When Future released the “The Percocet & Stripper Joint” video single, immediately the name triggered the knee-jerk impulse to feel offput about glorified prescription drug abuse— opioid abuse— and objectification of women. Because DUH, right? PERCOCET REFERENCE ERHMAGERD & STRIPPER JOINT SO BLASÉ OBVS MISOGYNISTIC! Thankfully I resisted the urge to continue along in this echo chamber of insulted hurrah (and perhaps see another layer) and dig a little deeper because I’m no PC Principal or whatever…
“OKAY” I said to myself, “You haven’t heard this jam and even if you had, you probably didn’t understand what he was saying (because I’m partially deaf) so check the lyrics BETCH…” — (& yeah I mostly talk to myself like that whhhhaaat???)
So… the lyrics aren’t really proving my knee jerk reaction wrong per say. This guy clearly likes to be wasted and off all the typical shit you would expect someone to get wasted off of in the party culture that Future presumably engages in: cocaine, molly, painkillers, heroin, weed… so he kind of is actually glorifying drug abuse and that’s kind of not okay considering the pretty bad heroin epidemic surfacing in this culture right now as well as the increasing (over 100% in some demographics) death by prescription drug overdoses…
So I want to tear it down because it’s easy to see the obvious flaws in drug abuse and objectifying women or enjoying a culture that centers around objectifying women. But whenever I feel tempted to fall into the trap of “LET ME TELL YOU ABOUT RAP…” I think about how it’s a spectrum from gangsta to academic and everywhere in between. Like many people, there was a long period of time where I felt the need to differentiate between “rap” and “hip hop” as though they were different entities and there was only ever going to be one that was worthy of listening to though both maybe were entertaining. Or, I might have argued that “old rap” was good but this new shit…
However, the same standards of (C)rap and tolerable don’t seem to apply to any other genre— like metal, rock, country, … you know, white people music. When you realize that a band like KISS, which to be fair did have its own criticism at the height of its commercial domination, isn’t categorized differently than Queen, it starts to illuminate the ease of demonizing black culture over accepting it is a spectrum just like metal. Some Christians feel that all metal is Satan’s music– alright, fine. However, there isn’t “well death metal is bad but hair metal is good” when metal is discussed. Similarly, if you’re a fan of metal, you take metal as a whole genre even if you, for example, think death metal isn’t representative of the awesomeness that metal can embody. Conversely, there is a lot more debate about what constitutes “good” rap and “bad” rap to the point where all rap gets a bad rap (say that 5 times fast?). Put differently, there is some “bad” music in all genres that makes you question everything sacred about life and that is not exclusive to rap yet we treat it like it is.
So anytime someone referred to me as underground and conscious, you know, I’ll wear it, because I am conscious about what I say and do, but I would make the distinction and let them know that I do the same thing as these other brothers. It’s just a different part of the spectrum, and I try to celebrate the similarities between me and other artists when people try to divide me with it. – Talib Kweli
But back to the Future we’re talking about…
Oftentimes, we take a song by itself when, in a greater context (say… an album…) that song shines a bigger light on mentalities, perspectives, struggles and the like. It doesn’t take much to appreciate a song because of it’s musical aesthetic but often there is another layer that can be missed (the meaning and communication from the lyrics) due to a good beat, melody, riff, whatever. Continuing to read through the lyrics off Future’s album, a bigger picture emerges when taken in a greater context of trauma. Many of Future’s lyrics seem to be on the same “party, get fucked up, bitches and hoes” thing with a hearty dose of witnessing and partaking in some deeply traumatic experiences. For example, in the song “Blood on the Money,” Future talks about how he still counts the money regardless of the spilt blood on it.
I feel I’m walkin’ through Hell
I swear to God I’ll never tell
They try to give a n— the chair
I tell my mama, “wish me well”
They got blood on the money and I still count it.
They got blood on the money and I still count it.
They got girl on the money and I still count it.
They got boy on the money, watch my n— count it.
Okay that is some seriously fucked up shit, Future. But like… this is literally shit that happens and it’s not that it’s surprising, it’s just really friggin’ depressing to think about. It’s tough to not feel traumatized imagining this life. This could be Future’s life, this could be a fictional life, the life of his friend… it doesn’t really matter because you know that this is a real thing that happens and disproportionately in lower income, lower socio-economic, “at-risk” communities of color. That is to say, if you have ever been a traumatized person seeking substances to ease the pain, these same lyrics about drug abuse and good times at the stripper club seem to speak to something a little deeper.
With this additional lens of “living trauma” songs like this aren’t simply praising getting wasted, this is also self-medication– maybe even posturing self-medication and escape through thinly-veiled glorification. This is a way of coping with trauma and forgetting the intensity of lived experience— whether vicarious or actual. This is a way of trying to drown the traumatic experience of the life that you’ve been witnessing with whatever helps even if it’s only for a night. And when life is that intense, sometimes it’s only a night that you can look forward to enjoying. These are real indications of trauma: not being able to look to the future, using drugs and alcohol, not sleeping properly, memories, flashbacks, disconnection from others, avoidance…
Which, without projecting too much on Future himself, reminded me of this movement by an Oakland, CA teacher, Jeff Duncan-Andrade, who realized that the school systems and institutions serving these “at-risk” populations weren’t accounting for the trauma that kids were facing. He called them Roses in Concrete and with the support of the community helped to found a school that incorporated serving the specific needs of the traumatized and divested community into the education process. Kids can’t learn, in other words, when they are traumatized. When most of the school population is directly or indirectly impacted by murder and poverty, the ability to overcome those issues to focus on something like math and reading is greatly challenged and winds up perpetuating the very issues that created the trauma in the first place. To better serve kids in crisis, the entire environment supposedly uplifting them needs to serve the kids where they are (in trauma). To serve these kids, a safe and nurturing environment needs to be created to actually assist in their meaningful development and participation and ideally healing.
