Why Rap is Reminding Us to Disciple our Children

Here’s a development that is taking a lot of Christians by surprise. Reformed theology is being heavily promoted by prominent rappers such as Trip Lee, Lecrae, and Shai Linne. These men, orthodox in their theology, are using rap to affirm such teachings as the hypostatic union of Christ’s nature (fully divine/fully human), Biblical inerrancy and the mission of disciple-making.

Discussion about the Reformed rappers has again raised the question of whether judgments about musical style ought to be made at all. A potentially fruitful exchange has surfaced between Shai Linne and Scott Aniol, a graduate of Bob Jones University and currently assistant professor of worship and church music at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. It’s rare to see the moral implications of music style treated seriously in a public forum, but that’s what is going on now. You can follow it here. Linne and Aniol are asking each other respectful and intelligent questions, and giving careful, thorough answers, not only about rap, but about the moral implications of music style.

This matters because evangelical and even many fundamentalist churches are retreating from teaching young people to make principled choices regarding musical style. An acquaintance once said to me, “You know, our children aren’t going to listen to the same kind of music that we do.” In many cases that is true, and not altogether bad, so long as we who are responsible for discipling them will really disciple them. It’s not a matter of controlling their choices, but rather believing that principled choices are possible and then teaching them discernment to make choices.  The alternative is to leave them in a moral vacuum in which their habits are merely reactions to the pressures from popular culture.

Scripture speaks not only to the content but also the form of communication. One foundational statement is Philippians 4:8: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there is anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”

Notice that the text does not say to meditate on what we think or feel is good, but what is good. That implies that things in human culture have objective qualities rooted in creation that allow us to recognize their goodness, and distinguish them from what is not good. Likewise, I Thessalonians 5:21 says, “But examine everything carefully; hold fast to that which is good.” And I Timothy 3:16-17 puts every area of a Christian’s life under the governing care of Scripture.

It’s worth noting that typically the people who argue that music style is completely amoral are Christians who want to justify the use of rock music and its offshoots. Non-Christians come right out and say what they are doing with their music styles. Time magazine captured it well: “In a sense, all rock is revolutionary. By its very beat and sound it has always implicitly rejected restraints and has celebrated freedom and sexuality.”

Similar observations have been made many times by many other advocates. In light of that, consider the following questions:

Since how we communicate matters, what puts music style in a special category that shields it from moral discernment?

Given that certain music styles are well suited to expressing rebellion and other attitudes antithetical to the Bible, how is it that those styles can still be appropriate for Christians?

When Christians use such music styles to communicate truth, is the medium in harmony with the words, or is it fighting the words?

How do we make sense of Scriptures such as Philippians 4:8 and I Thessalonians 5:21 if music style choices are only personal preferences?

It is not essential that every Christian make exactly the same music choices in order to be faithful. Nor are such choices always clear or easy. They are not. They require humility and careful thinking because we are not infallible. But by replacing personal preferences with principled judgments from Scripture, we can give our children the preparation to make wise choices. How is that done? Feel free to add your comment and explore that question.

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14 Responses to Why Rap is Reminding Us to Disciple our Children

  1. Mackman,

    I’m starting a new thread because it looks like your attempt didn’t work for some reason.

    Yes, I see exactly where you are pointing with your analogy of the flint knives. It was helpful in clarifying the issue. However, I don’t think that it applies to rock and rap for two reasons. First, it fails to distinguish rock and rap from other music styles. To say that rock evokes energy and action says nothing that cannot also be said about the “Hallelujah” chorus from Handel’s Messiah, a Spanish flamenco dance or even a Sousa march–all fundamentally different from rock in other ways.

    Second, it ignores evidence that rock has intrinsic musical qualities. Besides the many statements from rock performers, I’ll cite Simon Frith, a highly respected socio-musicologist. Frith is a former rock critic and currently Tovey Chair of Music at the University of Edinburgh. He speaks with unusual credibility because he is an expert on rock but does not have a vested interest in its production; it’s not his music.

