Edited by Nidhi Munot
Am I a hypocrite? Lately, I have been obsessively pondering over this question while listening to two of my go-to hype genres of music—gangsta rap and Bollywood dance songs.
Music is a part of my everyday life and lately, it has been the best part of my days. From “Chikini Chameli” to “The London”, my playlists have seen it all. These songs put me in a trance. They are my way of blocking the entire world and creating my own in which there are no rules, no responsibilities, no stress—they are the path to respite. But can music be isolated from the real world once I am out of the trance? I think not, and this is what complicates things.
I like to think of myself as a sensitive, aware, and considerate person who makes informed choices within a certain moral framework. But this gets confusing while listening to music, especially songs that seem to be derogatory to women and endorsements of violence. As an art form, music is a mode of communication and expression. An artist has the freedom to say what they think without being judged for it. I believe that they have a responsibility towards the representation and content of their art, but that will not be the focus of this article. Instead, I will be thinking about the intersection of ethics and music from my perspective as a consumer. Since, as humans, we are thinking beings capable of exercising our agencies, I believe that we have a responsibility towards the music we consume. What this responsibility entails can take different forms for different people. For me, however, it is to be conscious of the songs to which I jam and their broader effects on my present and future life choices and beliefs.
It may be said that being responsible in this way is counterproductive as music is a way to blow off steam and suspend judgement. Being ethical at all times is tiring and music gives us a time out from this by transporting us to another dimension of mindlessness. We can choose to ignore politics and ethics in favour of the melody and emotions it brings forth. This may be the easier, wiser thing to do because once we start to heed the content of the music and negotiate whether or not we can politically accept it, it is very likely that the sensory pleasures are lost completely. That would make for a sad and soundless dimension. It is this duality of compartmentalising pleasure against reality that allows us to dance in ecstasy to the beats of Jumma Chumma De De while forgetting the derogatory depiction of women in the verses that it contains. This attitude even allows us to listen to songs that insult us at our cores.
However, the question to be asked here is, is doing so blissful ignorance? Is it a survival strategy? In either case, it is clear that this dimension cannot be separated from reality. Ignorance connotes our acknowledgement of the real world. We need a survival strategy because we are aware that reality does not completely disappear in this new dimension. We still have responsibilities, and this is frustrating.
What may this responsibility look like? On what basis can we exercise judgement? These become important questions when analysing the positive and negative implications of rap music and “masala” Bollywood music.
Much of rap and Bollywood music condone misogyny, violence, and rape. They portray women as submissive and treat male dominance as the status quo. Pimp language and culture that objectify women are common to many songs and music videos. Snoop Dogg, Ice-T, Slick Rick, and Too $hort are well known for pimp rap. On the other hand, rap also addresses the grievances of the underrepresented minorities of society. It is a medium of free speech that connects its listeners to social and political issues. It raises awareness of death, violence, and drugs. It also becomes a comfortable platform to discuss problems related to drugs, violence, and abuse, allowing listeners to cope with their own experiences by identifying with the artists’ work. Artists like Nicki Minaj, Beyoncé, and Lauryn Hill challenge the belief that women are sexual objects by promoting sexual freedom.
Given this complex layout, one way to navigate the crossroads of music and morality is to pay attention to the tone of the song. If the song is glorifying rape, violence, or substance abuse, then it is best to stay away from it. However, understanding the context of a song becomes significant here. The artist may be expressing their life experiences or may mean to convey something specific through their art. Art, being open to interpretation, complicates efforts to understand the context. Nevertheless, trying to understand the context is an important first step towards moral judgement. The objective is to be aware and acknowledge the complexities of our everyday choices that may have implications and influences beyond ourselves. It is not about drawing a permanent line between morally “acceptable” and morally “unacceptable” music. It is about making an effort to understand things below the surface in a way that will enable dialogues about what we are collectively endorsing. This in turn will help shed light on situations encountered frequently – when we mentally tune out the uncomfortable assertions made in the lyrics of a popular song and sing along, even if we know in our gut that this is something that cannot be ignored forever.