Against the sanitization of rap music.
I saw Common perform in an unusual venue. He was in a live radio variety show known for its quality bluegrass content.Live From Here took place at Town Hall in New York City where the host, Chris Thile, and audience greeted each other with “Ahoy!” Thile is a MacArthur genius grant winning Mandolinist. I’m not a huge Common fan, but I was glad to recognize at least one name on the program.
The show is broadcast by American Public Media and carried by NPR, which is to say it is overwhelmingly white. Admittedly, the show does what it does well. The audience was extremely into the bluegrass performances and the intellectual humor. They sang along passionately and whooped to such a degree that you’d think Gregory Alan Isakov and Aoife O’Donovan were household names.
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Of all rappers, it makes sense that Common was the one to agree to be on Live From Here. He’s more of a public figure than a rapper at this point. He does Ozy Fest and Microsoft Commercials and slotted into the NPR talent show nicely without any controversial lyrics or provocation. Common rapped about God and love and positivity in an anodyne, non-memorable way. I initially thought he was being used as a gateway drug of Otherness at this show. And honestly, that would have been a more productive use for him than that which he served—as token rap performance in an otherwise homogenous show.
In theory, rap should feel really out of place at this show, but Common was surprisingly in keeping with the energy of the other performers. He was very well received. Lots of head bobbing and foot tapping. There was nothing noteworthy about Common’s performance. It was tame and rehearsed. There was one verse that was sort of fast— far from a technical masterclass— and there was disproportionate cheering. The audience’s overenthusiastic reaction rubbed me the wrong way because it felt patronizing. Even moreso when a good number of people stood up to give a standing O for a very mediocre set. Maybe they were cheering for the fact that it had made no one uncomfortable.
If Common had given a performance that challenged this audience to experience hip-hop for themselves and gave them a taste of musical fare that was a departure from what they are used to, then I would defend his presence there to the hilt. But Common gave a very sanitized performance— even making an introductory comment about keeping all profanity out of his songs. It was rap-lite. Seeing Common perform in this context made me ask: would it be better for Common not to be part of this show at all?
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The simple answer is no— because it’s always good to be exposed to all kinds of art. It’s a net positive that Common was part of Live From Here for the off chance that someone in that audience had never given rap a chance and they were compelled to consider it by virtue of being at the show. But the real answer is: maybe. It’s possible that being exposed to a sanitized version of rap was actually more damaging than leaving rap out of the variety show altogether.
What are the dangers? Let’s think about this hypothetical audience member who has never listened to rap. Maybe she has some preconceived notions about rap or a total disinterest in it. But this person is in attendance at Live From Here and Common is performing so she observes and listens and— it’s totally underwhelming. Rap is dull, she concludes. There is no need to follow-up on it beyond this performance.
What’s the point of sanitized rap? I’d argue there is none. Listening to sanitized rap is like reading Lolita with controversial passages redacted. You shouldn’t waste your time with a censored version because it retains none of the authorial intention. You’re no longer consuming art, but a heavily modified and bastardized amalgam of words and sound. If your sensibilities are too fragile to handle the ‘profane’ intended original work, it’s unlikely that you’ll enjoy a censored version either.
I’m not saying there’s anything wrong with art that has no need to be sanitized. If something is ‘clean’ organically, if there’s nothing to censor for TV or radio, that doesn’t make it lesser art. Take Run-DMC. “My Adidas” has no profanity. There would be nothing to censor if it were performed live. But when it first came out, the sound itself was provocative. It challenged mainstream music and its statement was not obscenity, but innovation. The heart of rap is capital M message— whether that message be musical, political, or personal— and Common’s Live From Here performance lacked any identifiable message.
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I think there’s also an element of condescension involved in tailoring the performance to the audience and assuming it couldn’t handle something more interesting. I’d be insulted if someone else assumed that my digestive capacities were delicate and that I preferred pre-chewed rap. When you have the chance to get in front of an audience, you should challenge them. Especially a crowd like the one at Live From Here. They’re supposed to be open-minded, free-thinking liberals. What would have happened if they were served something raw and divisive? Maybe they would have left the concert talking about that performance.
Art doesn’t have to scare or enrage or offend. But it should move you or at least make you think. What Common shared was a side of rap that has no purpose. It was designed to be inclusive, inoffensive. And I think it shortchanged rap during an important opportunity to show what hip-hop can be to a willing audience. I think the only way to go about introducing anyone to something they are unfamiliar with artistically is to give them something authentic. If you try to ease a novice in with something diluted to their tastes, you will only alienate them with something that is safe and purposeless.
There is a fine line between what I’m saying and declaring ‘Stay in your lane’ in a deleterious way. If we rig up barriers between artforms and discourage collaboration and exposure, that’s a bad thing. What I’m arguing against is the sanitization. Give audiences more credit. Don’t give them pre-digested fodder because you think they can’t handle the uncut content. It’s a disservice to music and to the show to underestimate all the parties involved.
The damage done is that Live From Here missed a huge opportunity. It did not show its audience what rap is but rather confirmed a hyper-simplified understanding that rap is talking set to music— but what misconceptions did it overturn? How did it illuminate? Or inspire? It didn’t.
What if someone walked away from this show believing rap was not for her based on this concert? It’s fine to dislike a genre of music. Your taste counts. But you should be able to make that judgment based on a non-sanitized version. Common ticked a diversity box for the show and presented an anesthetized version of rap that was family-friendly.
This argument boils down to a reiteration of the same question: Is it better to share sanitized rap with a crowd that would otherwise not come into contact with it? I’d argue no. What they’re getting out of the experience is so insipid it no longer resembles rap. I think it’s fair that not everyone partakes in everything. The bluegrass-y and Lilith fair-esque music was entertaining to me for an evening, but I’m not going to seek it out once I leave the theater. But at least I was a recipient of a potent form of it.