I am a gigantic fan of the HBO television show The Sopranos. I eagerly anticipate each new season, waiting almost with baited breath to see what the members of the Soprano crime family are going to do next, particularly I lay bets on who’s getting whacked and when. Additionally, I am always waiting to see if Carmela is either going to come to grips with the fact that Tony is a crime boss and get over it, or finally going to muster up some of her Catholic resolve and leave him. Last season, a priest told her to live off the good that comes from Tony. But I’m not sure how Carmela or anyone can calculate the good portion of blood money.
The Sopranos is only the latest installment in a long line of Hollywood gangster tales. In the 1930s and ‘40s actors such as, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson made their fortunes playing gangsters. Like the blood and guts that are integral to The Sopranos, people being mowed down by machine guns became regular fare for viewers of in gangster movies. It is therefore not surprising that clips from the classic gangster movie, Public Enemy played a prominent role in this season’s second episode of The Sopranos. The Godfather films, which detail the criminal exploits of the Corleone crime family, have become American classics. More recently, the updated Scarface, starring Al Pacino, provided a new generation of moviegoers with a hip gangster. Americans love gangster movies and they have always been enamored with real life hoods like Pretty Boy Floyd, Bonnie and Clyde, Al Capone, Bugsy Siegel, and, more recently, John Gotti. Somewhere in our collective psyches, we love that someone is getting over and if they need to crack some skulls, so be it.
My question, however, is whether there is a double standard at play when it comes to gangster imagery. While creative efforts like The Sopranos and its predecessors have generally garnered rave reviews, the “gangsters” of rap music have been attacked from all sides. Are White sociopaths less scary than Black ones? Caryn James of the New York Times says that the wide appeal of The Sopranos lies in the fact that, “It lives at the juncture where pop culture and high art meet. Functioning on the levels of capicola and Proust, of movie lovers and film scholars, The Sopranos speaks to middle-class folks like Tony as well as those above and below him on the real-life scale . . .” Admittedly, The Sopranos is a well-written and complex show, but at its core, it is about morally corrupt individuals who murder and steal for a living; a reference to Proust does not change the show’s substance. So why are brutal movies about White ethnic gangsters palatable to Americans, while brutal rap songs by Black “gangsters” are not?
It still seems as if the qualification for getting tagged a “creative genius” has more to do with media critic than the artist being tagged. Thus, while a nod to Proust in The Sopranos is recognized by mainstream critics and applauded, these same critics miss the relevance of the classic film 36 Chambers of Shaolin to the Wu-Tang Clan. Much of rap music is inventive and filled with references that relate to current events, history, and popular culture. However, in order to recognize the “creative genius” of rap music, critics have to be knowledgeable about the films, books, music, and television shows that influence rap artists and their audience. Although it may not always be intentional, critics tend to praise what is familiar to them and pan what is not.
Using this formula, White rap artist Eminem seems to have received more praise than criticism for his controversial lyrical content. While 1980s artists like Public Enemy, Ice T, NWA, and The Geto Boys were castigated for their music, this year, Eminem received multiple Grammy nominations for The Marshall Mathers LP. Moreover, superstar Sir Elton John opted to sing a duet with Eminem, despite the protests of Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation. Eminem has been touted as a major talent for his gross content, while Black rap artists are still vilified for theirs. Eminem’s lyrics are acceptable to a large portion of American, as are performers like Jim Carrey, Tom Green, and other obnoxious White men, all of whom have made millions from their lowbrow antics.
Unlike some Black rap artists who are appropriately deemed misogynist and homophobic; Eminem gets a pass from most critics on these offenses. The Washington Post‘s Gene Weingarten concedes that “Eminem is not overly respectful of women or homosexuals or competing recording artists or anyone not technically, Eminem.” But, Weingarten adds, “Eminem is a hoot . . . A joke is a joke.” A Manhattan writer was quoted in the New York Times as saying of Eminem, “I’m 42 and I have three children . . . I think he’s a brilliant vocalist, a brilliant writer, and has something to say.” Perhaps times have changed, but when Chuck D and his peers were rapping about having a state holiday for Martin Luther King, Jr., police misconduct, and the misery of ghetto life, they were deemed threats to America. Now some years later, a White rapper who refers to gays and women in the crudest of terms and seems to see rape and murder as recreational activities is a brilliant jokester.
Tony Soprano is a bigot, an adulterer and a murderer, but many Americans enthusiastically watch him because the show is entertaining and based in truth. Despite the fact that rap music is also entertaining and based in truth, it is still fighting to have their work recognized by the American cultural cognoscenti. Eminem’s ability to elevate rap to “a new level,” as some critics have stated, seems to have more to do with biology than with his actual talent. I personally have no problem saying that The Sopranos and The Marshall Mathers LP are masterpieces. I am simply waiting (maybe in vain) for media critics to acknowledge the creative genius of Black rap “gangstas.”
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