Journal of Criminal Justice and Popular Culture, 2(1) (1994) 12-13
In a November 11, 1991 article in The New Republic, David Samuels reports that although the common assumption is that the primary audience for rap music is composed of young, ghetto-bound African-Americans, in fact, the audience that has pushed "gangster rappers" to the top of the Billboard magazine charts is made up of white, middle-class teenagers. Samuels and others have suggested that these white teenagers are drawn to the "outlaw" lyrics of sex and violence in rap music for the same reasons they have in the past been attracted to rock and punk music. It is the music of nonconformity and rebellion. However, Samuels argues that in responding to the demands of this affluent audience, rap musicians and music executives have created a distortion of the rap music that once reflected something authentic about black culture and experience.
In the video Straight Up Rappin', the producers search for the essence of rap music in the streets--and the classrooms--of inner city communities. Filmed in locations such as a street corner in the Bronx and an elementary school in East Harlem, the video presents young people and children both rapping and talking about rap.
The core message of the video is that rap provides a means of communicating to others--of speaking in powerful ways about drugs, violence, unemployment, homelessness, illiteracy, teenage pregnancy, and the other problems which plague inner cities.
The video shifts from one location to another. However, a young couple, both rappers, appear in several scenes. The young woman describes rap music as a "creative art," as "beat poetry." Both discuss rap as a mechanism for "touching" the listener and perhaps motivating him or her to take positive action (such as voting). Each presents examples of his or her music. One rap performed by the young woman deals with racism and politics and affirmative action.
In contrast to this couple, who are apparently well-educated, is a rapper who explains that he quit school because both schools and teachers were failing to educate him or anyone (his language is more graphic). Appearing in [End page 12] several scenes, he raps about drugs--and after the piece he talks about being offered $700 a week to act as a "lookout." As he explains, that kind of money was a lot for someone like him to turn down. In another piece, this young man raps about being homeless. It is a story about how "you" find yourself on the street when your brownstone burns down--but wake to realize it was a dream--only to smell smoke. This rap demonstrates the possibilities for story-telling in this vocal form, as the rapper describes the series of events from the fire to the relatives with full houses to the crowded shelter that finally led to the point when "you" are shot on the street while fighting with someone for food.
But perhaps even more thought-provoking for some viewers will be the scenes involving the young children who rap about the things they see happening around them. In a classroom scene, the teacher is leading a discussion about the 8th Amendment. She asks for examples of cruel and unusual punishment. A young boy cites the Rodney King case (describes it without mentioning King's name). Then the teacher reminds the students that they were asked to do a poem, short story, or rap as a homework assignment. Two boys (one white, one black) do a rap together about getting pulled over by the police and finally ending up in jail. In another scene, children rap about drugs (crack). The teacher explains that in their raps the children talk about "scary" things with which adults would often prefer not to deal. But rap music provides the children with a means of talking about what they are experiencing.
An instructor teaching a course on crime and popular culture or one who is interested in examining the current debate going on about the contribution of rap music to the level of violence in society may find this video useful. The producers of the video do not deal with the current controversy surrounding "gangster rap." In fact, there is no discussion at all of rap as a commercially popular art form. However, this video might well be used in conjunction with materials on the more graphic forms of rap music to generate discussion about rap as a form of music with both prosocial and antisocial possibilities. What this video does well is establish rap as a legitimate medium of communication.
Frankie Y. Bailey
University at Albany
School of Criminal Justice [End page 13]