America Is Dying Slowly. That title graced a 1996 hip-hop compilation devoted to AIDS awareness (check the acronym) and the precarious survival of young black men in this country more generally. I bought that album when it came out, partly for conscience, partly for youthful self-righteousness, but mostly for love of the music it contained. In the 15 years since I’ve listened to hip-hop obsessively and loved it fiercely, protectively, and sometimes irrationally, all the ways that people are supposed to love things.
I turned 17 in 1996, the same age Trayvon Martin was when he was killed a little more than a month ago. By all indications he loved rap music too, and maybe that’s all he and I ever had in common because I never got shot for it and never dreamed I would, and the reason why is visible in the photo to your left. And if you don’t believe Trayvon Martin was shot for liking rap then good for you, because that means you have not been listening to the rising chorus of voices in this country who are trying to convince you of exactly that.
The rhetoric around Martin’s killing has devolved into the predictable cataclysm that unfolds whenever we try to talk about race in a country where seemingly half of us believe racism doesn’t exist, except when it comes to our president, who is totally racist. I don’t much care to argue about whether George Zimmerman is racist, though running around warning neighbors about the threat of black people and saying “these assholes always get away” while reaching for a gun strikes me as pretty much the literal definition. Still, whether or not Zimmerman is a racist doesn’t have a lot to do with whether or not he shot an unarmed 17-year-old kid, and there’s really no “whether or not” there.
But the people falling all over themselves to defend Zimmerman, the ones aggrieved that Trayvon Martin had a Twitter handle of no_limit_nigga, the ones dancing around yelling “see? see?” at his penchant for quoting rap lyrics, everyone insinuating that the (im)morality of killing an unarmed 17-year-old who likes Lil Wayne is a hazier issue than killing an unarmed 17-year-old who likes, say, Taylor Swift? Oh yes, those people are racists, and their racism is as obsessed with rap music as any 17-year-old ever was, and it is vicious and cowardly and the very worst that America has to offer.
The historian Alexander Saxton once described racism as a “theory of history,” the conviction that the entire course of human existence can be explained by reference to skin color. It’s a deeply stupid idea that requires an endless chain of logical fallacies, among which is a tendency to mistake symptom for cause, to view the effects of racist beliefs as proof of those beliefs. The fantasy of black men as terrifying agents of violence has existed since white men started enslaving them and raping their sisters, mothers, wives and daughters—irony alert—but two conditions of the late 20th century forced this into insidious new contortions. The first was the wholesale ideological war waged against the urban poor that began in the post-Watts 1960s but reached full coherence under Ronald Reagan. The second was the rise of hip-hop as the dominant form of American popular culture, an art form that emerged as a counteroffensive in that war.
Hip-hop was a problem because an underclass that had been left to die didn’t, and instead created a music decrying their conditions that was vivid, troubling and beautiful, a declaration of existence in the face of those who’d condemned them to oblivion. It screwed up the narrative, and thus was born an anti-rap racism in which symptom became cause, laments of violence and deprivation becoming justifications for violence and deprivation. Anti-rap racists hear rap music as proof that black men pose a uniquely violent danger to the American status quo, even as the entire trajectory of that status quo suggests it’s the other way around. As theories of history go it’s both aggressively incorrect and depressingly unoriginal.
Disliking hip-hop doesn’t make you a racist any more than liking hip-hop makes you not a racist, and I’m sure there are plenty of Stormfront enthusiasts with Rick Ross in their iTunes. If you don’t like Jay-Z because you just don’t like the way he sounds, or you’re sick of his cloying ubiquity, or you wish he’d talk about something other than where he’s from for five seconds—hey, I’m not mad, I don’t like Bruce Springsteen for the same reasons. But if you don’t like rap music—a genre that contains multitudes—because of a self-satisfied moralism, or because you’re scared of it, or because you wish those people would stop talking about their problems and get out of your television and radio and kids’ bedrooms: well.
And I’m not just talking about the American right, I’m talking about all the well-meaning white folks who’ve told me how they want to like Lil Wayne but lo, the misogyny, the violence, the drugs. But, but, I’ll say: Bob Dylan aced misogyny; the Rolling Stones sang about violence; the Velvet Underground knew their way around some drugs. Yeeeah, but it’s different, they’ll say, elongating that “yeah” with conspiratorial inflection: you know what I mean. Yeah, I know exactly what you mean.
Rap music doesn’t get unarmed kids shot to death, “it’s different” does. “It’s different” infuses “these assholes always get away” and gives solace to people who hear that sound bite and nod their empty heads in agreement. “It’s different” is the same logic that suggests a teenager’s skin color combined with the music he listened to means he had it coming, and it’s the same logic that lets a bunch of people feign outrage over a teenager’s use of the n-word to describe himself when they’re really just outraged that he beat them to the punch.
“It’s different” makes me shake with anger because it turns music into a dog-whistle to justify the murder of a kid who doesn’t seem all that “different” from me was when I was his age, not that different at all. I liked Skittles and hoodies and weed, too. And yeah, I’m white and never worried about getting shot for any of it, which is only the most loathsome excuse for not identifying with someone that I can possibly think of.
If we want to have a conversation about the moral failings of hip-hop then let’s have that conversation, right after we have that conversation about poverty and education and prisons and taking guns out of the hands of everyone, starting with George Zimmerman. Until then I’ll talk about the fact that hip-hop has saved more lives than it’s ended, even though it can’t save enough and couldn’t save Trayvon Martin’s. America Is Dying Slowly, I dug it out the other day for the first time in years. It holds up.