Rap = Crime?
A recent episode of the Colbert Report included the story of four Utah teenagers who were cited for disorderly conduct. Their conduct? Rapping at a McDonald’s drive-thru. For details, watch this clip.
This story consists of fast food employees and police overreacting to playful teens, but some disturbing undertones make themselves clear. While the drive-thru operator may have been perfectly reasonable to be surprised or confused by an order expressed through rap, why did she feel her “safety was at risk”? And if the teenagers left the McDonald’s premises when asked, in what way was their conduct disorderly?The McDonald’s employee and the police seem to have perceived something inherently criminal about rap. Considering that rap is essentially a form of orally performed poetry, such an association proves illogical under even mild scrutiny. Many Americans, such as the former police officer interviewed in the Colbert feature, see profanity and violence as intrinsic elements of rap. They conflate not only medium with content, but also lyrical braggadocio with real-world crime. For an example of the kind of rap delivered in this case, look to the youtube video that inspired the youngsters from Utah. Even if such a performance did make reference to crime (which it clearly does not), might first amendment protection still apply to this speech considering the clear artistic framing? Yelling “fire” in a crowded theatre may give people a dangerously incorrect impression, but what about rapping “fire”?
If a customer approached the counter at McDonald’s and presented a painting he had made that depicted what he’d like to order, this would not likely constitute a disruption of the peace. The rapping of an order is also an instance of artistic expression unexpectedly brought into the world of fast food.
I suggest that the only reason the drive-thru operator perceived a threat was that she harbored an unfair bias against art borne of the African American population.
Scholars of African American English have found compelling evidence for the legacy of oral tradition surviving the transition from West African to African American culture. That is to say, the verbal performance we know today as “rap” is likely rooted in centuries-old values carried on by the descendants of slaves. If someone sees rap as a morally corrupt art form, they ignore facts in favor of viewing a culture foreign to theirs as essentially evil. They assign to the art of another the status of “guilty until proven innocent” – a status clearly not inkeeping with our country’s notions of justice and artistic freedom.
It may be yet another overreaction to lament the oppression of this story’s suburban white teenagers. They may be receiving unfair treatment, but many will find the case uninteresting for its low stakes. If you find yourself leaning in this direction consider this: these teenagers were not following in the footsteps of their own European American heritage. For some reason, an art form developed by African Americans resonated with them. Rap’s race-crossing appeal has proved powerful over the past few decades, yet we have reached a point where some (the teens) can see rap as an exciting opportunity for fun and self-expression while others (the McDonald’s employee and the police) can view the same behavior as criminal.