You have to guess a stranger’s musical tastes. You can’t speak with him. You get no glimpse to gauge demographics or fashion. You’re permitted just one piece of information: this mystery person’s political views.
He’s right of center.
That’s all you know. So how do you wager?
You could be dealing with a rural conservative, the kind people call “grassroots.” If so, you should bet on the chart-toppers who connect pop with country. Try Brantley Gilbert or Jason Aldean.
But what if the guy’s some suburban lawyer, an environmentalist Republican? Probably still digs the guys whose LPs he schlepped into his dorm room in the ‘70s. Is it The Who and Led Zeppelin or Joni Mitchell and James Taylor? Flip a coin.
If they’re a libertarian, you’re basically screwed. Their ideal playlist could range anywhere from Chris Tomlin (home-schooling mom) to Rage Against The Machine (high-schooler who skimmed “The Fountainhead”). Or you could have a paleoconservative who shelves string quartet CDs next to The New Criterion.
But, hey — at least there is one genre you can safely rule out. There is one kind of music that no kind of conservative is likely to love.
Now, the set of conservatives for whom Mike Huckabee is the best barometer is minuscule. But the pundit’s searing #HotTake on the R&B queen typifies a broader attitude. Most conservatives are almost completely unaware of the family of genres spanning hip-hop, rap, R&B, and neo-soul. And many others, like Huckabee, are just aware enough to vaguely rant that it’s ruining America.
Both perspectives are pervasive. But the first is a little lazy and the second is dead wrong. Hip-hop music is great. It’s the descendant of jazz by way of funk and soul. Its origins are uniquely American.
As with any genre, there is plenty of hip-hop that will rub conservatives the wrong way. As in any genre, there is some garbage — moral and musical. But also, as in any genre, there are sparkling gems that demand our attention.
Hit Pause for a Second
Let me be clear. I’m not making the silly claim that hip-hop is somehow a fundamentally conservative art form. It isn’t.
I’m not pretending that more than a few of its practitioners identify as conservatives. They don’t. Nor that its stars write their songs from conservative perspectives. Nor that those songs recommend conservative solutions.
I claim only two things. First, conservatives must either stop pretending they are serious about American culture or start engaging with one of its most prominent expressions. Second, when they open their ears, they will like hip-hop more than they ever expected.
Here we go.
1. Hip-Hop Celebrates Prosperity without Making It a Panacea
Like a slowly-turning ocean liner, the conservative movement has spent two years gradually pivoting towards a new focus: inequality of opportunity.
Same as always, conservatives are noting that reigning center-left orthodoxy has produced public schools and social service agencies that do too little for vulnerable Americans. But here’s the new addition. Conservatives have realized that this tragedy is not mitigated, and perhaps is even morally exacerbated, by the fact that incredible prosperity among wealthy people pulls up the national average.
We’re caricatured as claiming that a rising tide automatically lifts all boats. But we know better. Now conservative leaders are the ones highlighting the brutally regressive nature of the “recovery.” Yeah, we still cheer Horatio Alger stories louder than anybody. Proud to do so. But we also explicitly acknowledge they are far too difficult for children raised in marginalized communities to replicate.
Much of the best hip-hop music explores exactly this tension. “Hard Knock Life,” from the famed rapper Jay-Z, is a prime example. Jay spends some of the song relishing his personal success. “I went from lukewarm to hot,” he brags, “Sleeping on futons and cots to King size / ‘Green machines’ to green 5’s.” That last phrase, slickly comparing a popular kids’ tricycle to the BMW 5-series, showcases Jay-Z’s fantastic talent for rhymes.
But the tune is about more than his wealth. Subtitled “Ghetto Anthem,” the song intertwines Jay-Z’s boasts with lamentations on how few of his old neighbors will share in similar success. For people on the margins of society, even small personal triumphs don’t bring a sense of real ownership of society: “We live in hard knocks / We don’t take over, we borrow blocks.”
That’s a profound message. As conservatives keep unwinding our old habit of focusing too myopically on economics, Jay-Z’s lyrics help remind us that money is a necessary but not nearly sufficient part of fulfillment.
2. Hip-Hop Shows How ‘Upward Mobility’ Can Be Really Complicated
“All Falls Down” is an absurdly catchy single from the 2004 album that made Kanye West famous. In classic Kanye fashion, it combines soulful vocals and grooves with cutting social commentary.
In the first verse, ‘Ye channels the struggles of people who are pushed to pursue expensive education on the pledge that their lives will fall neatly in order:
Man I promise, she’s so self-conscious
She has no idea what she’s doing in college
That major that she majored in don’t make no money
But she won’t drop out, her parents will look at her funny
Now, tell me that ain’t insecure
The concept of school seemed so secure
Sophomore, three years, ain’t picked a career
She like, f — — it, I’ll just stay down here and do hair
Gee, think conservatives could relate to this? Republican politicians love pointing out how the old four-year college script has ceased to be a cure-all. Just recently, virtually every right-winger on Twitter pushed a Wall Street Journal piece on “The $140,000-a-Year Welding Job.” Rick freaking Santorum made this argument part of his stump speech!
