Until now, the Duke’s Vice President for Student Affairs Larry Moneta has been known for his love of vegan muffins and his distaste for the vulgar, misogynistic music played at a campus coffee shop. He was pilloried after his complaint to Joe Van Gogh management prompted the dismissal of a polite, apologetic barista and her manager.
Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but three days after Moneta’s May 7 protest, the music streaming service Spotify – which was delivering the offensive music to Joe Van Gogh – announced a new policy on “hate content and hateful conduct,” removing the work of two notorious performers, the rapper XXXTentacion and R&B singer R. Kelly, from their automated playlists.
The Economist also reports that Apple Music and Pandora have “quietly taken similar action.”
This move does not raise significant free speech issues because the services have not removed the artists’ work from their platforms. They just won’t push and feature them.
This provides some welcome vindication for Moneta, who has been portrayed as a privileged, out of touch white man in the coverage of this kerfuffle.
The sign that we weren’t getting the whole story was the unwillingness of those critics to share the flow Young Dolph was dropping in the work that offended Moneta, “Get Paid.” In addition to the serial repetition of the line, “Get paid, young n---- get paid,” he intones:
Go get the money, it ain't nothing else important to me
I showed her a Xanax, she hurried up and took
I f----- her so good, she got up and started cooking
Rolling up big blunts, out a pound of cookies
Young Dolph is not an outlier. The Harvard Crimson reported earlier this year that 18 out of the top 25 songs on Billboard’s rap chart on Feb. 24, had lyrics referring to women as “bitches,” “hoes,” or “whores.”
This is not surprising to those who remember the rap wars of the early 1990s when many African-American leaders complained about the toxic nature of the lyrics – where the n-word, the f-word and misogynistic put-downs were (and still are) are as common as and, is and but.
In 1996, the activist C. Delores Tucker asked: “What do you think Dr. King would have to say about rappers calling black women bitches and whores? About rappers glorifying thugs and drug dealers and rapists? What kind of role models are those for young children living in the ghetto?”
Rap and hip-hop withstood these critiques in part because others rose to its defense, casting the music as artistic expression detailing the grim reality - and unexpurgated fantasies - of the oppressed. More important, the product sold thanks to its seeming authenticity and terrific beats. In 2017, Nielsen reports, hip-hop/R&B surpassed rock as the most popular genre in the United States.
This is the music of our children.
Another breakthrough occurred earlier this year when Kendrick Lamar became the first rapper to win the Pulitzer Prize for music for his album, “Damn.” His lyrics include slapping a "bitch" and the n-word.
Lamar’s honor was especially interesting because the Pulitzer Board also awarded its most prestigious prize, the Public Service Medal, to reporters from the New Yorker and the New York Times for their coverage of Harvey Weinstein and other sexual predators that inspired the #MeToo movement.
There is a clear distinction between those who describe women as objects and those who treat them as such. Just as it is hard to prove that the violent imagery of movies and video games leads to slaughter in the real world, it is not clear misogynistic lyrics provoke violence against women.
And, frankly, the last thing we need in America is more censorship.
Nevertheless, perhaps Larry Moneta has provided us with a teachable moment. Instead of ignoring the toxic, graphic images that pervade popular music – the lyrics that would get you fired if you said them at work and shunned if you expressed them at a dinner party – let’s acknowledge the complex issues they raise.