Don Imus was fired for his “nappy-headed hos” comment, many cultural commentators pointed to the negative values so graphically displayed in rap lyrics and music videos — violence, misogyny, drug use, materialism — as the real danger to black culture, not the ignorant comments of a shock jock.
I tend to agree, but I also happen to love a lot of rap music.
Recently, I came across a 1991 Public Service Announcement from the Partnership for a Drug-Free America on You Tube.
The PSA begins with footage of muscular black men in chains and wearing cloth diapers being rounded up by angry white men, and it ends with two skinny black youths who appear to have just ingested crack when bonds suddenly appear around their necks. A voiceover narrates: “Almost 400 years ago, African-Americans were brought to this continent in chains. Stripped of their dignity, torn from their families, they never surrendered until they were free. Don’t dishonor them by becoming a slave to heroin, cocaine and crack. Make no mistake — drug abuse is the new slavery.”
I found the PSA distasteful. One comment a viewer left underneath the video pretty much summed it up: “Putting aside, for a moment, the racist imagery of the advertisement, the unequal racial distribution of prosecutions, arrests and property seizures of the drug war, and the complete lack of credibility of the source, it’s still ludicrous and insensitive to compare the personal choice of drug slavery‚ and the involuntary entry into the bonded servant contract.”
Yet, a few days later I found myself watching the video for Prodigy’s “MAC-10 Handle” for probably the eighth time. Prodigy, one half of the rap group Mobb Deep, squeezes almost every problem people have with gangsta rap into one song and video. The chorus is: “I sit alone in my dirty a— room staring at candles/high on drugs/All alone with my hand on my MAC-10 handle/scheming on you n—–.”
I found it slightly discomfitting I had a problem with a commercial trying to dissuade black people from using drugs, yet I watched numerous times a rap music video about a black man using drugs. But the PSA was, to say the least, off-putting in its sensationalism and inference that a “drug-free America” needs to single out black people. The music video, by contrast, was claustrophobic and gritty — a portrait of paranoia. As Prodigy eludes police and murders a man, you’re never sure if he actually did it or if he’s still in his room hallucinating, but in no way do you envy his state of mind or his lifestyle. He raps, “Too much of that gangsta music/nah, this is reality rap/I really go through it.”
The “this is just reality” defense of rap music is as old as the criticisms of rap. It reminds me of a quote from Flannery O’Connor about the labeling of her fiction as “grotesque.” She said: “Anything that comes out of the South is going to be called grotesque by the northern reader, unless it is grotesque, in which case it is going to be called realistic.”
According to popular culture, the reality of rap music, and by extension the culture of poor blacks, is bling and slang and easily distilled into a “pimps and hos” party thrown by affluent white kids. (The journalist Cora Daniels catalogues a book’s worth of examples of mass appropriation of poor black culture in her new tome “Ghettonation.”)
Yet, rap music also represents the problems of poverty, inequality and living with violence, and these are the grotesque problems that don’t enjoy as much press.
I’m not saying rap music isn’t part of the problem. From the beginning, gangsta rap was meant to be shocking. Dr. Dre said of his group N.W.A., “Everybody trying to do this Black power and s—-, so I was like, let’s give ’em an alternative.” This was not exactly the most admirable goal, and N.W.A. was as sensational in its depiction of being poor and black in inner-city Los Angeles as the PSA was in equating drugs with institutionalized slavery. At the time, N.W.A. was so terrifying, the FBI even sent a letter of warning to the group, but now pop culture has made rap a trifle — 50 Cent’s bullet-proof vest is “ghetto couture,” Nelly’s energy drink is called “Pimpjuice” — and effectively ignored everything rap was a reaction against
I will probably continue listening to rap based on its value as music rather than parsing its social ramifications. I think the allure of something like “MAC-10 Handle,” aside from being a great song, is similar to a good Western with a morally ambiguous hero. Except with the Western, the frontier eventually closed, but the inner-city ghetto, the setting of most rap music, unfortunately shows no sign of fading into the sunset.

Address correspondence to Jeremiah Tucker, c/o The Joplin Globe, P.O. Box 7, Joplin, Mo. 64802.