Heroes and Villains: Is Hip-Hop a Cancer or a Cure?: Lecrae at TEDxNashville (Full Transcript)



What an introduction! It’s good to know, man. How are we feeling, how are we doing? All right. Well, today I want to talk about heroes and villains: Is hip-hop a cancer or is it a cure? In every story, there’s a protagonist. The protagonist is agonizing to make wrong things right. And there’s an antagonist who’s fighting against what everybody’s agonizing for.

In simpler terms, in every story, there are heroes, and there are villains. The thing is, in today’s society, the true versions of these stories often go untold or they’re told from a limited vantage point. You look at the wide spectrum of things, and you’ll notice that sometimes, our heroes are actually more villainous than we think, and sometimes, our villains are far more heroic than we give them credit for. You can look at the endorsement of slavery from our nation’s Founding Fathers to our own fascination with murderous mobsters like Al Capone. Western society tends to change narratives for the sake of pride or prostitute tales of murder and misogyny for the sake of entertainment.

From our gangster movies to our murderous, misogynistic music, we do tend to paint villainous ideas as heroic. Let’s be honest, I mean, I’m sure we’ve all paraded around on Halloween as a hockey-masked serial killer. And weren’t we all rooting for John Travolta and Samuel L Jackson in “Pulp Fiction”? And I know I’m not the only one who’s been out on a Saturday night reciting every line to Ginuwine’s song “Pony.” And I’m sure that song has nothing to do with baby horses.

But we can all agree that my favorite art form, hip-hop, is completely innocent of painting villainous ideas as heroic. OK, it’s not true. Truthfully, hip-hop is one of this generation’s biggest perpetrators, but I think I can show you how that happened and how it’s an art form that can turn the ship around. But to truly understand this, we’ve got to understand our own interpretations of heroes and villains.

So what’s a hero? Well, to the Greeks, Odysseus was a hero. It derives from this ancient word, the term for ‘protector.’ It embodied Greek virtues and values, it demonstrated the model that they wanted society to emulate. Heroes are brave, they’re courageous, they’re capable of leading others, they address the issues that afflict the society, and finally, more importantly, heroes are risk-takers, huge risk-takers.

Professor Frank Farley from the Temple University, School of Psychology, says that most heroic figures like Franklin D Roosevelt or Martin Luther King are what you call T-type personalities or habitual risk-takers, people who will risk everything, put everything on the line, including their lives, in order to accomplish a goal. Most of us are not big risk takers; we admire this trait in others and tend to want to follow him or her. Thus, they become our heroes.

So what about a villain, what makes a villain? Villain comes from the Latin term “villanus,” which means farmhand or a worker of a plantation or a villa. It became to be known as anyone who was less than knightly status-wise, and they were seen as unnoble. So essentially, being poor, disenfranchised, and not a noble was synonymous with being a villain.

So technically speaking, when society creates subjective standards, anyone who upholds these standards, represents these standards, fights for these standards, is looked upon as a hero. Anyone who fights against these standards or opposes them is looked upon as a villain. So for example, in the 1700s, society agreed on legalized slavery. Anyone who opposed that was looked upon as a villain. It wasn’t until after society agreed on the outlawing of slavery, that abolitionists were looked upon as heroes and no longer villains.

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English scholar, Dr Katherine Blakeney, says that it’s tempting to classify characters into these groups. It’s severely misleading, it’s subjective, it’s variable. And when you use terms like hero, villain, anti-hero, anti-villain, it’s important to consider what circumstances affected these people’s actions, what society and culture these people come from, and finally, how our own associations, our principles, our prejudices affect our interpretations, affect our perspectives.

What really does make a hero or a villain? And how much of that is based off of mere interpretation? Come on, let’s be honest, there’s no public figure of the past or the present that’s without their fair share of biases, skeletons, and more failures.

