Rap is Art

Posted by on July 11, 2011

“Despite some notable exceptions, popular art has not been popular with philosophers and theorists of culture, at least not in their professional moments.  Repeatedly vilified as mindless, tasteless trash, devoid of any worthwhile form or content, it is still more viciously denounced as an addictive and stupefying narcotic of escape which manipulates its audience for purely mercenary motives and undermines critical and creative thought by affirming its own standardized illusions and false satisfactions” (PL 35). – Richard Shusterman

The quotation above is a quintessential example of the basis for my writing, for this is how rap is generally regarded by intellectuals.  The task of proving that rap is art is a difficult one, especially when considering there is not much literature to support this thesis.  Danny Hoch, one of the experts on hip-hop, which is the broader culture under which rap falls, admits to this when he explains that “the consistent challenge has been to define not what hip-hop means as culture, but what hip-hop means as art – in fact, to make the case that hip-hop is art” (TC 349).  Considering that hip-hop is the larger culture and hip-hop experts are facing tough challenges in proving it as art, rap is another case altogether.

Regardless of these challenges, I am undertaking this project with the help of the sources that are available.  In defining rap as art, I utilize Richard Anderson’s “open definition” of art to successfully incorporate all facets of Rap into art, the popular party type as well as the message oriented.   By doing so, I will argue that the account of aesthetic value being presented is both the appeal to the physical senses with rap’s form, and the intellectual sense through rap’s content that is focused on social/political awareness.  If Rap is structured toward the party ethic, then it is sensually physically appealing.  If Rap is structured toward political consciousness and social ethic, it is appealing to the intellectual senses of the people.  I will start this paper with a short discussion presented by various authors on the difficulties and opposition Rap faces in being defined as Art. This will be followed by a discussion on the definition of art and its aesthetic value being discussed, with an evaluation through some lyrics by Public Enemy and KRS-One.  I will conclude arguing that given the definition by Richard Anderson, all facets of Rap music should be considered art whether they are message oriented or sensuously appealing.

While Richard Shusterman notes from the beginning quotes of this paper that philosophers and cultural critics tend to dislike and dismiss popular art such as rap, intriguingly even some of rap’s supporters feel a certain level of disgust with what they call “bad hip-hop art.”  One case of this is Danny Hoch who defines both bad and good hip-hop art by stating that bad hip-hop art “is invariably inarticulate, unpolished, amateurish, juvenile,” while “good hip-hop art is highly articulate, coded, transcendent, revolutionary, communicative, empowering” (TLC 350).  Interestingly enough, regardless of which form of hip-hop art you view, it is commonly relegated “to a marginalized gray area, a penalty box, if you will, where it is denied the status of art” (TC 350). This is largely done, as Danny Hoch claims, because hip-hop/rap is seen as “radical political thought, a really bad manifestation of pop culture,” while in some lucky cases “novelty entertainment” (TC 350).  One of the writers humorously reflects, though, in response to this criticism that “a music innocuous enough to sell burgers to old people is not going to rile anyone up to revolt or resist” (TC 15). What we understand from this is that no matter how good or bad the art form of rap, it is going to be intellectually discriminated against.  One of the primary reasons intellectuals and critics fail to consider rap as art is due to their failures in recognizing the “traditional tropes, stylistic conventions, and constraint-produced complexities of Afro-American English,” all of which induce “the false belief that all rap lyrics are superficial and monotonous, if not altogether moronic” (PL 62).  In line with this opinion, Richard Shusterman argues that the “demonization [of rap] is achieved by blindly conflating all rap with the much publicized genre of ‘gangsta rap,’ whose notorious works are often not only morally detestable…but also brutishly unimaginative and boringly preprogrammed” (RAP 422).    In the end though, all of this opposition toward art brought about a “resurgence of the party ethic that made billions more as well as a resurgence of politically conscious and wildly articulate rap artists” (TC 354).

Having looked at the various opinions on the challenges that confront rap being defined as art, we see that even within those opinions there are those that are critical of the negative criticism that rap receives.   For example, while Shusterman defends message-oriented rap he simultaneously criticizes party oriented rap.  This, I believe, is a common occurrence, as no one truly, ideally would want to be on the supporting end of forms of art that glorify greed, sexism, and violent crime.  However, if the party oriented forms of rap are going to be denied membership in the fine arts for these reasons, then statues, sculptures, paintings, etc. of naked ladies throughout art history should be removed from the classification of art as well.  All of these naked representations of women support nothing more than the objectifying, sexist male attitude, as I have discussed in my previous writings.  Obviously, we cannot remove these art forms from their classification so easily, because they all required some level of skill and/or had some level of cultural significance that contributed in part to their being classified as art.  In the same vein, Shusterman argues that due to the negativity toward Rap some of its positivity is ignored, especially in the aspects of rap “developing linguistic skills, communicating cultural tradition and history while raising political consciousness and ethnic pride, [and] offering a symbolic yet powerfully audible form of protest…” (RAP 422)

