On Responsible Criticism and Hip Hop

Yesterday I experienced a new first: the first time somebody has made up an email address for the purpose of dissing me. Some guy wrote to tell me that my music sucked under the email address juststop@mailinator.com. His comment started off with those two words “Just stop!” There was something pathetic about the thought of someone going to all that trouble to insult me. It exuded a pathology endemic to postmodernity: getting off on the brilliance of your sarcasm.

He was dissing some songs that I’ve made that I call hip-hop for lack of a better term. I don’t have any delusions about how white and rhythmically challenged I am. I actually hate most hip-hop because it usually consists in boasts and insults. And there’s something really goofy to me about trying to look gangster (I couldn’t bring myself to spell it with the “a”). What makes me mourn is that hip-hop ought to be the genre of prophetic social critique. So much cleverness has been wasted for the sake of egotism. Instead of being a tool of emancipation, hip-hop’s love affair with capitalism has raped the revolutionary consciousness of an entire generation.

But there I go. I’m being just like that kid who thought he was awesome because he made up an email address to tell me to stop rapping. I’m one-upping his dis in a nerdy white blogger version of a rap battle. And yet, I really do feel that way about hip-hop. Maybe I haven’t heard enough of it. Christian hip-hop is even worse. It often takes bad fundamentalist theology and makes an even worse caricature of it by filtering it through a pseudo-thug consciousness. Again I probably haven’t heard enough of it.

The thing about hip-hop that gives it so much potential for prophecy is that you can say things aesthetically so much more poignantly than in logical prose. To give an example, here’s a line from a piece I wrote called Our Father: “We will always point to you in every end-zone dance that we do.” When you dance in life’s end-zones and talk very loudly about how all your many successes are the “blessing” of God, you’re able to exalt yourself while getting credit for being “humble” and exalting God. I call this exhibitionist theocentrism; it’s an epidemic in evangelicalism. And it sounded better to write that in a single line that rhymes.

So to get back to my point, I think there’s a difference between dissing someone personally and critiquing a general cultural tendency. If I write a song about tendencies among suburban evangelicals, the person listening to it can say wow, I hope I’m not like that instead of feeling personally pinged on. At the same time, I’m not just making a public service announcement when I write a poem. Usually something has to get under my skin enough for me to talk back to it. Part of my purpose in writing is to retort and often recover my ego when it’s been wounded. There’s an unhealthy satisfaction I get from devastating with my words.

The fault line that I always turn to is in a line from Paul’s love poem in 1 Corinthians 13: “Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.” Love gives me a duty to be truthful and declare the truth when falsehood prevails, but my love is poisoned if my zeal for truth turns into a delight in finding evil in others. It requires a lot of patience to rejoice with the truth without delighting in exposing others’ evil. What you have to say is going to be a lot less satisfying to you when you’re really trying to win another person to the truth instead of just getting off on your own cleverness. So I hope that I can one day transcend my adolescent need to torpedo my enemies with my words. Sometimes you need to be on the receiving end of juvenile insults to see the juvenile in yourself.

4 thoughts on “On Responsible Criticism and Hip Hop

  1. I have never understood the attraction people have to hip-hop and rap. I personally don’t consider it music, but many will argue with that. The few songs that I’ve heard are foul and demeaning to women and people different than the composer and/or artist. And yet they make enormous sums of money from it. Sometimes truth has to be proclaimed and that’s what I see as truth: hip-hop and rap are just plain destructive.

    • I think you can use the same sounds and beats and general style of rhythmical oral poetry for a better purpose. The original hip-hop before gangster rap in the early eighties was often prophetic.

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