    In his book, Sound Effects, Youth Leisure and the Politics of Rock, Frith writes, “Rock is made in order to have emotional social, physical, and commercial results; it is not music made ‘for its own sake.’ Rock is in a sense, primitive. It uses a primitive understanding of how sound effects and rhythms—prelinguistic devices—have their emotional and physical effects. Ignorance of how their music makes sense certainly puts no limit on a rock audience’s appreciation. The response is to a large degree physical. The rock experience is essentially erotic.”

    What Frith is saying is true regardless of what rock performers want their music to do or what they associate with it. It is an intrinsic quality. It might look different in a different culture, or if Christians try to use it, but its essence does not change.

    In his book, All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, Ken Myers sharpens the focus further: “If I say that I like Bach and you say that you like Bon Jovi, are we really using the same verb? When I listen to Bach and you listen to Bon Jovi, is essentially the same thing happening to each of us? At one level, all we mean is that each of us takes pleasure in listening to our respective music. But there are many ways of taking pleasure, not all of them comparable, and not all of them morally good.”

    This discussion is helping sharpen my understanding; I hope it is helpful to you and others as well. There are other topics besides rock’s eroticism that deserve scrutiny, but this illustrates my point that there are qualities in music that require moral judgments. In my opinion, that is where the discussion ought to begin.

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    • Mackman says:

      Stephen,

      First off: In light of my example, can we agree that the origin of rock/rap IN AND OF ITSELF, and the intent of the original creators IN AND OF ITSELF, are not valid critiques of the inherent value or morality of rock/rap music? Since we’ve established that something morally neutral (useful for good or evil) can come from an evil culture, can we agree that “Rock is evil because just look why rock was created in the first place!!!!” is not valid?

      Secondly, the first part of that quote is straight-up nonsensical. Practically ALL music is made “in order to have emotional, social, physical, [or] commercial results”, meaning that according to his qualifications, virtually no music is made “just for its own sake”. (If you’re tempted to disagree with that, remember that the very reason people like Scott support hymns over rock is because of the emotional response they evoke).

      Thirdly: In that quote, he jumps straight from “emotional and physical responses” to “primarily physical” to “erotic,” with absolutely no justification for making those jumps. In fact, in that quote, one could be excused for thinking that he was doing nothing more than equating “evoking physical response” with “erotic.” I would need a LOT more info on several things:
      1: What physical and emotional responses “rock” evokes,
      2: What aspects of “rock” evokes these responses.
      And most importantly: What does he mean when he says “rock”?

      I mean, is it the mere presence of an electric guitar that evokes erotica? is it certain chords? Is it certain chords, played to a certain rhythm, with a certain drum beat in the background? Where does the erotica lie?

      Which brings me to Fourthly: If we’re going to assign THAT much significance to genre, we’re going to need to be a whole heck of a lot more careful in how we assign genre. If we’re going to say “Rock, by its nature, is erotic,” then when we’re categorizing songs as “rock” or “not-rock,” we’re going to need to make sure that only songs that possess the erotic qualities (that we’ve (hypothetically) discovered) go into the “rock” category.

      Finally, I am extremely skeptical of this, merely because of how absurdly HUGE the rock and rap genres are.

      For example, on one spectrum of rap, we have the most misogynistic, hateful garbage you can think of. And the other side of rap, we have Beautiful Eulogy.

      “Acquired in Heaven”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7zy7a9E-L7M

      I really hope you aren’t going to place them in the same category. If you do, I don’t see us getting any closer to agreement.

      And in rock, we have on one side the most filthy, rebellious song you can think of: And on the other side, we have the OC Supertones;

      “WIlderness”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3Bqt02R7H-c (forgive the corny video: it has the lyrics on it as well)

      And in a DIFFERENT section of rock, we have Switchfoot:

      “Economy of Mercy”: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3ajA1Mwh8_Q

      When you have a genre that stretches THAT wide, I’m going to be extremely skeptical of anything that claims any one thing, positive OR negative, about the entire genre. If you’re going to make a claim of inherent moral value, that category has to be EXTREMELY well-defined.

