Let’s jump straight to it. You may have clicked on this headline because your immediate reaction was: “How can a person’s music taste be racist? Rap is just not my cup of tea and I have a right to hate it! Are you telling me my taste in music is politically incorrect now? What kind of woke-police snowflake-snobbery is this?!”
Okay, chill. Let me explain.
Like everyone, I was a teenager once upon a time. And teenagers are notoriously opinionated when it comes to music. I was no exception, and I decided early on that rap was, frankly, trash.
It wasn’t until relatively recently that I changed my mind. It all started when I stumbled upon a short documentary that broke down the lyrical genius that underlies rap. This video destroyed preconceived notions I had about rap and laid bare the prejudices I held. Since then, I’ve held a deep fascination, appreciation, and respect for the art form that is rap.
The personal essay you’re about to read will take you through that journey of discovering rap for what it really is. It is by no means meant to be prescriptive or even authoritative because — full disclosure — I am neither a Black person, an American, or a rapper. I am merely an outside layperson looking in, eager to share their perspective. I welcome readers to share their thoughts in the comments, especially if you are Black or a hip-hop artist yourself.
And hey, I can’t tell you whether or not you’re racist for liking or hating one type of music. That’s up to you to figure out. But I do encourage you to start your own anti-racism journey. You may discover something that surprises or humbles you, and a good place to start may be looking into your music tastes.
So, let’s begin.
Part I: Music, identity, and race
First, I want to establish just how essential a role music plays in defining individual and collective identity.
Remember when you were a teen and the music, movies, and pop culture you and your friends ingested defined who you were?
I was a teen in the late 2000s and early 2010s. If you can remember, pop culture at this time included emo pop-punk artists like My Chemical Romance, Fall Out Boy, and Panic! At The Disco. Being a somewhat-moody emo kid myself, I appreciated a few songs from these bands, but I was never crazy about them. Something about them just didn’t resonate with me.
Instead, I listened to Visual Kei music. Visual Kei is a Japanese music and fashion subculture that was popular among Asian and Asian diaspora youth in the aughts. Known for its androgynous fashions and dark, heavy metal-like sound as well as its emotive power ballads, this subculture resonated with me. And despite not understanding a lick of Japanese, I related with these artists. Perhaps because they looked more like me — a second-generation, in-the-closet, queer Chinese kid in Canada — than the aforementioned emo pop-punks.
My point is: music is inextricably tied with identity. Rap, in particular, is associated with Black culture and Black identity. The art form originated in the Bronx borough of New York City in the 1970s, in marginalized and low-income Black and Brown communities. Historians have traced its roots to other Black art forms like West African griots, jailhouse toasts, and talking blues.
Eventually, rap left the underground and proliferated into the mainstream. Today, we see rap happen in all cultures and ethnicities, from Eminem to BTS. Yet, most rappers I see today are Black. So, I think it’s fair to say that rap is a Black art form, for and by Black people.
Because music is so closely linked to identity, when someone insults your music taste, it’s easy to take it personally. As a teen, my taste for Visual Kei was sometimes ridiculed with what I perceived as racist and sexist undertones. When I’d recommend Visual Kei music to others, they sometimes reacted strangely because to them, music in a foreign language made by people in provocative fashion wasn’t something to consider.
So, I kept my taste for Visual Kei somewhat secret. I only told people what music I liked if they asked me and if I deemed them a “safe” person to share with. And I’m not even Japanese. I can only imagine how a young Black person would feel if I made fun of their music.
Part II: Music, class, and taste
As a kid, I embodied the Piano Playing Chinese Kid Who Studies Hard stereotype. By the time I finished high school, I had earned a diploma in classical piano and knew more Mozart melodies by heart than Britney Spears songs. From a young age, I thought of classical music as smart, sophisticated, and deserving of my time.
(Sidebar: I think classical music holds an aura of prestige in Asian communities. There must be a reason why an entire generation of Asian and Asian diaspora children got sent to piano and violin lessons, but this is a topic that deserves unpacking in its own essay.)
Rap music is, in many respects, the polar opposite of classical music. Classical music is associated with big, expensive concert halls, formal dress, shiny instruments, and refined demeanour. Rap music is associated with underground dance halls, saggy jeans, expletives, slang, and references to sex, drugs, and violence.
Point being, I internalized from a young age that classical music — created by White Europeans — was high-class, complex, and deserving of prestige. Hip-hop, on the other hand, was cast as the opposite end of this spectrum: created by Black Americans, it was low-class, uneducated, “low-brow” art.
Whether “high” or “low” art even exists — and whether one deserves more respect — goes beyond the margins of this essay, but the takeaway I want to leave you with is that art entails judgement. And when that art is linked to race, identity, and culture, one’s judgement naturally follows there too. Now, I do believe that it is possible to respect a community without necessarily liking their art. But I also believe that, at the very least, we should give a community’s artistic expression an open-minded try.
Part III: Opening
Like many people, my initial exposure to rap came in the form of Top 40 hits. But Top 40 hits do not define or represent an entire genre. Nicki Minaj and Kanye West do not represent rap just like Beethoven and Mozart do not represent the Classical Period of Western art music. (C’mon, you need to include Haydn and Schubert at least!)
I don’t remember exactly what made me want to learn more about rap music. Perhaps I was just bored, but one day I stumbled upon Vox’s Rapping, deconstructed: The best rhymers of all time video and I became hooked. (I encourage any newcomers to rap to watch this video; it’s only twelve minutes long but it’s extremely informative.)
