Where Rap Meets Race
Many up-and-coming rappers have similar benevolent aspirations. One such artist, Travis Karter, whose legal name is Kristofer Madu, is making waves through his philanthropic pursuits. Although just a freshman at Johns Hopkins University, Karter has started a non-profit organization in addition to dropping tracks and touring cities in the U.S. His charity, Water is the Answer, has served to raise nearly $10,000 for the construction of a sanitary well in Arondizuogu, Nigeria, and Karter maintains that this is only the beginning. He aims to expand the reach of his charity to other communities, and though he is of Nigerian descent, he doesn’t wish to limit himself to helping those with whom he shares a common background. “There is no reason on earth why Water is the Answer should stick to the confines of Arondizuogu, the confines of Nigeria, or the confines of Africa, when poverty and water poverty does not… In the long term, my goal for ‘Water is the Answer’ is to expand it into all continents, save for Antarctica, of course,” Karter said.
This sentiment appears to be a relatively popular one. According to a poll published by the Pew Research Center in 2008, more than 70 percent of Americans believed that rap had an overall negative impact on society. Some rap and hip-hop songs do indeed glamorize destructive behavior like substance abuse and violence.But artists like 21 Savage and Meek Mill, whose music sometimes lionizes illegal activity, also lament these very crimes, and the fact that they occur disproportionately in low-income, predominantly black neighborhoods. When rappers do decide to celebrate these crimes, it is often simply because that is the type of music that sells.
One recently popularized hashtag, however, remains distinct from the others. On Nov. 6, 2017, a judge sentenced Meek Mill to two to four years of prison time, with two years without the possibility of parole. Soon, the hashtag #freemeekmill began to appear on various social media platforms. Meek Mill was arrested on two separate occasions in 2017, once for fighting and once for “popping wheelies”—recklessly riding an illegal bike. He has been unfairly penalized for both crimes—especially considering that both charges were later dropped. To be fair, the reasoning behind the harsh sentence was that these crimes violated his probation, which he received as a consequence of an earlier arrest. But this earlier arrest occurred over a decade ago in 2007, when Meek Mill was just 19 years old. The artist is now 30, and since serving eights months of prison time for his crime in 2007, he has continued to suffer for his offense in the form of an exorbitantly lengthy probation, a situation that would likely not be the case were he not black.
Moreover, the average age of hip hop listeners is the lowest of all major music genres in the United States. Because of this impressionable demographic, the content of hip hop and rap music has particular potential for impact. Hip hop and rap music effectively convey significant and powerful messages, from expressing grievances in the black community to illustrating the vision that even the poorest black Americans from the most dangerous neighborhoods can achieve wealth and fame—a potent image for young black people in those very situations.
Over time, black people have taken ownership of the slur, dropping the hard “r” to form a related word that refers to black community, in an effort to counteract the original word’s spiteful history. But that word does not hold the same meaning when said by anybody who is not black. When non-black individuals vocalize the n-word, a reminder of the malice associated with its roots remains, and elicits a strong sense of unease from many black persons who witness its expression. The n-word with no hard “r” (hereafter referred to as the “soft n-word”) should still be reserved for only black individuals, especially because racial prejudice still exists in 2018. (There is some debate as to whether or not anybody—even black people—should casually vocalize the soft n-word, but that is beyond the scope of this article).