In light of comparing, compartmentalizing, and qualifying different forms as art due to their similarities, Richard Anderson contributes a definition that states “Art is culturally significant meaning, skillfully encoded in an affecting, sensuous medium” (ABQ 29).  By this he means that everything that can be qualified as art in the world, from different times and places, shares certain qualities that can be stated as “culturally significant meaning,” “skill,” “coding,” and “affecting, sensuous medium.”  Anderson claims that “…art traditions and individual art works vary in the relative emphasis placed upon each of these qualities,” and that for those things that cannot be considered to be art will “rarely have all of the qualities listed above” (ABQ 30).  Anderson is not the only one supporting such a definition.  Professor Freeland states that “[she] would endorse this definition,” (BA 78), as we find in her book the comment on art theory that “as [she has] described it in [her] book [art theory] is still an explanatory enterprise: it involves the effort to organize a dizzying variety of phenomena so as to try to say what they have in common that makes them special” (BA 208).   Interestingly, Freeland also states that Anderson’s definition “sounds like a more specific version of Dewey’s idea that art ‘expresses the life of a community’” (BA 78).  Using the definition by Anderson, I am going to analyze both party rap and socially and politically conscious rap in defending them as art.  In this venture we will see how the socially and politically aware rap, while being defined as art through Anderson’s definition, also appears to, as Dewey puts it, “express the life of [the] community.”

Since hip-hop and rap have been youth movements that particularly rose to popularity in the 1980’s, and considering that “the 1980’s raised consciousness about identity politics, as many younger people…used art to explore issues of racism and cultural assimilation” (BA 85), I am going to start out by examining what is known as message/knowledge rap in considering it as art.  In identifying aspects of reality that get neglected by norms of the establishment in power, “knowledge rappers repeatedly insist that their role as artists and poets is inseparable from their role as insightful inquirers into reality and teachers of truth” (PL 73).  From this opening quotation, we see a form of rap that is well connected with the realities of its society and critically confronts the negative aspects of that reality through its expressive power.  In fact, Shusterman argues that “more than any other aesthetic form today, rap forcefully demonstrates art’s important political and ethical dimensions” (RAP 422).  One of the greatest examples of this type of rap is the group Public Enemy, who has been representing this form of rap since the 1980’s.   Public Enemy criticized the Bush administration and government of the late ‘80’s, when he offers the following lyrics in the song The Enemy Battle Hymn Of The Public:

“peeps need food education employment
and damn that high tech equipment
and the rhetoric
from one sided politricks
from a government on some ol
world war 3 trip
if i was there id quit
go home and be gettin it”

There is always the issue of rap being vulgar and offensive, but I believe I have already addressed these issues in an earlier art journal which stated that the same can be said of political and socially aware artwork like Picasso’s Guernica, etc.  The important thing to notice here, though, is that Public Enemy is realizing what is necessary in the society he is living in and how the government is ignoring those necessities through their actions.  He also appears to present a criticism on the need for war, by a humorous statement that favors pacifism.  In fact, one of my history teachers once made a similar comment, that if those wanting to wage war were “getting it (sex)”, there would be no wars.  While looking at these socially and politically aware lyrics, we see several elements of Anderson’s definition of art.  First, the content contains culturally significant meaning.  I would argue, being a lyricist myself, that even the lyrics require immense skill because as simple as the words are, a lot of complexity is required in being able to address several issues so smoothly in five to six short lines.  Actually, one of the beauties about rap is its ability to convey and relate to complex issues and problems through simple language that appeals to the public, whereas intellectual works tend to fly over most people’s heads.  Lastly, the lyrics are definitely coded in hip-hop’s own language.  I have not addressed the last element of “affecting, sensuous medium” because that is an element common to all types of rap, and which I will particularly focus more on when analyzing party rap.

Further looking at social and political rap, next up is KRS-One.  Besides just social and political awareness, his rap songs present a philosophical attitude. I will look at one of KRS-One’s songs, Never Give Up, in order to underscore the social, political, and philosophical awareness within his lyrics.  These should be definitive proof against the quotation in the beginning of this paper that stated rap is just mindless jargon, while also explicitly presenting the qualities of art that Anderson defines.  The following are some excerpts from the song:

“Gather ’round, gather ’round, ha
Metaphysical style, spiritual style, the ORIGINAL style, ha
Yes.. let’s do it”

 Chorus: “- you can never give up, you should never give up
– you can never give up, we can never give up”

“Y’all don’t really about why we stay trapped

First realize givin up is wack
Say to yourself I can never be wack”

“I’ve already been to the proving ground
In conscious rap, who rule the sound
The question is are you down?”

