Hip-hop has taken its lumps, but like any great fighter, it takes its punishment and keeps stepping forward. The latest round brings Bill Cosby and Alvin Poussaint into the ring, brandishing their book, "Come On People: On the Path From Victims to Victors." The book argues that blacks should reclaim their communities by placing family, education and economic upward mobility first. That is a noble position. It's unsettling, however, that Cosby and Poussaint suggest rap music "promotes the moral breakdown of the family."
Displaying a lack of understanding of both the music and the complexity of social problems, the authors jab by stating without proof that hip-hop "deliberately influences women to become pregnant before they have finished their education and influences men to shuck their responsibilities when this happens."
And FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock, in writing about the November 2007 shooting death of NFL player Sean Taylor, had this to say: "Our self-hatred has been set to music. … I blame hip-hop for playing a role in the genocide of American black men."
At first glance, there appears to be a certain logic to the claim that young people, particularly young blacks, can be influenced enough by rap music to carry out any criminal and violent messages.
But if that were true, it should follow that if the music is changed, the results will be different.
This line of reasoning led Cosby to record a rap album, "Cosby Narratives Vol. 1: State of Emergency," set for release in the coming weeks. Cosby will not rap himself, but the album will trumpet the same themes of responsibility, education and building self-esteem that appear in his recent book.
Rap, however, makes too easy a target. And writers such as Cosby, Poussaint and Whitlock confound the true sources of the social problems they lament. Some people who listen to rap music may engage in violent behavior and sexual promiscuity, but the music is not the cause.
Instead, as has been observed many times—including routinely by rappers themselves—hip-hop music reflects reality.
Many rappers grew up amid violence, police harassment, poverty, drugs and promiscuity. Rappers will tell you they rap about what they know. If the community wants to change rap lyrics, the community must change reality.
But beyond that familiar argument lies a historical context that hip-hop critics overlook. Long-celebrated forms of African-American music, such as jazz and blues, have always been sprinkled with sexuality and measures of violence. Granted, rap music is more lyrically explicit. But sexual double-entendre has been used for nearly a century in jazz and blues.
For example, jazz pioneer Jelly Roll Morton was not exactly named after a pastry. Scantily clad showgirls were staples of the big-band era. Ella Fitzgerald recorded "Bewitched, Bothered and Bewildered" in 1956. She sang of being "oversexed again" and observed, "Horizontally speaking, he's at his very best."
It should not be forgotten that rock 'n' roll, a musical form created by blacks, was originally a slang term for sex.
There is another reason to look back. Violence and crime appear to be increasing at alarming rates. But interestingly—and fortunately—the city of Chicago has not surpassed the record for most murders in one year. The record was established in 1974 at 970 murders (nearly 800 victims were black).
Would it be safe to assume that R&B music was lyrically violent at the time?
On the contrary, love and sex were the themes of the day. Among the chart-topping R&B singles were "Superstition," by Stevie Wonder; "Could it Be I'm Falling in Love?" by the Spinners; "Love Train," by the O'Jays; and "Let's Get it On," by Marvin Gaye.
Based on the Cosby-Poussaint analysis, the 1970s should have been love-filled, not murder-filled. Just as soul music did not make people love more then, rap music does not make people kill more now. Listening to John Coltrane does not make people do heroin.
In 2007 the murder rates in New York (the birthplace of hip-hop) and Chicago (hometown of Kanye West) decreased to levels unseen since the 1960s. This is even more noteworthy given that firearms are far more prevalent and powerful today than years ago. A study released in 2006 by Franklin Zimring of the University of California, Berkeley, found that crime rates across all major cities declined in the "gangsta rap" 1990s to levels more closely resembling those of the big-band era.
And counter to the Cosby and Poussaint assertions, unwed teen pregnancy rates are lower now than in the 1970s.
Not only do critics of hip-hop eschew statistical data when mounting attacks, some selectively use race to defend their positions while ignoring it when it fails to support them.
For example, most hip-hop consumers are white. So following the logic of the writers, there should be an abundance of violence among whites who mimic what they hear.
Does the fact that many whites do not mimic the violence mean whites are somehow immune to the lyrics? Or is it that their daily life realities are not littered with poor-performing schools, a lack of extracurricular activities and limited job opportunities stemming from postindustrial economic changes? Predominantly white communities are not occupied by tacitly accepted open-air drug markets, police brutality, unevenly distributed justice and families enduring the legacy of economic oppression and subjugation.
Such social problems are complex. Yet certain critics find it easier to lash out at a 23-year-old rapper wearing bling and a video showing bathing suit-clad beauties than to take on public officials who continually underfund public education. It also is easier to chastise a rapper for his depiction of violence than to challenge the National Rifle Association and support bans on assault rifles or handguns.
Hip-hop music does merit criticism, and I should admit that I am critical. I dislike cliched videos and subject matter, abysmal live performances and current songs that trumpet being a street soldier yet neglect commenting on the war in Iraq.
The ills of the black community, however, cannot be placed squarely on the shoulders of hip-hop music. Faced with problems that lack easy solutions, people often look for scapegoats. In this case, the scapegoat is hip-hop music.
If America wants to change rap lyrics, America must change the realities that inspire those lyrics.