The Great Escape

For those trapped in the violence of poverty, rap tells heroic tales of breaking free.

Zito Madu
Zito Madu is a writer who was born in Nigeria and moved to the United States in 1998. He has been a Detroit native since, while spending time in different cities around the world. He’s been a staff writer at the sports website SBnation of Vox Media and a contributor at GQ. His work has appeared in many other publications. He is a lover of poetry and philosophy.

In 2002, the rapper Styles P released what is his most popular and memorable song, “Good Times.” The song’s title is ironic, and the chorus, which features a high-pitched voice singing I get high, high, high, is misleading. The lyrics don’t celebrate good times, nor do they celebrate smoking the weed the singer describes in detail. In fact, the song is exceedingly sad. It is full of violence and pain, the smoking a form of self-medication.

“Good Times” has stuck with me because it captures the relationship between poverty and violence so well. In three verses, Styles P clearly details how poverty is an inherently violent situation, setting the stage for individual violence as it destroys the ability to imagine other ways of being. This is a common theme in rap, but this song is startlingly honest about early death as the result of that dynamic.

Rap is fantastical; life in the songs tends to be exaggerated and extreme. In “We Gonna Make It,” Jadakiss doesn’t just own a fancy house – in his house his “bathtub lift up” and his “walls do a 360.” And he didn’t just sell drugs, he “ran through enough coke for Castro to build schools in Cuba.”

Rap music and its artists have come under heavy criticism for those fantastical elements, especially when it comes to violence. Rappers are always killing hundreds of abstract enemies in songs, and buying wildly inflated numbers of high-powered guns. The criticism has come not only from those who see rap as evidence of Black degeneracy, including the FBI, but even from more “conscious” rappers who see violence-as-entertainment as both inauthentic and a disservice to Black culture.

The latter critics have a point – this is an uncomfortable entanglement. It allows people who aren’t close to Black culture to pretend that the music is a realistic depiction of American Black life.

Continue reading at Plough Quarterly.