      Do you understand where I’m coming from? Do you understand my skepticism?

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      • Mackman,

        Yes, we can agree that the origin of rock and rap does not in and of itself determine the morality of those forms. I would caution that the purposes behind the development of rock does provide important information that is consistent with the character of those forms.

        In the first part of Frith’s comment, he was simply putting rock in the context of music created to achieve certain effects, so it made sense in that way. If you want to understand how he drew his conclusion, then I suggest that you pick up a copy of his book. As a widely quoted and respected scholar, he knows how to substantiate his findings.

        Now to your third and fourth points. Your questions are valid and deserve answers. I’ll rephrase them this way: what musical components might there be that, when used in certain ways, inherently evoke morally unacceptable responses, and how do they evoke those responses?

        It’s true that rock is difficult to define. Rather than wrasslin that slippery pig, it makes better sense to focus on qualities of the music in question rather than categories. Let’s take a look at a few characteristics and their implications for moral judgments. I think you’ll agree that they are either characteristic or common in rock and the many other music forms it has influenced.

        1) Rhythm is dominant over melody and harmony; 2) the nature of the rhythm is a backbeat (accent on the second and fourth beats of each measure); 3) high volume, including vocal and instrumental. Another more general identifying quality is incessant repetition: rhythmic, melodic and harmonic, and little or no dynamic in volume. (Even key modulations are relatively rare). Furthermore, combined with the electric guitar, digital sound mixing has made possible and very common an almost limitless versatility of expression of specific moods and attitudes.

        Now let’s consider some moral implications of these qualities. Sensuality is a key word in this discussion, so I’ll start by offering a definition. To say that something is sensual does not necessarily mean that it is sexual, though that is often included. The standard dictionary definition of “sensual” includes: a preoccupation with the physical, or given to the gratification of physical appetites.

        Rhythm is primarily what evokes a physical response in music. Music in which the beat is dominant is preoccupied with the physical. Its effect on the hearer is aimed at the same response: a preoccupation with the physical or predisposing to the gratification of physical appetites. In that way, it is sensual. This kind of preoccupation and predisposition is in direct conflict with the habits of thinking outlined for Jesus’ disciples in Scripture.

        A related problem in music with an incessant high volume and dominant, repetitious rhythm is that it actually suppresses rational thinking. Even if the words carry intellectual messages, the message is carried through the primary appeal to the physical.

        Charles Reich, an ardent proponent of social revolution in the early 1970’s, recognized, as have many other pro-rock commentators, the anti-intellectual quality of rock. In The Greening of America, Reich wrote, “The older music was essentially intellectual; it was located in the mind and in the feelings known to the mind; the new music rocks the whole body and penetrates the soul.” He believed that the new music (rock), was the perfect medium for the revolution he envisioned, which he said was “deeply suspicious of logic, rationality, analysis and of principles.”

        It’s a given that music can evoke a wide range of human emotions and attitudes. Therefore, we must admit at least the likelihood of that including specific ones. And in fact, the human voice alone is capable of tonal inflections that can communicate very specific and clear meanings, including erotic insinuations. Given the capability of digital recording and mixing, it should not be hard to admit that moral messages can be communicated non-verbally.

        This is illustrated by one Newsweek writer who sat in at a recording session of a studio which specialized in ‘radially reshaping a band’s texture, sound and style’ electronically. “After employing many sophisticated techniques, spending thousands of dollars in recording time, and observing the band’s body movements, the ‘wizards’ finally arrived at their desired sound. How did they describe it? ‘An X-rated, solid gold ‘riff.’” (Jim Miller, “The Wizards of Sound,” Newsweek, 10 September 1984, p. 67).

        In his book, It’s Rock ‘n’ Roll, pro-rock author Gene Busnar observed that the music form that late developed into rock had always included a pounding beat. He further noted that the term “rock and roll” had been explicitly used to refer to physical sex. Since that music always used a backbeat rhythm, the connection between that rhythm and the erotic element in rock is made clearer when seen in light of the origin of rock.

