‘On Beauty’ and Conscious Rap

RUN DMC-Rev Run is absolutely BOSS

Right, I thought I’ll start off my musical journey blog series with a genre that has been on my mind recently-Hip-Hop.

Just over a month ago I read On Beauty by Zadie Smith. The novel is about the Belsey family; a British/American family who live in the US (thanks Wikipedia). The story spans across several different themes from infidelity to art, love, adolescence, marriage and the theme that captured me the most, music. Smith manages in just one novel, to give you a deep insight into every character. You see how people’s actions can impact those around them but you are also urged to acknowledge and see the beauty in our human flaws.

Smith is not trying to tell you a fairy-tale, she is not trying to make you fall in love with any character or take any sides, what she encourages in her novel is the willingness to empathise. From the unfaithful husband to the naïve teenager, each person had a story and in many ways On Beauty is not a story, but several stories, which essentially is what life is.

My favourite character in the novel is called Carl. In On Beauty Carl represented the rough-around-the-edges young man, who is habitually anti-establishment, but still seeks to be educated; more through forms like music than the conventional sitting down in a class room. Carl struck me as the sort of character that would be great to have a conversation with; a person who is highly opinionated, would happily talk about capitalism, his appreciation for classical music and his love for Tupac Shakur all in one sentence. There is an amazing part in the book where Carl talks about Mozart’s Requiem. I want you to imagine the most stereotypical black boy who loves rap, talking passionately about classical music and how it’s important to listen to things beyond your preferred musical genre. ISN’T THAT AMAZING! For me that was so amazing and I couldn’t get over how wonderful his character was. (I feel like the way people fell for Augustus Waters in TFIOS is slightly similar to the way I feel about Carl in ‘On Beauty’ ).

In the novel, Carl is not a main character- he sort of sits between the main and the minor characters, therefore he holds quite a bit of significance. His love for rap music is something that really captured me throughout the novel because he had a genuine passion for it, so much so that his job was archiving hip-hop music and he saw rap beyond a musical genre but a guide for life.

As someone who loves spoken word I have always thought it strange, to some extent, that I don’t listen to rap. I am very interested in it, but more in the socio-political sense than actually sitting down and listening to an album.

Before reading On Beauty, I had watched Hip-Hop vs. America and The Message on BET. Hip-Hop vs. America, was a panel debate, that put rappers Nelly and T.I on the spot, questioning them primarily about the misogyny and overall sexism rife in the world of hip-hop. Watching this underlined my main aversion towards rap, every time I listen to a friend ‘spitting a bar’ (or whatever it is) from a new song, women in one way or another are being disrespected. If that is not the case the content is about drugs, money, or if I’m super lucky all three!

I watched The Message on BET which was a four part documentary on rap throughout time and this helped change my perspective and made me more open to it as a genre. The show focused on the progression of rap throughout time (from about the 80s-now): how it grew in different states in America, how the messages of rappers differed throughout time from Run DMC to Public Enemy, Queen Latifah, Outkast, Lil Kim, MCLyte, Tupac, Notorious B.I.G, ASAP Rocky etc and it also gave insight into what hip-hop meant and currently means to people.

Reading Carl’s story in On Beauty, served to spark the interest I once had (last year, watching the different shows) in rap. Conscious Rap, is something that I have been doing some reading up on, because after watching The Message I realised that rap is not all sex, drugs and money and although that is what seems prevalent in mainstream music and a major part of popular ‘urban culture’ there are artists who are talking about different things, and have a message in their music.

After having a conversation with someone about my dislike for rap music, and how I think that there needs to be more positive and thought provoking music out there, he made me aware of artists like: Chance the Rapper and Childish Gambino who he believes are different from what people have pigeon-holed the genre of rap into.

So as of now I am on a sort of journey with rap music. Like I said, spoken word is my thing; manipulation of language is my thing, so rap (at least some of it) could be my thing.

I am planning on listening to some of the conscious rappers mentioned on The Message and finding a few more current ones, and over the next few weeks I’ll share with you what I think about their music and if my views on rap have changed so keep your eyes peeled!

Itunu 🙂




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