Lemert introduces his ideas on Social Theory by comparing it to poetry.
Questioning what is poetry itself, he asks,
“Yet it is fair to ask, for example, whether rap is poetry or music of the same order as, say, the Davidic Psalms or Shakespeare’s sonnets? For which the sensible answer is that they are not because there is little evidence that a natural acquaintance with poetry is as common as a native appreciation of music – if only because low-brow musics have qualities of their own, but bad poetry is, well, obviously bad[…..] I should say that to think of social theory as poetry runs up against the fact that some who are professional practitioners of it write, if not like shit, at least like the most egregious bars of experimental music including some popular hip-hop lyrics that make no sense whatsoever outside the community to which the words are addressed. In this respect, what poetry social theory might be is always at risk of degradation by the tin ears of those who do it.”
Although the quote only makes up an insignificant part of an otherwise brilliant essay (to the point where it becomes somewhat pedantic to allude to it), analyzing rap music though the lens of what Lemert refers to as ‘Social Theory’ can be an interesting exercise.
Lemert views poetry as something that expresses the human condition and longing. Among things he views as ‘real’ poetry are the Psalms of David, Shakespeare and even some famous sociological treatises. But he doesn’t view rap, hip-hop or other low culture music as poetry. One of the reasons he provides for comparing hip hop to bad social theory is that it is inaccessible (to those outside the culture which produces it, mainly the African-American, Latin American or immigrant cultures in the United States). This is a controversial claim to make, as hip hop is- the vox populi- the story of the underdog, not just in USA, but in Latin America, Africa, the Koreas, the Caribbean, Europe and even the slums of Mumbai. To term hip hop as something that “makes no sense” just because it isn’t specifically addressed to Lemert or his community, is quite problematic.
Hip hop had its origins in the 1970’s among African American youth. It is hard to trace its history, as the earliest hip hop tracks were never recorded despite the prevalence of high quality audio recording technology at the time, as the producers of hip hop did not have the capital or social capital to access these technologies. Ethnically, hip hop had a lot of Jamaican influences as when youth from Western Africa immigrated to the US, they took their music along with them. Soon, rap became a rapidly growing cultural phenomenon among the marginalized, disenfranchised, unemployed and alienated youth in America.
Although considered low brow, producing rap music requires a high level of proficiency in poetic devices like rhythm, meter, metaphor, diction, imagery, etc. Despite being so tedious to create, rap music is one of the best chronicles of marginalized lives. Covering themes ranging from gang violence, political exclusion, poverty, gun violence, racism, alcoholism, disenfranchisement,
misogyny, police brutality and much more, rap had forayed into subjects that sociologists were only beginning to reflect on in the 1970’s. Rap can be an excellent source to study black lives and the shared sentiments of a major size of urban youth living in poverty, which is largely what social theory also aims to do.
Lemert calls Marx the Father of Social Theory for three of his approaches:
a) the study of historical structures,
b) the hermeneutics of hidden factors and
c) critical attitudes.
Most rappers have been following the same 3 approaches since the beginning of their artistic tradition- a) uncovering the legacy of slavery on the modern world based on the study of historical power relations, b) the interpretation of systemic discrimination in USA as a result of entrenched racism and c) the cynicism and critical attitude towards the ‘American Dream’ and capitalism are
recurring themes in rap. He also calls upon social theorists to make as much trouble as possible, something rappers have been known all too well for, just not in the ways most intellectual elites might condone.
Lemert’s idea of a social theorist is one who would “ask questions that were (and are) heretical in the eyes of the powerful and influential”.
...(download the rest of the essay above)