        The motions that people naturally make in response to a music style are also good indicators of what the music is saying. I am told by those who go to strip clubs that rock music is the standard style used to accompany the dancer’s acts. Why is that? It’s not merely that it’s “energetic” and “evokes action and movement,” as you explained the nature of rock. “What kind of movement?” is a better question. The many people who say rock is erotic, and who don’t care about the morality of it, those people are not merely responding to what they want to be true. They are responding to what is really there.

        To wrap it up, I close with an illuminating quote from Ellen Willis, who wrote many articles on rock for New Yorker magazine. “Although the music has changed over the years, the rebellious urges that created it remain the same . . . . I was reminded once more of the basic appeal of rock and roll—its irreverent, nose-thumbing quality. Everything about early rock and roll, from the sexy beat and sexy lyrics to Little Richard’s scream and Elvis’s hips and Jerry Lee Lewis’s anarchic piano. . . .Rock and roll was still fun, but it was something more—the lingua franca of a great cultural upheaval.”

        I cannot explain every connection between musical characteristics and their moral implications. Expecting that level of proof is a bit like asking me to prove that people fall in love by explaining all the bio-chemical changes in their brains when they’re together. This should be enough to substantiate that music has qualities that require our moral discernment and judgments. I’ll just ask you to give this some careful thought.

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  2. Will Arndt says:

    I concur on the idea of discipline kids. However, I believe that music is amoral from a theological standpoint. Only things infused with morality can be said to be moral or immoral. That includes mankind and at one time angels (they now seem confirmed in their morality). This position seems to best deal with the teachings of Christ and leave the fewest inconsistencies for a believer. The position taken by fundamentalist is full of holes, religious posturing, and proof texting that does the movement no favors. One need only scratch the surface of a critics life to uncover massive inconsistencies. In my discussions, challenging people to go hard after God and loving Christ is the solution to this debate. It will look differently in different people and we have to trust the Holy Spirit to so His work.

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    • Will,

      Not long ago I received further response to your comment, so even now it might help to clarify some points. Wouldn’t you agree that music itself is a form of communication, conveying attitudes, ideas and feelings? With all that Scripture says about the morality of communication, I wonder how you arrived at your conclusion of moral relativism in music.

      My hope was that readers would interact with ideas in the post, as for example in seriously engaging with the questions I posed. Instead, you launched attacks on the character of unnamed fundamentalists. That’s sad. Certainly there is room for differences in how Christ-followers discern morally good music from bad. But the notion that music has no moral qualities at all strikes me as Biblically incoherent.

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  3. Mackman,

    In the quote you cited, Chesterton was giving a special meaning to “rebellion” to make a point. I understand and agree with that point. But that does not change what non-Christian rock advocates mean, nor what the Bible means. The Bible never actually tells us to rebel against Satan, because he is a usurper. You can really only rebel against the rightful ruler, which is God. The Bible tells Christians to resist Satan, which is the appropriate description, and very different from the idea of rebellion in the rock music style.

    The context of “rebellion” as I used it was the same as the way rock advocates typically use it. Look at the quote again: “In a sense, all rock is revolutionary. By its very beat and sound it has always implicitly rejected restraints and has celebrated freedom and sexuality.” That is the context and meaning that non-Christian rock advocates and performers consistently give to the term “rebellion,” and what they mean is consistently incompatible with the Scriptural conception of disciple-life. According to them, you can take the words out and the music still says the same thing. So if you take rock music style with its implicit “no-one-will-tell-me-what-to-do” attitude and try to import your Christianized version of resisting Satan/evil, you have a dissonant result.

    The same goes for sensuality. I don’t see how you can argue that sensuality could be acceptable for a Christian unless you inject a meaning that is both incompatible with the way Scripture uses the term and the way non-Christian rock advocates describe their music style.

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    • Mackman says:

      “The same goes for sensuality. I don’t see how you can argue that sensuality could be acceptable for a Christian unless you inject a meaning that is both incompatible with the way Scripture uses the term and the way non-Christian rock advocates describe their music style.”

      You would disagree, then, that sensuality has a proper place in the bedroom of a married couple?