“You see how they shuttin down KRS-One
Cause I’m not sexy, thuggin or dumb
Ask yourself –
– why they only promotin criminal
activity and nothin else?
On the videos and on the radio
Teachin our kids which way to go”

 “You got to release that temptation
Get a brand new affirmation
Your life is what you make ’em”

At the outset of this song, it is clear through his choice of the word “metaphysics” that he is representing a metaphysical theory, and which can be affirmed by the fact that “[KRS-One] even signs his albums ‘KRS-One Metaphysician’ and advocates a naturalistic, historicist metaphysics” (RAP 423).   In his lyrics, KRS-One also supports an optimistic view on life for his audience, which in most cases are those struggling through society.  His message of ‘never give up’ definitely contains significant cultural meaning.  When he calls giving up as ‘wack’, the elements of coding become apparent, because ‘wack’ is not standard English, it’s part of the hip-hop/rap vernacular.  Lastly, lyrical skill cannot be denied in his going from “never give up” to a criticism of what is promoted publicly and finally his positive message to the youth that “your life is what you make ‘em.”  If all rappers are to be considered as dumb fools creating repetitive addictive sounds for “mercenary motives,” then rappers like KRS-One and Public Enemy are serious obstacles and contradictions to those who claim these notions.  All of these socially and politically aware rap lyrics have appealed to the intellectual sense of the people.  They have encouraged people to recognize the social issues and to rise above the challenges facing them.  For these reasons, knowledge/message rap remains true to the origins of hip-hop/rap, in its role in raising social and political awareness while providing a positive outlook for the youth.

When trying to understand how party rap can be considered art, we have to also understand what is involved in Rap aesthetics.  The best presentation of information on all of what is considered rap aesthetics that I found in my research was by Danny Hoch where he explicitly presents it as the following:

Rap Aesthetics:  Toasting, Plena, Rumba, blues, bomba, palo, African American poetry, call-and-response, limericks, urban blight, party animation, corporate demand, exaggeration, and battle. (TC 354)

This can be better explained by Cheryl Keyes when she states that “Rap music is an amalgam of street language coding, style, and raw beats,” (RMSC 150) and that the effectiveness of a rap performance “involves careful execution of flow, timing, rhetorical devices, soundtrack mix, sound quality, and paramusical-lingual features” (RMSC 153).  Richard Shusterman provides the final clarification necessary when he states that “artistic appropriation is the historical source of rap’s sound and (despite an increased use of live music) remains central to its aesthetic” (RAP 419).  All of this means that the “affecting, sensuous medium” of rap is found in rap’s unique musical form that comes from a mixing of various elements from other types of music and in its physical form which manifests in the clothing and the call and response aspects of the rap performance.   One of the more exciting things about rap is how it challenges “the traditional ideal of unique originality that long enslaved art” in the way that it creates unique musical compositions “by creatively deploying and thematizing its appropriation,” thereby showing on a philosophical level that “borrowing and creation are not at all incompatible” (RAP 420).  This angle of rap seems to agree with the deconstructionist ideas presented by Foucault and Derrida, in that they show that “original” works do not necessarily arise out of the romantic genius but through the influences abound in society.  Rap, in its appropriative creation, is created through various musical influences.  When applying Anderson’s definition we are able to see party rap as art as well due to both its abundant amount of “affecting, sensuous medium” as well as its “culturally significant meaning” through its challenge of traditional ideals, and also the aspect of skill involved in creating a successful artistically appropriated rap sound.  One of the finest examples of the skill involved in accomplishing this is when Afrika Bombaata, the father and founder of hip-hop, “mixed up calypso, European and Japanese electronic music, Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and rock groups like Mountain” (PL 71).  If that cannot be admitted as requiring skill, I cannot think of much that can.

I have presented the difficulties facing rap’s definition of art as well as the discussion on party rap and knowledge rap as both being art forms.  Through Anderson’s definition I was able to succeed in my objective of proving all facets of rap to be art forms.  What is left now is for intellectuals and cultural critics to progressively begin to consider rap as art as well.  After all, Shusterman claims that “history itself clearly shows us that the popular entertainment of one culture (e.g. Greek or even Elizabethan drama) can become the high classics of a subsequent age.” (PL 35)  All that is needed in helping this become reality for rap is some help from the academics.  In this sense, at the very least Shusterman states that “philosophers can help rap develop its better aspects by affirming one of rap’s founding and still most central genres – “knowledge rap” or “message rap” (RAP 422).  Finally, I will end like I started, with a quote. Rap is art, “whether it is revolutionary art or bling-ass-make-money-biaatch art…” (TC 362).


Chang, Jeff.  Total Chaos: The Art and Aesthetics of Hip-Hop. (TC) New York: Basic Civitas, 2006.

Enemy, Public.  The Enemy Battle Hymn Of The Public. 1987

Freeland, Cynthia A. But is it Art? A Very Short Introduction to Art Theory. (BA) New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.

Keyes, Cheryl. Rap Music and Street Consciousness. (RMSC) Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 2002.

Korsmeyer, Carolyn. Aesthetics: The Big Questions. (ABQ) Blackwell, 1998 KRS-One. Never Give Up.

Shusterman, Richard. Performing Live. (PL) Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2000.

Shusterman, Richard. “Rap as Art and Philosophy.” (RAP) A Companion to African-American Philosophy. Lott, Tommy and John Pittman. Blackwell Publishing, 2003.


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