After scratching the surface, I began listening to rap myself and developed a taste for 90s hip-hop. I watched Hip-Hop Evolution on Netflix and learned all about the story of hip-hop, from its grassroots origins to the international phenomenon it is today. No matter what your opinion is on this art form, you can’t deny the impact rap has had on global pop culture, from American pop music to K-pop.
Slowly, I began to appreciate the creativity and skill required for rap. Rappers are masters of language, and rapping isn’t something anyone can do just because they smoked a lot of weed or sagged their pants low enough. Rappers are highly skilled storytellers, and the stories they tell can be moving on both a personal and socio-political level.
As a writer, I picked up on rap’s artistic merit quickly and became quite mad at myself for not finding this treasure trove of art sooner. I now see rap as literature, as poetry. And if you ask me, rap deserves as much attention as the dozens of dead White guys I wrote essays about during my English Lit undergrad.
Artistic merit aside, rap has social value. There’s a reason why rapping resonates so powerfully with the Black community, a community that has long been marginalized and criminalized by White supremacist societies in the West. While rhymes that depict gangs, violence, drugs, and sex may be shocking to outsiders, these words hold an honesty that many Black youth relate to. Some psychologists even include hip-hop in therapy.
Now, I won’t go further into describing what rap means to the Black community, because Black folks can write about that better than me. (And I’m certain not every single Black person even enjoys rap!) What I can discuss, however, is what rap has done for me.
Part IV: Appreciating
Honestly, I struggled to relate to rap at first. I didn’t grow up around many Black people and I frankly know very little about Black culture. But I soon learned that relatability is not a requirement for understanding, appreciating, and enjoying an art form. Rather, to be rewarded by art — to truly appreciate it — entails some risks and discomforts. You must be ready to open your mind to perspectives and voices that are different from yours, that you’ve yet to understand.
Opening our minds is a conscious decision each of us can make, and it does take some time. After all, I didn’t immediately relate to Mozart; I’m not an Austrian guy in the 1700s! But I learned to appreciate him over time.
Similarly, I initially dismissed rap because I didn’t bother to take it seriously. But after finding a “gateway” through the videos I watched about how rap plays with language, my curiosity was stoked. I took the time to do some exploring, and I found songs that I liked. Here’s something to consider: if you don’t have a hip-hop song that you like, maybe you just haven’t looked hard enough.
One rap artist I’ve found inspiration in is Princess Nokia. I find their music empowering, freeing, and deliciously feminist. Princess Nokia and I have had vastly different life experiences, yet I connect with her music as a fellow queer person of colour who also uses “she” and “they” pronouns. Princess Nokia’s songs give me pride and confidence, and when I listen to her walking down the street, I feel less scared and small. (I’m also incredibly short, and I appreciate how Princess Nokia invites women to the front of the crowd in her shows.)
I’m also a political person. Injustice is something I care deeply about, and 2020 was a difficult year for me emotionally because anti-Black and anti-Asian racism kept making the headlines. Amidst all the turmoil, hip-hop music became anthemic. Indeed, rap — and its precursor genres like jazz and blues — has a long history of being protest music. And the anti-establishment ethic in many rap songs can be empowering to marginalized folks like queer people, women, and people of colour.
One thing I hear from people who don’t like rap is that they prefer songs with melodies. I can’t really argue with you here — rap is based on talking, not singing, even though singing happens sometimes. If this is you, I suggest approaching rap from a different perspective: either through re-evaluating how you define “music,” or by approaching it in a different way than you’d approach conventional music. Personally, as someone who was raised by Classical melodies, I like to see rap as a slightly different art form — informed by music, but not exactly music.
Some aspects of rap aren’t immediately accessible to me, and some rap will never be accessible to me because it wasn’t written for me. But like any other art form, there are universal human truths inherent in hip-hop. Talented rappers are skilled wordsmiths with the uncanny ability to entice audiences with their stories. When I first heard Wu-tang Clan’s “C.R.E.A.M.,” sure, the first things that leapt out to me were “dolla dolla bills” and numerous drug references. But when I really listened, I heard an astonishingly powerful narrative about growing up in the margins. Within the smooth flow punctuated by witty internal rhymes was the dire maxim that “cash rules everything around me.”
Part V: Respecting
Now, I want to be clear that I have not transformed overnight into an adoring and obsessive hip-hop fan. Rap isn’t my favourite thing to listen to, and on any given day, you’re more likely to see me listening to Mozart than to Princess Nokia. But there’s a big difference, I believe, between blindly disliking something and actually taking the time to understand it. I originally wrote off rap due to stereotypes, assumptions, and, quite frankly, racism.
At the end of the day, even if you don’t like it, you gotta respect it. I, for one, am grateful that I found rap. Now that I’ve added it to my playlists, I have a wider soundtrack for my life. Not only do I have majestic concertos and heady rock to listen to, I also have catchy beats, smooth flow, and sweet rhymes to enjoy.
In other words, thanks to rap, life sounds richer and a lot more colourful than it did before.
Li Charmaine Anne (she/they) is a Canadian author and freelance writer on unceded Coast Salish territories (aka Vancouver, Canada). Her work has appeared in literary journals and magazines and she is at work on her first novel, a contemporary YA about queer Asian skater girls. To read Charmaine’s articles for free (no subscription required), sign up for her newsletter.