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Rap = Crime?

April 25, 2010

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.

Four unfortunate young people.

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.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. Amy permalink
    April 25, 2010 2:03 am

    90 days in jail for disorderly conduct?? For a non-violent, profanity-free rap about food? That is completely ridiculous! Rap isn’t always about crime, those poor teenagers were just having fun in a completely non-threatening way. I think it is the fact that they used rap that caused them to be arrested, and like you said, had they presented any other art form such as a painting, the employee would not have felt threatened at all. I am interested to see what the employee has to say about the even now, after the fact. Also, another interesting factor is that because it was a drive-through, the employee could not see the skin color of the teenagers. Since rap is typically associated with African Americans, I am wondering if race was a factor in this too for the employee. Would she have reacted the same way had she actually seen the teenagers?

  2. francescah permalink
    April 25, 2010 3:17 pm

    Wow. This is such blatant stereotyping and racism on the McDonalds employee’s part. I think Amy makes a good point, if the attendant had seen that the kids were white, she probably wouldn’t have felt that “her safety was at risk.” The rhetorical strategies used in rap should be recognized and appreciated as a part of African Americans’ historical oral tradition.

  3. Brittney permalink
    April 25, 2010 9:45 pm

    I agree with Amy and Francesca. This is really one of the most blatant attacks of stereotypes and bias.. it’s pretty appalling that it hasn’t attracted more attention. I don’t know what this world’s coming to if rapping alone is worthy of jail time and a criminal record. It’s a shame that an art form so deeply enriched in culture and talented feats of rhyme, rhythm, and wit has become equated with something “threatening” to people’s lives…

  4. Ayeska permalink*
    April 25, 2010 11:15 pm

    I can’t believe this. I only wonder what the sentence would have been had the drive-thru rappers been black, simply because statistics show people of color tend to receive harsher sentences that whites for the same crimes.

  5. Ayeska permalink
    April 26, 2010 7:20 pm


  6. Cara Shousterman permalink*
    April 26, 2010 11:47 pm

    Great post. Very interesting take on the event.

  7. Morris permalink
    April 28, 2010 4:46 pm

    That the underlying bias is racist is fairly obvious, but how did such a bias come about? Part of it might be that in Utah racial diversity isn’t really all that emphasized, nor is cross-racial interaction really possible on a wide scale due to population issues. So I feel that I can state that at least part of this is based on ignorance.

    But the fast food operator probably was not completely ignorant about rap. I think, that in this case, societal portrayals of rap as an art form worked against the teenagers. Even putting aside the “gangster rap” genre where portrayals of violence and the capacity to do violence are popularized by successful rap artists themselves, even putting aside prominent murders of artists like Biggie Smalls in the past, Rap seems to be associated with violence in at least part of the public consciousness.

    I think that a lot of this incident can be put down to fear of the unknown as well as ignorance of what Rap is actually about we saw it in the 50s and 60s with Rock music (yet another genre with African american roots).

    I was originally going to make a statement about how that music form is no longer discriminated against, but I realized that it’s also no longer considered “Black”. I am sure that in 20 years this sort of discrimination against rap will be a thing of the past, but as with Rock, the underlying racism against those not like us will probably remain.

    So how do we fix this? I don’t think that we can fight it by defending rap. If the underlying associations are not fixed than this sort of thing will just return with the next innovative and new form of music.

  8. Elizabeth permalink
    April 29, 2010 10:35 pm

    WOW, That situation is appauling and wrong. I believe that it was wrong that the teens had gotten cited for disorderly conduct just ordering in rap. The employee was wrong to feel threaten, i beleive it was a rascist judgement on her part because she probably thought that the teens were black since rap is usually asociated with an African American or latino. If the attendant would of seen that the teens where white then maybe she would of seen it as a joke and laugh. I ask myself what if the teens would of order in another type of musical genre, would that had happen? I believe ignorance could of played a part in the judgement of the attendent because the teen could not been seen. Like Amy said I too would like to know if the employee would of reacted the same way if she would of actually seen them.

  9. shipra permalink
    May 3, 2010 7:23 pm

    This story brings to mind the controversy when T-pain came out with his song “cop killer”. If I had heard the song before I learned about AAE, I would probably be as outraged as a lot of the people out there. I think people are unfamiliar with concepts like braggadocio and woofing. If people knew more, they probably wouldn’t react the same way.

  10. Joelle Blackstock permalink
    May 1, 2011 7:41 pm

    What I found most interesting about this story was the fact that, although rap lyrics might be considered to entice violence, the Utah students admit that they did not use profanity or any violent lyrics. They stated that they were mostly rapping about “lettuce and chicken.” So how is this violent? Maybe its because words are never just words. Nommo. Words come with a certain ideology, thoughts, and a culture. Then words bring about thoughts and feelings on behalf of those who hear them. So even a rap about lettuce and chicken is seen as threatening because rap music might come from a certain place, culture, identity so close to blackness and because for some blackness is threatening, even a rap about lettuce and chicken is threatening too. Even though these students were not black, I think this really is an attest to the power of African American English. Words and grammar of AAE may be grounded in a certain culture and identity that brings with it so many complex thoughts and ideology.

    However, what is so sad about this story is that these white students were seen as “victims” some how of rap music. I think that a lot of the critics, of AAE do the same thing. They look at black english as holding black people back from achievieng roles according to American society’s standards. But they ignore the complexity and ideology that comes along with speaking in AAE. It is because of AAE’s complexity that many do not understand it and subsequently fear it.

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