Benny the Butcher has a simple creative process. “Get in the booth, I recall it, then record it,” he notes on Burden Of Proof’s “Famous.”
Benny and his Griselda peers Conway the Machine and Westside Gunn often reflect on their past in their music, writing songs about prison time, lost loved ones, and in Conway’s case, a near-fatal shooting. For many of their fans, part of the listening experience isn’t just enjoying them, it’s believing them. Benny’s line harkens to Jay-Z rhyming, “Ain't just rapping for the platinum, y'all record / I recall, ‘cause I really been there before,” on “Moment Of Clarity.”
Have certain fans had their moment of clarity on what they actually get from artists “living their raps?” Fans who want their favorites to live, or have lived out their raps, are seeking to have their anti-Black stereotypes affirmed through song. They want their listening experience to feed them fantasies regardless of the widespread trauma reflected in violent narratives.
A recent spate of violence involving rappers has intensified age-old debates about the genre’s nearly symbiotic proximity to the streets, and what can be done to potentially stop the bloodshed. This conversation dovetails with artists’ candid reflections on the residual trauma of the hood, as well as ongoing discussions about too many rappers being unfortunate posterchildren for America’s drug epidemic. We all agree that no one wants to see anyone get hurt, and we carry sympathy for artists who have been victims of violence, but too many rap fans then revere the next artist for being an “official” aggressor of the same acts. It’s time to detonate that dissonance.
Artists like Benny the Butcher and Jay-Z have a right to feel however they want about other artists rapping about the drug game. But there are many fans with no proximity to the streets who are seeking for a vicarious thrill through music. That’s a problem. These people think they’re supportive fans of Black artists, but they’re really dehumanizing them. They prefer artists to be live-action manifestations of violence, not just out of a disregard for the artist’s well-being, but for that of real-life victims of gun violence and substance abuse. America is an individualist nation that persists on systemic racism. Both factors invalidate the humanity of Black victims, whether they’re top-selling musicians or nameless, faceless lives relegated to statistics.
Consumers’ disregard for the victims of violence is most apparent in white suburbia, but plenty of Black people have adopted the same flawed perspective, which stems from a different spectrum of the same oppressive constructs. For them, their perception is nothing but a consequence of the rap industry’s masterful, morbid marketing of Black trauma. Artists like G Herbo, Lil Baby, and Polo G have amplified the concept of hood PTSD in 2020. Lil Baby reflected on being “Emotionally Scarred.” Polo G’s music is rife with honest reflections on the “dreadful” downside of the streets on songs like “33” and “Trials & Tribulations.” G Herbo released PTSD, a project with cover art that memorializes over 50 young friends that Herbo lost, including Juice WRLD.
There are many fans with no proximity to the streets who are seeking for a vicarious thrill through music. That’s a problem. These people think they’re supportive fans of Black artists, but they’re really dehumanizing them.
These artists deserve to tell their stories, but it’s difficult to ignore that on the other side of their partnerships are labels that represent an American establishment seemingly fine with the status quo of poverty (and eager to use artists’ lyrics and reputation against them in court). None of the Presidential or VP candidates brought up gun violence, drug dependency, or the lack of resources in Black communities during the presidential debates. The only time Trump ever mentioned Polo and Herbo’s native Chicago, he called it a “war zone” instead of a place suffering the manifestation of being under-resourced.
Those nuances got lost along the way for many, especially as popular media amplified stereotypical depictions of Blackness. Mainstream hip-hop became chief in that dynamic in the ‘90s. Hip-hop was expected to be a voice of the streets, but that didn’t mean artists had to have actually been in the streets. N.W.A. are the godfathers of so-called “gangsta rap.” Dr. Dre was an exceptionally talented DJ and producer. Ice Cube was a college student who was attending the Phoenix Institute of Technology in 1987. But their music, and perspective, was too good for many to care.
After the commercial boom of “gangsta rap,” however, marketers at labels sought to up the ante by upping the “real” factor. More artist rollouts led with their tumultuous past as a marketing hook to enthrall fans. They talked about their drug dealing pasts. They talked about their experiences in prison. They talked about being shot. Artists were seeking to sell narratives of resilience, but those stories played into America’s industrialization of our oppression. What should have been difficult-to-stomach tales of trauma instead whet the appetites of consumers. Over time, the idea of artistic license was chipped away for some, making authenticity—via backstory, or antics as a rapper—an expectation.
Rick Ross is a quintessential example. While some may laugh at CO jokes made at his expense after the 2009 revelation of his correctional officer past, and others may feel like they can’t listen to his music, should it not be the inverse? Should we not be pondering what kind of world we’re living in where an artist as talented as Ross had to fight for his career at one point because he wasn’t a believable enough criminal? Black artists have a hard enough time in the music industry without having to fight a “belief” factor from music consumers with no actual proximity to the streets or the toll of violence.
This dynamic is why Polo G called out “toxic fans” for playing “a big part in instigating or escalating beef” between rappers. He added, “While you sittin safely in yo crib hypin shit up it’s niggas really willin to die behind they respect.” These are the same fans who spectate rap beef like it’s a live-action comic book featuring their favorite dehumanized depictions of Blackness.
“Belief” is too predominant a factor in many people’s listening experience. While artistic license doesn’t make it OK for artists to outright lampoon a street image ala 6ix9ine, the expectation for artists to “live” or have “lived their raps” is tenuous.
Whiteness doubly infringes on Black art by sustaining systemic oppression, but also upholding a state where artists feel pressure to have residual trauma from the streets in order to escape it. That’s the only way for certain kinds of artists to be as marketable to bloodlusting fans who spectate “beef” in Reddit forums. White listeners’ urge to have racially-loaded fantasies of Blackness fulfilled via artists like Benny, Herbo, and Lil Baby reflect America’s long-established disregard for the humanity of Black people. And many Black people, ingesting that same dehumanization, view victims of gun violence and the “screams of a drug mummy” as inconsequential casualties to build up the mythos of our modern-day cowboys and pop cultural heroes. In the next line of “The Games We Play,” Pusha-T pointed out, “this ain't really for you” if you couldn’t relate to the multi-layered trauma that he was rhyming about. But those who are out of the loop are the very people who will seek thrills from Push’s purportedly frontline perspective.
Artists are self-medicating behind their trauma, and some have paid the ultimate price for it. Others are unable to shake the mentality of really “being there,” and we see how that too often manifests in tragedy. Fans should be hearing these lyrics, reading these stories, and seeking a better world, not using proximity to trauma as a rubric for artistic quality. Artists sell a product, but they aren’t mere products.