Ethical Inquiry: What do we make of Biggie and Eminem?

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Every Thursday at noon the Philosophy DUG hosts a lunch in Wilson 101 providing anyone and everyone with free Kabob and Curry and savory conversation. The discussion led by Ben Seymour ’17 this week was no exception. Over chicken tandoori, we discussed a particularly relevant topic to Millennials, given the increased presence of mainstream rap music: things that are not okay to say on a day-to-day basis are often completely acceptable in rap lyrics. If someone happens to a slide a casual “F*ck b**ches, get money,” into a conversation over coffee, it probably wouldn’t be taken as lightly as it is when Biggie and Jr M.A.F.I.A. spit it on stage.

The matter did not come to a unanimous consensus in the 50 minute dialogue, but here’s the gist of what you missed:

Anyone who has listened to Biggie Smalls or Eminem is well aware that both of them produce violent, misogynistic, offensive lyrical content. While Eminem’s lyrics come from Marshall Mathers’ satirical character, Biggie’s lyrics are truer to his real-life actions. If Eminem is making a social commentary and Biggie is bringing attention to an unfortunate social reality, and both are expressing their messages through an artistic medium, how do we judge them morally?

One thing everyone seemed to agree on was that Mathers wrote for a smart audience. His targeted demographic was those who were mature and canny enough to understand that he was exaggerating the ideas he rapped about, not condoning them. But eventually his work became so mainstream that the astute audience he was rapping for only made up a fraction of his fans. Impressionable children might have perceived his content to be a glorification of the acts he described in his music, but is that his fault or the fault of the parents who let their children listen?

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Biggie, on the other hand, was undeniably perpetuating violence and sexism, but he also helped us confront a social reality. However, his glorification of violent gang involvement and drug dealing matriculated into a culture of youth that sought out such acts because they were “cool.” With that said, a lot of the participants in the discussion believed that it is more acceptable to be as honest as Biggie was than it is to exploit social circumstances like Eminem did.

So, is Marshall Mathers a cathartic figure or a exploitative wannabe gangster? Did Christopher Wallace help raise awareness for the unethical lifestyle poverty propelled his way, or did he leave an immoral impression on an entire generation of susceptible kids?

The ambiguous answers to these questions can best be seen in the way rap music has evolved in the twenty some-odd years following their repute. We have rappers like Tyga topping the charts with vapid vulgar lyrical content (even though “Rack City” was definitely a guilty pleasure of mine), and others like Kendrick Lamar who tell a story that needs to be told for a greater social cause. Tyler, the Creator definitely does not intend to “stab Bruno Mars in his goddamn esophagus” but ASAP Rocky might actually want girls to “make that thing pop like a semi or a nine.” Possibly the most accurate takeaway from the discussion is that Biggie and Eminem are responsible, in some part, for shaping both camps.

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