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Racism in Rap

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Classic Williams Charlie

[Note: This article uses language which some readers might find particularly offensive. Please be advised that the sensitive nature of the content is not being published with the intent to offend.]

“Hip hop’s vitality is directly related to its rebelliousness. You can tame it if you like (or try to), but whatever the result, it won’t be hip hop.” This statement comes from Hip Hop America author Nelson George in a 2007 Salon article titled “Is rap racist?” While that particular roundtable feature examined the core values that were tested during the Don Imus fallout, of any musical genre none has been so perpetually caught up in racial conflict as rap and hip hop. This isn’t to negate issues surrounding sexism and homophobia and their well documented places within the genre’s history, but race continues to be one of the leading topics which lends rap this “rebellious” connotation.

Everyone’s starting point in terms of this discussion is different, which is why everyone will have a unique perspective on the matter. Depending what effect racism has had on your life, that will leave you with a different starting point than I have. Racism isn’t foreign to me, but my history is limited to that of an outsider. I’ve never been the target of hate-speech, nor violence or physical harm based on the color of my skin. The starting point for Nashville MC Classic Williams is however very different, and he is releasing a new album tomorrow which tells his story. This past February the young MC first revealed his plans for The Soul of N*gger Charlie to me in an interview, however the album title carries with it connotation far beyond the simple words which comprise its title and lyrics.

Through one of our various email exchanges over the past couple of weeks Williams revealed why he felt it was appropriate to dive into such rough waters. “Me using the word ‘n*gger’ in the title is obviously controversial, but it’s more than just that. It’s me freeing myself from the bonds the word placed me under growing up in the circumstances that I did. It’s one thing to look at the word and to fear it, but to actually experience being called the word on a regular basis for several years makes it a realer experience. As an artist, authenticity is everything — especially being a hip hop artist — and that’s about as real is it gets.”

The album itself bulges with bravado, opening with a female voice-over ripe with Blaxploitation-era reference. Adding to the idea that the album is in fact a soundtrack to his story, Williams offered note on the significance of the skits, “Honey Simmons is a character I created to narrate the progression of the album. I based her character off of the movie The Warriors. There was a women in the movie who announced what was happening in the street, in a sultry voice; extremely ’70s inspired. I felt like her presence on the project was necessary in order to make it sound more like a soundtrack rather than just a mixtape.” Despite using such methods to help relate his story however, during the album Williams wisely resisted stepping into the role of satirist. This isn’t to say that Charlie isn’t likely to become the source of misinterpretation, however.

One of the most challenging portions of the album comes in the form of recurring segments featuring another character, Lame Dodges. The recorded phone messages seem at first to be poorly guided skits featuring a stereotypical redneck aggressively tossing out slurs. But Williams explained that they are not as they might first appear. “Lame Dodges is not a fictional character. He is a real person, and these are actual calls that he left on my voice mail. I changed his name and turned him into a caricature. By turning him and all people who say racists things into a character that people can laugh at I negate the negative energy. People will find it funny, but really it’s sad.” They are, however, not funny in the slightest.

The backwoods drawl of Dodges lashing out at Williams is sad, the repeated taunts of “stupid n*gger” reinforcing the hatred that lurks behind the words themselves. This is where intent and execution begin to blur. Even when given context the clips are unforgivable in their crass nature. While they project a mindset which I simply don’t understand, they do raise an issue which stands at the heart of why the discussion of race remains relevant in the genre (and in our society): the problems that persist don’t begin with the music or an artist’s volatile lyrics, but in the actual issues that remain prevalent in real life. In “Changes,” 2Pac once rhymed, “Misplaced hate makes disgrace to races.” It’s such misplaced hatred as these Lame Dodges clips which beg the question which follows: Do these bouts of realist interjection detract from the album’s success?

In attempting to put personal ghosts from his past to rest Classic Williams has created an album which is sonically endearing while it also challenges personal comfort levels. Musically the production by Klassix Jones helps to further establish Williams as one of the most promising young voices in Nashville, but for every bit of good that can be gained from the album, its subject matter points to a focus which might potentially be misinterpreted or overlooked in the process. Perhaps The Soul of N*gger Charlie will leave an impression on people, perhaps it might simply go unnoticed. Regardless, the album suggests a willingness to approach a daunting subject matter in a serious way which many would immediately back down from. Is art at its best when it genuinely reflects the world around us? For better or worse, I feel that it is. Throughout his new album Classic Williams might be projecting a sample of the ugliness that remains in our world, but in doing so he’s reminding us that the word n*gger isn’t simply a weightless term, but one which still carries with it a very serious impact, and one which cannot be taken lightly.