If you’re a musician in Mexico, particularly one whose songs paint vivid perhaps flattering pictures of violence and criminal activity, you may soon find yourself performing such songs from a prison cell.
The country’s ruling party presented a proposal before Congress last week “banning performances of “narcocorridos,” ballads that often glorify violence and drug trafficking. But this proposal isn’t just aimed at musicians. Low-budget filmmakers whose flicks extol drug lords could end up in jail, too.
“We cannot accept it as normal, ” said National Action Party lawmaker Oscar Martin Arce. “We cannot exalt these people because they themselves are distributing these materials among youths to lead them into a lifestyle where the bad guy wins.”
It’s a bold proposal, one that arguably infringes on an artist’s right to express what he purports to know and feel. But the First Amendment doesn’t apply in Mexico. So this proposal, in a way, places responsibility squarely on the shoulders of the artist. Bottom line: Watch what you say and how you say it. Somebody’s listening. And if the message is toxic, off to jail you go.
There’s no way such a proposal would fly in the United States. But what if it did? What if such a ban were put in motion, targeting hip-hop music and movies? It could potentially shut down a billion-dollar-plus industry. And since money, even when it’s stagnant, keeps the heartbeat of the U.S. thumping like an 808, that’s not happening here.
But the aspect of the proposal that pushes for artistic responsibility is interesting. Artists have the right to express themselves in just about any way they feel—or in any way a record company tells them to feel. But the poisonous messages and images perpetuated in pop culture, which is basically hip-hop now, have certainly had at least an indirect effect on young, impressionable people. And I’m going to spare you convoluted statistical data and tell you what I’ve seen with my own eyes.
As a pop music critic for four major metropolitan newspapers in the past 10 years, I have covered an array of genres. But because I was the young black guy in the newsroom, my editors often pushed me to focus largely on hip-hop, while my white critic colleagues were expected to cover anything non-black. I was never a hip-hop head, but still there was much about the music I loved in the mid to late ‘90s when I started covering it. But soon I got tired of it, at least the artless kind pumped through the mainstream.
Aside from a few cuts, I never got the appeal of Lil’ Wayne or T.I. I covered several of their shows, and I saw the almost worshipful reverence their audience had for them. When Lil’ Wayne rapped about wanting to, uh, “sleep with” every girl in the world, I saw the teen girls in the audience, dressed provocatively, grinding their hips, shouting to the tattooed, Munchkin-sized rapper, “Pick me!” I saw teen boys nodding to the beat, eyes closed as they spat out every line.
These songs—in all their nihilistic, misogynistic, homophobic, pathological glory—feed the soul of these inner city and suburban kids. With no sense of balance, and often with no parental guidance, these songs become windows of escape. They ultimately shape the emotional development for and inform the reality of impressionable young folks. If Beyonce and “those other two” from Destiny’s Child exalt a “soldier,” a do-nothing man “who carries big things,” then thugs become sex symbols. If T.I. raps about constantly looking over his shoulder in his pursuit of the grand hustle, then he carries guns—and gets busted for them.
Granted, the juvenile sexuality, the over-the-top violence and miscellaneous pathologies glorified in hip-hop are all American blemishes. They were all a part of pop culture long before hip-hop’s birth. Rappers just concentrated the flavors.
But the history of black popular expression is much richer and more complex than that. Black music was once used as a means of transcendence. Hip-hop stars weren’t the first ones born in poverty and surrounded by drugs and violence. Louis Armstrong, Ella Fitzgerald, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Curtis Mayfield, Stevie Wonder, even Diana Ross were all from the ‘hood, facing civil and personal indignities the likes of Alicia Keys and John Legend could only imagine. Yet their art managed to convey a myriad of emotions, a “gospel vision,” as writer Craig Werner calls it. It was inclusive. It was joyous. It too was American.
But black pop has long been fragmented and there’s definitely no cohesive sense of purpose among the artists these days. Generally, the images and messages of urban-pop and hip-hop convey an annoying narcissism, a certain whininess and a troubling sense of warped self-reflection mistaken for wisdom.
It’s highly unlikely that a proposal like the one in Mexico would get any mileage in the United States. But it would be nice if somehow those artists who inundate us with toxic music had to pay the price for it.