      That’s the problem with blanket statements. It’s all about context. It’s all about WHO you’re rebelling against. In defining “rebel”, you’re giving it a context that is not inherent to the word: That of a “rightful ruler.” Can a people under a despot not actually “rebel,” then? That would be the logical consequence of your definition…but if so, then your definition seems crucially flawed.

      Finally, you seem to be taking their word for granted about what rock music “means”. Can we see some arguments for that? Can we see some arguments that an electric guitar inherently communicates something–positive or negative–about human sexuality?

      Bonus question: If a Christian movie director who shared your views used a brief snippet of rock music in order to demonstrate that a character was sinful, would that use of rock music be sinful? I’m curious about your answer.

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      • Mackman,

        To your first question, I do disagree, because Scripture never uses the word “sensuality” or anything like it in connection with sexual fulfillment in marriage, but always to refer to illicit desires or indulgence. Your argument is in trouble there.

        To your point about the meaning of rebellion. I was not giving a blanket definition, but only showing that your definition is incompatible with the one inherent in the rock music style, as defined by its non-Christian advocates.

        To your challenge for “some arguments that an electric guitar inherently communicates something–positive or negative–about human sexuality,” no, I don’t need arguments for that because I am not making that claim. It’s how the instruments are used and the effects they achieve that is at issue.

        I do think that the performers, producers, recording engineers, and rock commentators and critics are in the best position to explain what rock is all about. They don’t have an axe to grind. I can provide you with more detailed quotes and sources that elaborate on exactly how and why rock does what they say it does, if you are really interested. If you can’t take their word for it, I’m not sure what arguments would satisfy you.

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      • Mackman says:

        Question: Since the opinion of NON-Christian “performers, producers, recording engineers, and rock commentators and critics” is to be trusted on what their music conveys, is the opinion of the Christian artists who produce Christian rock/rap also to be trusted?

        I guess that’s the only question I have for you, and I’d love an answer.

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        • It is hard for any of us, including me, to be objective about things that we love. I do not question a Christian sister or brother’s sincerity on this topic or desire to serve God with music. But I am not inclined to accept their assessments at face value unless they directly engage the arguments from their sisters and brothers who make the case for moral discernment of music styles. I’m speaking here about taking seriously what non-Christian experts say about rock and viewing that in light of Scripture.

          I’ve read statements by Frank Breeden and John Styll, past presidents of the Gospel Music Association, and others, who do not even accurately state the claims about the problems with rock and rap. I believe that part of the reason is the corrupting effect of commercialization on Christian music. GMA has been a prime mover in that process. They have too much to lose to be objective, whereas non-Christian producers of rock and rap have little or nothing to lose.

          Shai Linne is at least seriously engaging the arguments, so he has some credibility, in my opinion.

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          • Mackman says:

            The biggest problem with all of the arguments that are against rap and rock are this:

            They use EXTREMELY loaded terms.

            -They say it expresses “fits of anger”, instead of “anger.”

            -They say it expresses “rebellion” instead of “resistance” or “defiance.”

            The critics take a GENERIC emotion or action, one that can be used for good or evil, and merely because it’s used in rock or rap, they replace that emotion with a contextually loaded one that is always evil. And then they justify it by pointing to musicians who WANTED to display those loaded terms, and put their music in a context that DID display those loaded terms.

            The context is ALWAYS important. And even if you disagree with what I posted above, please look at this easier example, and it might help me explain it a bit better.

            A sunrise evokes “reverence” in a lot of people, right? Have you ever looked at a sunrise and felt moved to meditate on the glory of God? Reverence is good, right?

            Well, in a Christian context, yes. Reverence towards the one true God is good.

            But when placed in a pagan context, a sunrise can move people to meditate on the glory of , or the glory of pantheism, or…etc.

            That means that “reverence,” as an action or mood or emotion, is not good OR evil in and of itself. it ALL depends on CONTEXT.Because it is the OBJECT of that reverence that determines the sinfulness or righteousness of the feeling.

            Do you see the distinction I’m making?

