A Bad Rap

Michael O'Malley, Associate Professor of History and Art History, George Mason University


This exercise asks you to compare two sets of resources. First, The African American Sheet Music collection at the Library of Congress's American Memory site. Second, the rap lyrics, memorabilia and other material collected on the web by rap fans. Your assignment is to compare the materials in the African American Sheet Music Collection at the American Memory, Library of Congress, with materials relating to modern rap or hip hop music you find on the web. These modern materials may be lyrics, images, comments in discussion groups—whatever you find that's useful. They can easily be found by searching the web using the names of famous hip hop and rap performers.

Use any search engine you like. You might try searching for individual artists by name, e.g. Puff Daddy, Notorius B.I.G., Tupac, DMX, Dr. Dre, etc.

Questions to consider:

  1. How, in terms of their lyrics, are the two forms of music different?
  2. How are they similar?
  3. Who was or is the primary audience for each?
  4. What other avenues for expression were open to African American composers at the time?
  5. Do you agree that African-American portrayals in
    popular music (then and now) reflect cultural stereotypes?
  6. What sorts of stereotypes of African-Americans (and of whites, for that matter) do
    you see reflected in these texts?
  7. Who controls or controlled the distribution of commercial music?
  8. What cultural biases and stereotypes do you bring into this kind of evaluation?

As you compare the two, try to look past the dated, somewhat quaint quality of the earlier material and see with with the eyes of people at the time. You may feel that there are major differences between the two genres: if so, explain the differences, making sure to provide evidence for your claims.

Updated | April 2004