Last November, I got the chance to speak with Charlie Harding, host of hit musicology podcast “Switched on Pop,” for a project I was working on about our society’s consumption of rap music in the age of social media. When speaking to me, Harding dropped the term “NPR Music” as a joke while describing certain artists, later defining the phrase as a world of music that “is more intellectual and definitely privileges musicality and talent.” Furthermore, he claimed that the “NPR audience” is a “predominantly white crowd because public radio has a problem with whiteness.” With regards to hip-hop and R&B, this crowd holds artists like Solange and Noname in higher regard because of their complex takes on Blackness and Black American culture. He doesn’t use this term to diminish the talent of these artists, but more as a way to classify the type of music that is popular among young, liberal white people.
While Harding explained this humorous term, I silently wondered if there was an underlying layer of anti-Blackness under the glorification of conscious rap by white hip-hop heads. Is rap music only valuable to them when it’s about the Black struggle? Why can’t one derive as much enjoyment from Megan Thee Stallion’s “Big Ole Freak” as they do from Kendrick Lamar’s “Hood Politics?” Claiming Kendrick Lamar as your favorite artist functions as an awfully convenient method of virtue signaling, so perhaps their enjoyment of solely conscious rap is a more palatable way for white communities to dip into Blackness. Black musicians should be able to make art without feeling pressure to constantly revisit the struggles that harm the Black community, seeing as their white counterparts are not held to the same standard of promoting social justice.
Nevertheless, popularity among NPR listeners and similar fans garners social capital for the artists that fall into these prescribed categories, because this audience has the influence and monetary support to back these artists up. Such an amount of social capital provides musicians with greater creative flexibility since there is no longer a need to prove themselves as artists. In the cases of Solange and Noname, both of these artists were eventually able to stray away from the “NPR audience.” For Solange, this came with the release of her much more abstract 2019 album When I Get Home, in which she uses elements of jazz, rap and R&B to capture the essence of Black, Southern culture. Noname, on the other hand, has taken a semi-hiatus from the rap industry altogether to run a book club and promote consciousness-raising within the Black community.
Ultimately, conscious rap does not necessarily reign as the supreme category of rap. Some forms of rap are meant to move your body while others were created to stimulate your mind. While there are surely many songs that don’t seem to fall into either category, it would be ignorant to automatically write Black art off as less meaningful just because it doesn’t address current sociopolitical events. Looking at Black music in such a way places its value in direct correlation to how socially aware it is, which is not, by any means, always an accurate indicator of good art. It’s important to keep an open mind when consuming rap music and be mindful of the implicit biases that may be at work while doing so.
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