There’s no spotless leaders, none of us in here are morally unstained characters in life’s grand story. So it’s wrong to just discard those labeled as villains as these forces of darkness that the hero should come and defeat. Think about Frankenstein or Frankenstein’s creation – we’re going to be technical. Frankenstein’s creation, this big bad collage of a man thing, with the bolts in his head I feel bad for this guy because no one ever took into consideration that he was sewn together from the bodies of dead criminals.

Nobody cared that the man thing couldn’t even speak and articulate his own words before he was hunted down like a wild animal and labeled a villain. Now, how does this apply to hip-hop, a culture where women are constantly objectified, violence is dignified, and drugs are glorified? Routinely, in the media, hip-hop is villainized and talked about by correspondents despite the fact that they’re speaking from outside of the culture. You have Bill O’Reilly who says the rap industry often glorifies depraved behavior that sometimes sinks into the minds of some young people.

Jason Whitlock says that the music, the attitude, the behavior of this culture is anti-education, it’s demeaning, it’s self-destructive, it’s pro-violent, I mean, it’s a pro-drug dealing, and it’s violent. Well, here’s the thing: if you’re wondering why hip-hop is often violent, angry, and nihilistic, you got to take into consideration it’s a culture that was created by marginalizing, disenfranchised minorities who woke up on the wrong side of the war on drugs.

Yeah. President Nixon, in the 1970s, declared a war on drugs. We’ve all heard about this more recently, in the news. But in 1982, this war was enforced by Ronald Reagan when hip-hop was still wearing diapers. Cultural critic and music journalist Touré says this war would not only shape the urban community, but it would mold hip-hop, a culture whose undercurrent remains: Black and Latino male anger at a nation that declared these young men monsters, abandoned them, and destroyed any chance they had at accomplishing or achieving the American Dream.

So if our societal standard of the American Dream, chasing the American Dream is heroic, is heroism from working hard and working legally, then anyone who can’t, or doesn’t, or find some other means to do that becomes a villain. In the beginning, hip-hop was not pro-violent, pro-drug dealing. It was socially conscious, it was anti-drug almost always, and the music actually addressed the societal walls and did more of a narration than a glorification. In 1982, you have “The Message” by Grandmaster Flash, who says, “I can’t take the smell, I can’t take the noise. Got no money to move out, I guess I got no choice. Rats in the front room, room roaches in the back, junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. Tried to get away, but I couldn’t get far, a man with the tow-truck repossessed my car.”

You got Melle Mel who writes, “Whether up your nose or in your vein, with nothing to gain except killing your brain,” he’s talking about cocaine, this is in 1982, he’s talking about it in a negative context. You got Run-DMC who talks about the rise of the unemployment rate in the early ’80s and talks about all these societal walls, but they’re narrating them, they’re not glorifying them.

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So what happened? How did it change? Well, a shift happened in 1983. The unemployment rate in the urban community skyrocketed to 21%. This was coupled and followed with FBI anti-drug funding, which ironically, happened at the same time the CIA was giving aid to Central and South America who just so happened to use that aid to traffic drugs back into the United States. Whether you like to call this a political oversight, or a misstep, or an outright scandal, poor inner city communities caught the brunt of the blow. Nobody forced these communities to take part in illegal drug sales, but that skyrocketing unemployment rate, coupled with this widespread availability of drugs, made it kind of hard to turn down a drug trade. For a lot of young men, it was the only option they saw for chasing the American Dream. It’s unfortunate.

And then what happens? Well, the ’90s happened. The ’90s painted this narrative using hip-hop. Hip-hop was like the canvas to speak about this new world of crack, killings, prison, militarized police forces, right? It was like the Prohibition era had re-emerged, prison sentences were as long as basketball scores. The communities were being destroyed by this powerfully addictive drug, and the incarceration rate in the United States was higher than in any other place in the world, destroying and damaging countless families.

By 1995, nearly a quarter of non-college educated Black men were in prison. My mother’s, my aunt’s greatest fear wasn’t that we wouldn’t get into a good school, or we’d have bad grades. It was that we spend the rest of our lives in prison. No college meant prison. And so, for us, hip-hop was this audio documentary, it was telling us and detailing these stories of prison, and murdering, and gangs, and drugs, but it was also communicating to us our story, and what we were going through, right? So now we’re looking at the society, and this environment has been destroyed.

