John Ford, Gary Cooper and TuPac:
Gangsta Rap and the Wild Wild West

created by Keonna Carter, June 2002

Rapping It Up

A Western would not be a Western without saloons, shotguns, and showdowns. But instead of censoring and criticizing the violence of this genre, the American public appreciates the myth of the West so much that violence becomes valor and the inherent racism and genocide of the genre are dismissed. In Westerns, the audience becomes allied with the hero and comes to understand (or invent as the case may be) the necessity and even the morality of the hero's violent response to conflict. The Westerns' themes of violence, death, bravery, morality and survival are the underpinnings of modern day gangsta rap music, however society's reaction to these themes is critical and judgmental. Rap is condemned for being too violent, too profane and too raunchy. Since there is minimal difference in plot and devices, one may wonder what makes the violence in gangsta rap music more violent than the bloodshed Americans applaud in Westerns.
   
Is it because the heroes are black "Cowboys" and their "Indians" are sometimes white police officers? Is it because this music seems more real than the mythical affinity of "The West?" While both of these conclusions seem highly reasonable, it may also be the added combination of society's inability to connect with the feelings of these angry, black cowboys trying to survive in the modern Wild Wild West. Possible reasons for this lack of identification may stem from differences in race, socioeconomic conditions and lack of experience with (and for some, the inability to conceive of) the harsh living conditions of these rappers. These potential barriers isolate a would-be audience, who, contrary to their criticisms have already proved through their support of Westerns, that violence as a theme and technique cannot be the sole reason for their condemnation.
   
What makes gangsta rap music unacceptable to mainstream America is that its influence and political potential threatens the social order of society. The controversy over rap music boils down to the contestation over public space, expressive meaning, interpretation, and cultural capital (Rose 276). In short, rap music is not really being criticized for being too violent or profane, it is being attacked because of who's saying it. Media, whether it is the big screen or music commands public attention and thereby public space. America does not like to see its ideals and mythological notions of "The West" tampered with, especially if it means adding color. The notion that rap is a threat to the realm of public space and thereby public consciousness is ironic given that the West in and of itself is historically public space.
   
Rose goes on to point out that "the social construction and alternately, the social acceptance of "violence," that is, when and how particular acts are defined as violent, is a part of a larger process of labeling social phenomena." Rap-related violence is often associated with drugs, violence, and the love of money, but these labels serve to relegate rap music to negative. Hence, the question is not " How much violence is in rap?" but rather "How are these crimes contextualized and labeled?" (282). Furthermore, whose interests do these interpretive strategies serve, and what are the repercussions?
   
In his article, "The Aesthetics of Rap," Mtume ya Salaam states that, "the number one movie in America is usually either a violent "shoot-em up" or a sex-filled "love" story or thriller. The majority of rap artists today are simply doing the same thing that mainstream movie stars, popular music stars, and novelists have been doing for years-giving the people what they have been conditioned to "want"" (Salaam 303). That does not mean that violence, death, sex, and profanity are admirable themes, however these themes should be consistently defined along non-racial lines.
   
In conclusion, when asked about his thoughts of rap, Stevie Wonder said, "I learn from rap…Listen hard, and you'll hear the pain. Without feeling the pain yourself, you'll never understand. And what we don't understand, we can't change, can't heal. I hate it when the very folks who should be listening to rap are attacking it so hard they miss the point. The point is that children and the neighborhoods- the whole country…is drowning in violence" (Smitherman 21). So, in accordance with the celebrated conventions of The West, gangsta rap music is rooted in themes that are violent, sexist, and profane. But, no matter how loudly it is criticized, gangsta rap will continue to evolve and spread. It's no less "American" than the idea of the West...it's just that hard-to-swallow piece of the American pie.
watch the ending of the classic Western The Great Train Robbery clip.

Introduction | Howdy West Was Born | History of Rap | Death as a Theme | Violence as a Theme | The Moral Fiber of the West | Rapping It Up | References