So Future & Roses in Concrete connect in that the continued glorification of these lifestyles are really just the continuation of communicating the unaddressed trauma that people from (and in) these communities have to face. Reading through more of Future’s lyrics, it almost seems like someone asking to be witnessed, to be heard, to be held despite the grit and grime from whence they came than it does an overt glorification of a hedonistic self-medicating lifestyle.
While I can’t speak for Future even a little past my own interpretation of the lyrics, it seems to be a reflection of this culture that doesn’t value Black Lives— watching police and person alike murder and degrade the black community members, allowing them to serve disproportionate prison sentences for crimes white people aren’t similarly held accountable for (think: drugs), all while red-lining and gentrifying what little areas black communities and people of color have built for themselves though sometimes the issues are much more complicated after first glance.
Do not, by the way, read this as a demonization of white people but rather as a systemic injustice that continues to marginalize and threaten the lives of black Americans while truly keeping everyone from living equitably. It is, even for black Americans in the best of communities, a traumatizing experience to witness the senseless murders of people from racism. And while socio-economic status gives some reprieve, the overarching racism that is institutionalized still threatens people of color to the point where highly visible black Americans (Quest Love, Levar Burton) are targeted by police. Perhaps the “blame” can be shifted to socio-economics but until then one cannot deny the inherent racist undertones (& overtones) that are inextricably entwined with this lived experience.
Which is really all to say that mirroring this culture back to itself through the lens that Future holds up is no different than saying “but we can help these kids to have a future” by creating a safe space in an “at-risk” community like Oakland.
“If the society that we’re talking about is a society that starts wars all over the world, degrades indigenous cultures, is misogynistic in itself, if that’s the society we’re talking about, then it’s not a bad thing if hip-hop did degrade that society.” — KRS-One
Putting aside the knee-jerk reaction to demonize rap as inflammatory, misogynistic, glorifying illicit or degrading activities, we have to look deeper at an entire country of traumatized people that are all facing unique and disturbing challenges brought about by a system that relies on institutional hierarchies. We have to acknowledge how we perceive and treat black culture as something different than white culture and hold it to different standards. Treat rap and hip-hop as a single entity seeking to communicate, to alleviate the trauma of a culture and generation of people just as music is always wont to do. Yes, one can say that the hip hop/rap community draws the distinction between its music just as much as “outsiders” do, however, there are plenty of sub-genres in any music genre (metal, for example, has death metal, thrash, black, pirate, melodic death metal, heavy, hair…) and it’s not about the sub-genre so much as it is about the culture and community that created it. Looking at Rap/Hip Hop and seeing the complete culture and community means that Future is just as valid an experience and dissemination as Common or any other “conscious” rapper out there and before we seek to demonize these artists for their misogyny (real or imagined), glorification of gangs, drug abuse, or otherwise, we need to take a good hard look at the culture and the way we ourselves are engaging with it.
I think that all journalists, specifically print journalists, have a responsibility to educate the public. When you handle a culture’s intellectual property, like journalists do, you have a responsibility not to tear it down, but to raise it up. The depiction of rap and of hip-hop culture in the media, I think, is one that needs more of a responsible approach from journalists. – KRS-One
And while this is about Future, the conversation doesn’t really end with Future. Of course there will be plenty more rap artists (or Trap, Hip-Hop, whatever…) that come up with plenty more lyrics “good” and “bad,” but the same trauma and questionable experiences are in the lyrics of other genres– metal & country for example– so maybe while stars in the country world aren’t counting bloody money and running drugs, we are all on a spectrum of trauma. Maybe this conversation is deeper than Future’s lyrics, but maybe it starts here.
In any conversation, in any dissection, we are only ever going to perpetuate deleterious belief patterns or break down barriers that allow for all members of society to step into the power they deserve. It is our duty as compassionate individuals of this planet to look more deeply at the cultures, the individuals, the communities that we’re criticising or seeking to criticise. It is our responsibility to ask the more difficult questions and make the connections between what is communicated and what isn’t. We can point to symptoms of a toxic, unforgiving culture as though that’s the beginning and end of the discussion or we can dismantle the systems in place that continue to traumatize and damage (sometimes irreparably) the very communities reflecting these moments of struggle back to us as a whole. It isn’t just misogyny, it isn’t just drug abuse, it is a symptom of a much larger cultural oppression that seems to be ever-widening its toxic grip. It’s about time we recognize that because maybe we’re all a little bit more like a rose in concrete than something out of a Utopian garden no matter how much some might want to believe otherwise.