Rap is a genre of stereotypes. Gangsta, nerd, emo, conscious — all of these labels and more have been applied to rappers over the years, yet rarely have they ever encompassed the totality of any of the music’s various subgenres or even individual performers.
J. Cole, a supposedly “conscious” rapper, has more than his share of flagrantly ignorant or regressive bars in his catalog. Drake, the ostensible poster child for emotional navel-gazing, has enough rugged, battle ready tough talk in his oeuvre to stand toe-to-toe with any ’90s-era thug rapper save DMX. Even 21 Savage, a supposed mumble rapper, has spit some truly insightful, heartfelt rhymes about trauma, systemic racism, and romantic heartbreak among his sneering threats and pessimistic observations.
One thing every rapper does have in common, though, is employing stereotypes to get their points across in their rhymes, from reductive jokes about the eye shape of those of Asian heritage to imply inebriation (“Eyes so low, I look Asian” is a punchline you can find in almost any rapper’s collection) to the old standbys about the worth of “loose” women that they can’t seem to shake using, no matter how “woke” they try to come across.
Hip-hop has always drawn its share of criticism for these and other lyrical shortcuts, but over this past weekend, the genre and the culture came under closer scrutiny than ever after a social media quote from one of the world’s most famous athletes sparked a debate about rap’s reliance on stereotypes, how those stereotypes can have harmful effects even when used with positive intent, and what responsibility artists have — if any — to clean up certain crutches from their vocabularies. While it’s true that they likely should make more effort to find creative ways to express certain ideas, the story — as always — is much more complicated than the social media debate makes it seem.
The lyric in question came from 21 Savage’s “ASMR,” a song from his new album I Am > I Was which playfully references the viral jokes that spawned from his whispered delivery on Metro Boomin’s “Don’t Come Out The House.” In the song, he cracks wise about his newfound financial stability, rhyming, “We been gettin’ that Jewish money, everything is Kosher.” When NBA star LeBron James quoted the bar in an Instagram post, however, seemingly all hell broke loose, with LeBron getting blasted with accusations of prejudice and perpetuating a negative stereotype about Jewish people. Though the Lakers star removed the offending post and issued an apology, multiple parties did their best to come to his defense, explaining that no harm was meant in his use of the quote.
Philadelphia rapper Meek Mill tried to explicate the thinking behind the bar, telling one fan on Twitter, “Jews have always owned everything in our culture from record labels… our favorite teams… our neighborhoods… our clothing… it has always been a compliment to say we was getting money like them from knowing the history of them overcoming hatred!”
Even Savage himself apologized just a few days later on Christmas Eve, explaining, “The Jewish people I know are very wise with there money so that’s why I said we been gettin’ Jewish money I never thought anyone would take offense I’m sorry if I offended everybody never my intention I love all people.”
Undoubtedly, many of their fans also wondered how being considered good with money could be offensive. After all, both Meek and Savage make a point: From their viewpoint, many if not all of the Jewish people they are likely to know, either from their upbringing or their shared career path, are successful business owners. They both grew up in nearly all-Black neighborhoods and though many Black artists and music managers run successful indie or vanity imprints, the people who founded and hold high-ranking positions at many of the major labels like Universal, Atlantic, RCA, Columbia, and more are culturally Jewish. Almost any music fan has at least heard names like Scooter Braun, Lyor Cohen, Clive Davis, and Jerry Heller.
In Savage’s mind, and in the minds of any other rapper or entertainer who has been accused of defamation in recent years like Jay-Z or LeBron, these businessmen are icons to be admired and emulated. However, because of limited exposure to Jewish people culturally — again, these are performers who lived and worked primarily with other Black people before their entry into the music business — they aren’t likely to know the history of the stereotype or how it has been used in the past to justify genocide against them as a group. NBA commentator Jared Dubin wrote a tremendous breakdown on Medium tracing how this seemingly harmless stereotype has been expanded upon by opportunistic bigots to advance destructive, anti-semitic viewpoints and agendas like those associated with the Nazis in 1930s Germany or the burgeoning US “Alt-right” white supremacist movement online today.
Moments like this are necessary to help put multiple perspectives and viewpoints into context for people who wouldn’t necessarily have any other way to have these discussions. They’re also a perfect example of the way hip-hop brings people together; while there will undoubtedly be at least some friction as a result, it gives us as hip-hop fans opportunity to learn more about each other and grow as responsible citizens of a global community. Unfortunately, they also highlight the ways in which hip-hop often fails that global community by reducing so many groups to catchy shorthand “truisms” that are often fueled more by ignorance than understanding.
Just last week, Lil Pump was put through the wringer for a line in which he mocked the Chinese language — an offense that many, many rappers have also committed throughout the years. Hip-hop still has yet to grapple with its reductive and demeaning views of women. And, as some fans pointed out, the tough guy, criminal imagery that a sizeable portion of rap’s artists utilize as a marketing gimmick is built on and reinforces stereotypes of Black and Latino men which have been used to justify excessive force from police and the clearly prejudiced reasoning behind Donald Trump’s ridiculous border wall.
While the thuggish stereotype of Black men can be directly linked to deadly encounters with police — Mike Brown or Trayvon Martin, for example — the border wall concept is as irresponsible a waste of government resources as any ever seen — at last estimate, it’d cost $5 billion dollars, which could just as easily be money funneled into education or legitimate infrastructure.
Not to blame rap music for those stereotypes or the troubles they’ve exacerbated, but as long as we’re holding rappers accountable for learning more about the historical genocide of one group of people, there are a lot of other areas where the genre can improve. What the discussion surrounding 21 Savage and LeBron’s faux pas shows us is that there is a better way to have these discussions. Rather than “canceling” LeBron or Savage, concerned observers sought to explain and listen, which helped those entertainers to understand the viewpoints of those they’d inadvertently offended, while at the same time, express that they hadn’t meant any harm as well as explain why they didn’t understand the harm in the first place. If the same approach could apply to the other topics rappers often find themselves in trouble over, it’s possible that rap could finally evolve past the need for apologies and debates, bringing more people together than it could ever accidentally offend.
Meek Mill and Lil Pump are Warner Music artists. Uproxx is an independent subsidiary of Warner Music Group.