Judith Butler on Gangsta Rap

Judith Butler’s thoughts on gangsta rap from a June, 1995 letter to the editor in the NYT:

To the Editor:

William J. Bennett and C. DeLores Tucker are unwise to cite Plato to support their case against gangsta rappers (Op-Ed, June 2). Whereas they object to the lyrics of such artists as “offensive and obscene,” Plato, in the passage they cite, is concerned only with the power of “rhythm and harmony” to “fasten on” the soul: he makes no reference to the verbal communication of ideas.

Surely, Mr. Bennett and Ms. Tucker do not mean to oppose the musical aspects of harmony and rhythm on the basis of their putative influence on the soul. If they do, are they arguing that music ought not to have the power to move us as it does?

Where Plato does concern himself with the debasing power of the lyric, the culprit is Greek tragedy. Surely, Mr. Bennett, who elsewhere calls for a return to a restricted view of the Western canon as the bedrock of education, would be hard pressed to accept Plato’s questionable condemnation of classical Greek poetry for its disordering effect on the soul.

Whether it’s Sophocles or Snoop Doggy Dogg, the social distress they represent will not be eliminated by condemning the representation. If gangsta rappers represent a disturbing image of who we have become, more important than condemning or censoring the representation is the jarring chance it presents to address the conditions of that disturbance.

Unfortunately, as a nation we are defunding many of the programs that seek to address those conditions and targeting instead those artists who make the distress of violence most vivid to us.




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