It’s safe to say Kanye probably doesn’t share the nostalgia for mid-twentieth-century blue-collar life that helps drive this narrative on the Right. But this song certainly gives the higher-ed bubble — both economic and cultural — a human face.
In the track’s second verse, ‘Ye relates his own struggles with spending:
But I ain’t even gonna act holier than thou
Cause f — it, I went to Jacob with twenty-five thou
Before I had a house and I’d do it again
Cause I want to be on 106 and Park pushin’ a Benz
I want to act ballerific like it’s all terrific
I got a couple past due bills, I won’t get specific
I got a problem with spendin’ before I get it
We all self-conscious, I’m just the first to admit it
Before Kanye was famous for dubious antics and marrying a Kardashian, he made his name on sick lyrics like these. But the experience he’s describing is the key part for our purposes. Yeezy’s verse testifies to the gap between how sensible fiscal responsibility looks on paper and how difficult it can be to exercise. Prudence is easier to preach than to practice.
This is true for poor people in inner cities who are desperate to own a few nice things, it is true for spendthrift senators, and it is true for overeager middle-class surburbanites who will sign anything to get into McMansions. If conservatives really want to build a society that lives within its means, empathy for people in a tight spot will be at least as important as well-worn austere lectures.
3. Hip-Hop Renders Tough Social Issues with Nuance and Respect
“Dreamer” is a compelling track off an album with an epic title: “When Life Gives You Lemons, You Paint That Sh-t Gold.” The hit album belongs to Atmosphere, a talented rapper-producer duo.
The song explores how hopeful ambition and cold realism compete for space in a single mom’s emotional life. Midway through the song, my favorite verse starts out with exposition:
Two years later, two months pregnant
Same daddy, same broke-ass situation
This time the doc said her heart might break
Praise God that the job got her health benefits straight
So far, this unwed mom-to-be seems like someone many conservatives would sooner chastise than cheer. But wait —
She believes in the right to choice
But she loves baby girl and she wants a boy
Makes more now a days on the day shift
Balanced that with night classes, take some
Time and space and make it all fit
Here’s the crux. The woman’s love for her daughter helps her dodge a pitfall of modern culture. She refrains from terminating her embryonic son. But who is to blame for the forces that made that choice difficult? Conservatives would be quick to point at the progressives who made abortion legal and intend to keep it that way. Rightly so. But there’s more to this story.
As Atmosphere immediately points out, another kid poses a huge financial hurdle. Thus does this song force us conservatives to remember that fiscal responsibility and deeper moral responsibility can sometimes point in opposite directions. It challenges us to rank those priorities—and I don’t think there’s any real question how that list ought to be ordered.
Scolds who condemn mothers for having “more children than they can afford” should be very cautious about what they’re implying. Pro-life Christians should be among the first to cheer families, whatever the parents’ incomes, and the last to scoff at them.
Conservatives will point out that the child’s father should bear much more responsibility — personal and financial — for his offspring. And the song’s protagonist agrees!
Raised her voice and made her point
Told that boy, go get employed
He put on his best shirt
Said he wasn’t comin’ back till he gets work
She knew what that part meant
So she swept every piece out that apartment
Lately, center-right commentators have started tackling the messy intersection of policy, culture, and family life. Have economic trends made many men unmarriageable? Should unwed parents work harder to stay together, or should moms move quickly to kick out deadbeat dads?
To their credit, conservative experts are asking these important questions despite their inconvenience. It’s where the data are leading them. But if wealthy, married white people are going to delve into these issues via symposiums and op-eds, they are obliged to humanize their understanding. They can start by exploring the music that does just that.
4. Hip-Hop Can Evolve Conservatives’ Nascent Awareness of Race
Our movement is waking up to racial issues. This is one of the most promising political developments of the last decade, because those issues are empirically still stalking this country.
Let’s say you’re a middle-aged American who was born into the poorest fifth of households. Maybe you actually were; maybe you have to imagine. Well, if you are white, your chance of still being stuck in that bottom fifth today is just 23 percent. And if you’re black? Then your chance of still being poor skyrockets to 51 percent.
Here’s another data point. The median white household in the United States commands about $142,000 in net wealth. Not the arithmetic mean, which could be yanked way upward by a few billionaires, but the median. Half of all white families are worth less than $142,000, and half are worth more.
The median black household commands net wealth of $11,000.
Here’s a third fact with which conservatives may have more natural comfort. The average black student’s school ranks at just the 37th percentile in test scores nationwide. The average white student’s school? Sixty-third percentile.
These statistics raise limitless questions. Yet one thing is abundantly clear. A few decades of mostly left-wing, mostly big-government “reforms” have not fully expunged the racial animus that was once nestled deep in our nation. Stating this explicitly might help a Republican politician or it might hurt him, but it happens to be the case. Willful blindness is only an option for weaklings.
