As we as a society move forward towards the ideals of equality and freedom for all, we become aware of how certain practices are or might be understood to be, for lack of a better word, problematic. The hottest topic in this regard is cultural appropriation. Discussions about cultural appropriation are everywhere on the internet. In fact, there isn’t a major online news source that doesn’t cover the topic of cultural appropriation regularly. Of course, I am thinking about websites like the Huffington Post, Gawker affiliates, and, probably at this point, Buzzfeed. There are certainly many more blogs that cover cultural appropriation when it happens or feels eerily near. This is a good thing. It is worthwhile for people to know when they are acting offensively, or at least have it published on the web should they ever be curious about their effect actions. The coverage of cultural appropriation is also a little peculiar, at least in one regard. Much of the coverage of cultural appropriation hinges on appropriation of pure, unproblematic or sacred cultural artifacts or practices. In contemporary culture, we see this in debates about wearing moccasins, the harlem shake, twerking, dreadlocks, septum piercings, and the list(s) goes on. Discussions of cultural appropriation almost ubiquitously focus on these intersections and not those intersections that occur at the morally problematic edges of culture, for instance gangsta rap culture. To my mind, gangsta rap culture is the largest and most neglected culturally appropriated phenomenon in contemporary society. That may seem like an over stated claim but let’s just consider the use of slang and the incorporation of the trap rap sound in popular music.
Slang is heard everywhere everyday in many incarnations. In some contexts it might be called jargon, in others it might be called regional linguistic differences, but insofar as people are using words in an metaphorical or localized fashion, they are using slang. For the most part, slang from gangsta rap culture refers to the simple pleasures of drinking, doing/selling drugs, getting money, and having sex. Some examples might be “pouring a four,” drinking “rosay,” “flipping pigeons,” “a stack,” and “chickenhead” (not all of these examples have had ubiquitous adoption). Then there is slang about killing people because this is gangsta rap after all. Slang like “caught in traffic,” “bussin,” “187,” “smoke,” and more. Not so peculiarly, of the examples above only “rosay” and “stack” might be heard outside the context of gangsta rap culture because it is just rosé wine and money, two objects that occur unproblematically outside of rap. Recently, there has been one phrase which has been used over and over again in a culturally appropriated fashion, including by Miley Cyrus of all people. That phrase is “Bout That Life.” “Bout that life” is sort of a wonderfully ambiguous phrase because all it denotes is that you are very into a lifestyle such as partying, this is how Ms. Cyrus uses the phrase. “Bout that life” actually refers to something very specific: life in the proverbial streets. A quick google lyrics search for the phrase “bout that life” will yield a number of gangsta rap songs that discuss being “bout that life” in reference to cooking crack cocaine, shooting at people, and generally being reckless. To be “bout that life” precludes having a good time building french fried skulls for music videos and jumping around a house you made from years working as a Disney child icon.
Second, there is the sound of gangsta rap which has now permeated much of contemporary popular music. I cannot give a full history of the sound of gangsta rap, and while it is certainly true that it borrows from different styles of club music and was not created in isolation from other music, it was honed and developed in the poverty stricken inner cities of America. It was fashioned by young people attempting to create melodies and rhythms that could echo the aggressive verses of the artists they were produced for. While the sound of gangsta rap has changed, it is still just as difficult to imagine Waka Flocka on smooth jazz beat as it would be to hear Dr. Dre. Consequently, the sound of gangsta rap, in its many incarnations, can essentially be distilled into aggressive percussion mixed with loud bass and a simple repeating treble synth line or two. There are songs in the genre that are indeed different, but this has been the hallmark of gangsta rap with the exclusion of the mid 90′s gangsta rap a la Mobb Deep, Nas, Black Moon, Big L, etc… Recently, the biggest trends in gangsta rap have been an almost excessive use of impossibly fast hi-hats and 808 bass. In tandem, the hi-hats create a sense of rapid movement in the songs while the bass allows the song to breathe as the bass note decays. This music is referred to as trap rap because of the content matter of the artists rapping about dealing drugs out of trap houses. This method of production has been notably borrowed by the electronic music genre “trap,” which is like dubstep but not and most recently by Beyoncé. I do not think there are interesting implications regarding the appropriation of the electronic genre but there might be some for Beyoncé. Particularly, I am thinking of her song “Flawless.” This song is a feminist banger. The lyrics empower women while the beat makes it enjoyable to bump and get down to. But it seems like an interesting choice to borrow the sound of a highly socially regressive genre of music and make it positive. Perhaps the beat doesn’t matter that much, but if it did, what would it belie Beyoncé’s project? I am not prepared to answer that here.
However, this leads into the big question why. Why is it that gangsta rap is never (ok it’s the internet, seldom might be a better word) referenced in discussions of cultural appropriation? I think there might be a few reasons, some more interesting than others. Reporters may just not know about gangsta rap culture. Many people today still discuss Notorious BIG and Tupac like they were releasing new music and the genre never progressed. Perhaps, it is because there is a tacit agreement that artists like Beyonce and Miley Cyrus who draw on aspects of gangsta rap culture are subverting it to achieve an greater ideal (dubious). Cynically, the audiences they write for are interested in preserving the notion of a pure culture untouched by past and contemporary American societies. Thus, in a feedback loop the full breadth of cultural appropriation isn’t discussed because readers and writers are pushing themselves towards page views and clicks. Lastly, it may be because gangsta rap is socially repulsive that no one wants to look at the ways it is culturally appropriated because cultural appropriation arguments are almost inherently defensive/preservationist. This might be the biggest problem though because it fails readers by not letting them understand the full range of culture being drawn on and smashed up in contemporary popular media. Thus, a path forward will be to understand, as best we can, all aspects that are being drawn on.