Drugs, for rappers in the ’90s – who grew up in the ’80s and the ’90s, like myself – dominated our economic possibilities. I found myself idolizing and looking up to drug dealers and to gang members. It was the world that I existed in. And it was unfortunate because as a child, I watched it happen. I watched families and communities go from being laid off, lacking jobs, community being destroyed, people searching and hoping for financial restitution and help, and all of us wanted to go to college, but it wasn’t a financial reality.

Our parents were the products of the Civil Rights era, they weren’t even allowed a quality formal education. So high-paying careers were not really an option. I watched again and again families work odd jobs, move from city to city, chasing factory work only to find it was not available.

And then drugs came. When drugs came, it was like a gold rush, it was literally like a gold rush. In the ’80s, nobody understood the implications, but the ’90s reaped havoc. I lost every man that was important to me, including my father, to the infestation of drugs or the war against them. So yeah, in the world outside my community Ronald Reagan was a hero, but in my backyard, he was a villain.

How could Ronald Reagan possibly be a hero to us, how can Scarface possibly not? So like I said, in the ’90s, hip-hop painted this response, there was this big response to all of the stuff that we were seeing in our environment: the murder, the mayhem, the prison, the death, the destruction, and rappers were speaking a language that we could relate to. I grew up feeling like I was being raised by Lil Wayne, by 2Pac, by Jay Z.

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And in order to understand who I was as a man, I had to construct my own warped sense of masculinity, because hip-hop was the language of a generation of men without fathers. So I’m finding my role models in drug dealers and gang members, piecing together what masculinity looks like. Truthfully, in order to wear the badge of authentic masculinity, you had to be associated in some kind of way with this way or lifestyle. You certainly needed it to get a record deal. And so what was happening was hip-hop was now being stigmatized as the equivalent of criminal.

And guess what we did unfortunately? We embraced that stigma. And why would we do that? What’s a classic psychological strategy? Michelle Alexander writes in her book, “The New Jim Crow” that embracing your stigma is a political act, an act of defiance in a society that seeks to demean a group of people based on an unalterable trait. We found ourselves in a nation that saw us as criminals, so we embraced it. Besides, it was good marketing.

In the ’80s, hip-hop’s target audience was Black male and urban, by the ’90s and 2000s, it has spread out to the suburbs, and the largest purchasers of hip-hop were white suburban males. So when the music was indigenous to its own community, it was positive, socially aware, and anti-drug. When it broadened out and diversified to the suburbs, it embraced criminality, sold it for profit. Social consciousness and positivity was out. Criminality and gangsterism was in.

And now that love for “Pulp Fiction,” that love for “Godfather,” and a good old Western shoot-’em-up was now embracing these street tales of rap music. Hip-hop could have grown to challenge the war on drugs. Instead, rappers glorified it, embraced it, sold it for profit. The biggest artists embraced this identity and this lifestyle, and they sell it, they make millions, and they’re looked upon as heroes for making it out of the ghetto. Those who don’t make it are looked upon as villains, arrested, conveniently warehoused.

In many cases, hip-hop has failed its community, however, I believe it can still be a tool of resistance, artists like Public Enemy, Kendrick Lamar, Lauryn Hill have fought back with music, while others have become philanthropists and activists and created jobs in their communities. Hip-hop does not have to be a pawn of villainy in exchange for profit. It can be used as a tool to tell the story of how things got here, how they began and it can also tell the story. I believe it can tell the story of how a dark past created a bright future, I’m a product of this reality. I’m a living breathing testament.

This is my story. I didn’t just get here by happenstance, I get here because I’m the product of people who were humble enough to not see me and write me off as a villain, but embrace me as a would-be hero in the making. They didn’t write me off. So I say this in closing I say, every character has a story. Sometimes, those stories are untold or told from the wrong vantage point. Today you’ve heard one story. May we all have the humility to hear many more. Thank you.

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