Rap is probably music


Anthony Johnson

“Music is often mistakenly described as a universal language, but is defined within the cultures it is a part of.” Illustration by Mars Nevada/the Gateway

If you’ve been on Twitter recently, and you hate enjoying yourself, you may have watched a clip of political commentator Ben Shapiro claiming that rap isn’t real music. The viral clip came from an interview with British rapper Zuby, posted on YouTube by the Daily Wire. The full video includes Shapiro’s “musical” case against rap, which is followed by his “cultural” case.

“In my view, and the view of my music theorist father who went to music school, there are three elements to music,” Shapiro said. “There is harmony, there is melody and there is rhythm, and rap only fulfills one of these: the rhythm section.”

Shapiro implied that for something to be considered music it would need to have all three of those elements, which supposedly excludes rap. Unfortunately, this definition of music reflects a poor grasp of, not only music, but language in general.

Rap has two definitions in regard to music: Rap is a type of vocal delivery, and rap also refers to a genre of music. Much of the confusion around Shapiro’s logic stems from his ambiguous use of the word. For the sake of clarity, I’ll use hip-hop to refer to the genre and rap to refer to the style of vocal delivery.

Shapiro’s musical case is aimed against rap rather than hip-hop. Any hip-hop song has a backing track that provides the harmony, melody and rhythm to accompany the vocalist. Even by Shapiro’s definition, hip-hop is undeniably music.

The art of rapping itself, however, could be interpreted, in good faith, as not being music. Unaccompanied rap is sometimes called spoken word and classified as poetry, rather than music. But, this differentiation is unique to rap—an unaccompanied vocalist is still categorized as music despite lacking harmony, one of Shapiro’s three elements of music. So, what makes rap different?

Rap doesn’t exist within a vacuum. The art of rapping has been directly associated in the U.S. with the genre of hip-hop, to the degree that the words are used as synonyms. If rapping had a different social context, perhaps it would be considered as much a staple of music as singing or drums. Rap isn’t treated the same as other musical forms because rappers aren’t treated the same as other musicians. In the U.S., when you think “rapper,” you probably think of a young, black man.

Older white people have a long history of dismissing the culture of younger black people in the United States. In the 1920s, Henry Ford referred to jazz, another genre popularized by black Americans, as “monkey talk” and “jungle squeals” in his anti-Semitic book “The International Jew.” It would be disingenuous to imply that Shapiro’s comments are as severe as Ford’s, but it’s hard to miss the similarities.

Music is a form of communication akin to language. Just as the language you speak is a part of your culture, so is the music you listen to. Shapiro, by his own admission, doesn’t listen to hip-hop. He is not a part of its culture. He doesn’t speak the same musical language.

Immediately after part of the interview went viral, Shapiro explained his “cultural” case against rap. His theory is that “rock was an actual degradation of skill for music from jazz, which was actually a degradation of skill from classical” and that hip-hop fits into this trend, as rappers are “doing something that doesn’t seem innately very difficult” – notice the word “seem.”

Shapiro went on to ask his guest how much work goes into writing a rap verse and explained that it might change his opinion. He was not critiquing hip-hop based on the music itself, but on his impression of the people making it—the young, black men who are making it. Since he doesn’t speak the musical language, that impression is completely informed by ignorance. It’s like an English speaker criticizing a Spanish speaker for putting an adjective after the noun.

Music is often mistakenly described as a universal language, which is how Shapiro and Ford can justify critiquing genres they don’t listen to and cultures they aren’t a part of. Surely Shapiro understands all music since he understands the music he listens to, but that is just not true. Music is defined within the cultures it is a part of. The only acceptable, universal definition of music I can come up with is “You know it when you hear it.” And by that definition, rap is probably music.