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            • Yes, I understand your distinction, and it is a valid one. But it is not relevant here because the commentators, producers and performers that I am referencing are not using words the way that you describe.

              They are specific about what their terms are referring to. They describe the rock style as expressing “raunchy, sweaty sex. “ They talk about its “reverence for the instinctual, the visceral—and a distrust of reason and logic.” They observe that, “Rock was the music of rebellion—against parents, against the establishment, against social restraints.” And these quotes are from people who like rock.

              Think about it: was it a coincidence that the people who want to speak against restraints on various forms of self indulgence just happen to select a music style that communicated the same message? What is it about such a style that makes it suitable for a Christian?

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            • Mackman says:

              Replying to your comment here, so we can avoid the ridiculousness of an ever-narrowing string of text.

              Of course it wasn’t a coincidence. What else would music that desired to express action and energy sound like?

              I think that they used that kind of music because it is a very energetic style of music. It’s something that evokes movement, that evokes action. And I think that they used that to portray the sinful desires and actions that they wanted to portray.

              However, you can’t take their words on it when they’re affirming that THEIR music portrayed what they wanted it to portray. That’s the only thing they used it for, so of course that’s what they associate with it.

              Here’s an example (there has to be a simpler example, but this is all I can think of right now, so PLEASE, stay with me):

              Let’s do a hypothetical Stone Age. A violent people invent a tool that allows them to sharpen rocks into flint knives. This has never happened before, and soon they’re cranking out knives by the dozen. That’s all they’ve used that tool for, so in their minds, it is ONLY a tool for creating weapons. They use it to kill and maim people, and they talk about how great it is that they’ve discovered this awesome knife-making tool.

              There’s also a pacifistic people. They hear about this new tool, and they abhor it as an instrument of violence. However, someone soon discovers that the tool, which had previously been known only as an instrument of violence, can also be used to sharpen hoes, shovels, and other farming implements.

              The tool, which came out of a culture of violence, that had previously only known one use–an evil use of violence and death–was actually revealed to be a lot less specific. Instead of a tool for making knives, it was merely a tool for sharpening. It could be used for good or ill, to make weapons or plows.

              You’ve been very sporting about this, so I want to know: Do you see where I’m going with this? Do you think it’s fair to apply that argument to rap or rock? If not, why not?

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  4. Mackman says:

    I’ve been participating a lot in the comments section over at Scott’s blog, and I want to clarify something:

    You say “Given that certain music styles are well suited to expressing rebellion and other attitudes antithetical to the Bible, how is it that those styles can still be appropriate for Christians?”

    That is the fundamental misunderstanding that this discussion hangs on. You give “rebellion” as just one example of an attitude “antithetical to the Bible,” which is utterly without basis.

    “Rebellion,” divorced from context, is neither good nor evil. You can rebel *against God*, which is evil. Or you can rebel *against the ruler of this world*, as John 12 calls Satan. You can rebel against anything, really, and whether it’s a good or evil action depends entirely on what you’re rebelling against, and how you choose to rebel: not on the sheer act of “rebelling” in and of itself.

    In fact, part of the reason I love Christian rock and rap is the sense of defiance that certain musical chords and instruments summon up. In the words of G. K. Chesterton:

    “To the orthodox there must always be a case for revolution; for in the hearts of men God has been put under the feet of Satan. In the upper world hell once rebelled against heaven. But in this world heaven is rebelling against hell. For the orthodox there can always be a revolution; for a revolution is a restoration. At any instant you may strike a blow for the perfection which no man has seen since Adam.” (“Orthodoxy”)

    If you use the music to express rebellion against God, against the right and proper ruler of the universe, then you are in sin. But if you use the music to express rebellion and defiance against the slavery of sin, against “the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places,” against “the ruler of the kingdom of the air,” then you are indeed striking a blow on the side of the righteous.

    The exact same need for context applies for each and every “negative” attribute people hurl at rap or rock. Anger, passion, aggression, sensuality: Each of these have their place. They are things, to be used for good or for evil. Please stop acting as though they are evil in and of themselves.

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