There’s good news here for everyone. Whether it’s our libertarian wing critiquing police power or establishment wonks agitating for school choice, our values will contribute to this conversation in ways that inexhaustibly pro-government voices cannot. As much as Al Sharpton may hate to hear this, it, too, has the virtue of being true.
Indeed, many conservatives are warming to policy arguments that acknowledge racial disparities. But few of us seem to really grok how deep the roots of race extend into people’s lived experiences. If conservatives want participate credibly in this conversation, we must understand that race means much more to many Americans than simply one variable in a regression analysis. This will be even more vital if Republicans hope to break from the party’s pathetic past performances and seriously work to earn black Americans’ votes.
Innumerable tracks touch on these themes powerfully. One of my favorites is a collaboration track with Mos Def and Talib Kweli. Entitled “Thieves In The Night,” the song explores themes from inequality to our fraught system of criminal justice:
They say money’s the root of all evil but I can’t tell
You know what I mean, pesos, francs, yens, cowrie shells, dollar bills
Or is it the mindstate that’s ill?
Creating crime rates to fill the new prisons they build
Over money and religion there’s more blood to spill
The wounds of slaves in cotton fields that never heal
What’s the deal?
A lot of cats who buy records are straight broke
But my language universal they be recitin’ my quotes
This is a unique track. I think you’ll like it.
The same goes for “Murder to Excellence,” an underrated offering from Kanye and Jay-Z’s 2011 joint album. Both rappers paint the scourge of inner-city homicide in painfully vivid and personal colors. Here’s ‘Ye, a native Chicagoan:
I’m from the murder capital where they murder for capital
Heard about at least three killings this afternoon
Looking at the news like “damn! I was just with him after school”
It’s time for us to stop and redefine black power
41 souls murdered in 50 hours
Later in the song, Kanye advances a hypothesis that conservatives won’t be down with. Teetering on the edge of conspiracy theory, he lays all the blame— even today—at the feet of willful, institutional racism:
In the past, if you picture events, like a black tie
What the last thing you expect to see, black guys?
What’s the life expectancy for black guys?
The system’s working effectively, that’s why!
Most Americans would attribute crime to personal immorality in addition to structural causes. But Kanye’s perspective is real. If conservatives set out to reunite the country with a vision that includes everyone, they must be at least acquainted with the reasons so many still feel the deck is almost inexorably stacked against them.
Let’s Be Real: Hip-Hop Won’t Change Everything
There you have it. Just five songs, five of my favorites from a massive family of genres that contain a whole lot of unlistenable crap—and a whole lot of brilliant art. But let’s not kid ourselves about this new undertaking.
Streaming some rap and neo-soul and R&B won’t reshape conservatives’ substantive agenda. Certainly not overnight, and perhaps not ever. Even if I get my wish and Tea Parties start digging into Tupac and Beyonce, they won’t find any new philosophical syllogisms or policy arguments embedded in the liner notes. As I admitted from the get-go, hip-hop and conservative values do not always go neatly together. Far from it!
But nobody thinks the main role of art is changing policy positions. And it certainly isn’t to paraphrase only what we already believe. In truth, we rely on literature and visual art and music for two primary things: entertainment and exposure. Exposure to different people, to different stories, to different versions of the world that might or might never exist. Exposure to cultivate empathy.
Why have conservatives historically been so quick to avoid hip-hop, anyway? Most of the factors that pearl-clutchers would point to seem like pretty dubious reasons. For example, the culprit can’t be hip-hop’s talk of irresponsible behavior. Practically every new pop-country hit contains a couple references to premarital sex or drinking and driving, yet these evils are not condemned as mortal sins. They’re nostalgically recounted as good-old-days mischief. It can’t be the obnoxious, ostentatious talk of wealth, or else these folks would be equally repulsed by “Real Housewives.”
No, conservatives’ distaste for rap likely flows from a simpler fact: The average Republican and the average rap fan probably understand shockingly little about each other’s backgrounds, each other’s mentalities, or each other’s daily lives. Conservatives hate hip-hop because they don’t get the people who love it.
That’s not healthy. We are all Americans. We’re all neighbors. We’re all children of God.
Nobody’s asking a Michele Bachmann die-hard and a 2 Chainz devotee to become best friends. But most of us are somewhere between these two poles. Moreover, folks, come on. It’s 2015. Near-total ignorance about how sizable chunks of America see the world should embarrass everyone on both sides of this divide. Listening to each other’s music is hardly a big ask, especially when that music kicks ass.
If there’s good music out there, you should want to be hearing it. If you don’t have an innate taste for this music, make a small effort anyway. Be open-minded and intentionally seek out the very best. Tons of people love this particular kind of art. If you’re a remotely curious person, you should want to know why.
And if that art also has the potential to challenge and deepen your worldview? Well, then it’s all the more imperative that conservatives give hip-hop a shot.