Is it conservative to criticize hip-hop? Recently I wrote an Op-Ed in The Wall Street Journal in which I expressed a feeling of deep disappointment and frustration that Barack Obama would show appreciation — without qualification — for rappers such as Lil Wayne and Jay-Z. I argued that the president can and should listen to whatever he pleases, but it's contradictory to his own commendable example to publicly acknowledge — and therefore associate himself with — a terribly misguided young black man like Lil Wayne, who claims gang membership, last year fathered at least two babies by two different women, and is currently serving time on Rikers Island for drug and gun charges.
And it is perhaps worse still to allow an unrepentant former drug dealer like Jay-Z, a self-described "hustler," to drop in on the White House as though he were a visiting head of state. It is my view that such endorsements send the wrong message about a hip-hop culture that often diminishes blacks.
The article engendered some passionate responses from both the left and the right. From the left, I was playing into conservative interests, advancing self-hating racist arguments about hip-hop and the first black president, just in time for midterm elections. From the far right, I was simply reaffirming the paranoia that Democrats are dangerous and Obama is a Manchurian candidate bent on destroying the country.
The truth is that I can't recognize myself or my argument in either of these assessments, both of which stem from the same flawed assumption that criticism of hip-hop is somehow necessarily a conservative position.
My personal politics aside, the irony here is that mainstream hip-hop culture itself is overwhelmingly conservative by nature, a gangsta party that in more ways than one looks a lot like a Tea Party. What the commentators on both the right and the left fail to realize is that on many social and cultural issues that matter, the message coming out of hip-hop is decidedly right of center.
It's not just that hip-hop is, to put the matter mildly, pro-gun rights (most mainstream rappers could be on the NRA's payroll), atavistically homophobic (Byron Hurt documented this convincingly in Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, where even a "conscious" rapper like Talib Kweli is unwilling to go against the anti-gay grain) and spectacularly patriarchal (male-female inequality has always been the law of the hip-hop nation) — it is also unquestioningly God-fearing and, not infrequently, proselytizing.
Even the hardest, most cartoonish thug-rapper moving kilos of yayo by day before "ménaging" with gold-digging groupies at night seems compelled to profess belief in a personal and interventionist God. (Think of anyone from DMX to Mase to Lil Wayne, who reads the Bible in jail; Kanye West, who came into the game with the hit single "Jesus Walks"; Master P, who has wondered on wax whether "G's get to go to heaven," as did Tupac; and the ex-Bad Boy Loon, who recently turned fundamentalist Muslim.) An adamantly atheist rap star is as inconceivable as an openly gay one, and the fact is, that puts hip-hop comfortably in GOP territory.
"I can't help the poor if I'm one of them," raps Jay-Z on The Black Album, though Ronald Reagan may as well have been his ghostwriter. In this way, the "God MC" is actually more like a thugged-out Michael Steele, a black man who profits personally by lending the illusion of diversity to a system that ignores and exploits poor people of all colors. Is it really surprising that Steve Forbes would put Jay-Z on the cover of his magazine?
I bring all this up simply to point out that hip-hop music and culture, while often nihilistic and self-sabotaging, from a political standpoint is almost never radical or even merely progressive. There is a reason the hip-hop generations have never produced a Huey Newton or a Malcolm X. Hip-hop — when it transcends the gutter and goes beyond the streets — doesn't want to overthrow the system; on the contrary, it wants desperately and at any cost ("Get Rich or Die Tryin'") to join it.
For an African American to question the values and motives that inform hip-hop music and culture is not in itself a conservative act — it's common sense.
Thomas Chatterton Williams is the author of Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture. Follow him on Twitter.