Sen. Kamala Harris, who quite possibly will be the next but one president of the United States, recently brought ridicule on herself when she answered “Tupac Shakur” to an interviewer who asked her to name her favorite living rapper.
Even I, who know as much about rap as the average Bushman of the Kalahari, know that Tupac Shakur was murdered a long time ago, 24 years to be exact. That he was murdered was not, I believe, entirely unconnected with the way that he had lived.
Harris’s answer to the question spoke both well and badly of her, and of society in general. It spoke well of her because it clearly indicated that she had no interest whatever in this vile genre. No person of minimally civilized sensibility can take other than a sociological interest in rap, though no doubt there is much in that sense to be learned from it.
Still, a busy and important politician such as she cannot devote herself to every possible source of enlightenment about her own society, and at least she did not exhibit the debased and degraded taste that a genuine interest in or knowledge of rap might otherwise have indicated. Good for her.
On the debit side, however, is the fact that she felt it necessary to pretend an interest. Her answer was both cowardly and dishonest. She could and should have said, “I know nothing of rap, I take no interest in it,” and then reprehended lines from her supposed “favorite,” Tupac Shakur, such as the following (though by no means the worst of the genre as it developed subsequently):
“I make rhyme pay, others make crime pay, Whatever it takes to live and stand ’cause nobody else’ll give a damn. So we live like caged beasts Waitin’ for the day to let the rage free. Still me, till they kill me ... I love it when they fear me.”
If she had added that a culture such as one that produces rap, and that rap helps to reproduce, is not one to lift a population from its degradation (which I suspect is her true opinion, coming as she does from a hard-striving and achieving family), then I would have respected her.
Instead, preferring votes to truth, she tried to flatter her listeners by claiming to share their tastes. In these days of pullulating communication, it is not imitation that is the highest form of flattery but pretense to identical taste.
Speaking Power to TruthOf course, she is not alone in her pusillanimity. In Britain, for example, all prominent politicians, even allegedly conservative ones, express a liking or admiration for the work of such musical giants as NWA.
They fear that to express a preference for Chopin over The Clash would be electoral suicide, and since the whole meaning of their lives is the attainment of power, or at least of office, they are prepared to say anything to attain it. They speak power to truth.
I am not sure whether they are right in their calculations. On this question, at least, I keep an open mind. I also keep an open mind on the question of whether, when they claim to like the music that they do claim to like, it is worse if they are telling the truth or lying.
Sometimes I veer to one side of the question and sometimes to the other. It is bad for politicians to lie, of course, but it is as bad if what ought to be a lie is actually the truth.
Fascistic UniformityThe connection between music and behavior first became apparent to me in the prison in which I worked as a doctor. A prison officer, of Jamaican origin, had discovered that if he played baroque music the prisoners in his wing of the prison became calm and amenable; if he allowed them to play rap, they became agitated and aggressive.
A similar discovery was made by a policeman in a nearby police station, to which I would sometimes be called to see a mad axeman. This policeman inclined to Brahms rather than to baroque, but with similar effect.
I once wrote an article for a Belgian newspaper in which I said that pop music was one of the principal causes of crime. Of course, it was slightly tongue-in-cheek, but many people are capable only of the most literal-mindedness, and thought that I was propounding a law of criminology.
Nothing I have ever written has aroused anything like the fury that did this article. Young people wrote in to say that they would never read the newspaper again—within a few years, they weren’t going to do so anyway—and that I was all but an enemy of the people. From this I concluded that I was right and they knew, or at least suspected, that I was.
Another time, I wrote (I forget the exact context) that rock concerts struck me as fascist rallies of libertinism. I did not suggest that they should be banned, only that they were aesthetically unpleasing and destroyed the participants’ critical faculties. The ardent freedom-loving members of the audience wanted nothing more than to abandon their individuality in a hot bath of noisy, fascistic uniformity.
I wrote this for a French literary magazine, whose entire staff rose up and told they editor that they would resign if he printed what I’d written. I do not think they would have done so on any other subject.