Why Hip Hop Culture Needs Mumble Rap

Lately, a new class of hip hop artist has come under fire for purportedly taking “[the] culture for a joke.”  The culprits? A broad category of rappers, mostly young, that prefer harmonious, heavily slurred rapping patterns over the gilded ‘90s flow of lore. The bashers use the now popular moniker “Mumble Rap” as the nebulous unifier to berate the artists arbitrarily placed within the subgenre. “It’s bad for the culture!” they say as Lil Uzi Vert, Kodak Black, or even Lil Wayne attract throngs of followers through their indiscernible garble.  Aesthetically speaking, if the aforementioned were to be compared to their predecessors, a viable argument could be made. It’s true. Playboi Carti’s “Magnolia” and Big Daddy Kane’s “Smooth Operator” are dissimilar in style and in subject matter. But, if this musical strain is placed within the broader context of hip hop history, this recent musical turn just might be the creative outlet this rising generation needs, for their sake and the sake of the rest of the hip hop community.

I’m not sure how it began, but mumble rap as a pejorative has been used by self-proclaimed hip hop stalwarts for over a year now. Memes and Facebook videos overflow with antagonistic content. Rappers themselves even joined in. New York rap legend Pete Rock notoriously lambasted trending star Lil Yachty a few months back, claiming the 19-year-old has no respect for the movement that aided his stardom. Joe Budden had his own temper tantrum as the same young rapper deflected the elder’s admonishment noting his lack of investment. Despite his misguided rage, Budden had a point. He was correct to acknowledge a lack of investment. However, Yachty and the movement he represents isn’t to blame. Ironically, while stylistically different, this new class is more like their hip hop forefathers who, with diminishing art resources, are expressing themselves the only way they can.

Investment in arts education for our poor, black and brown youth has eroded in our nation’s public schools. For close to two decades, the dwindling relevance of arts education in many struggling school systems stemmed not only from their resource strapped status, but also from the decisions of these institutions that were driven by a broader school accountability system mandated by the federal No Child Left Behind Act, which prioritized measuring accountability and achievement based on state assessments in two major subject areas--Reading and Math. While noble in its intention, the mandate’s de facto ‘no excuses’ policy made it difficult for students to develop important skills that would thrive in a curriculum enriched with arts education.

Granted, this ‘no-excuse’ model had a profound effect in increasing the achievement of some poor, black and brown students. But, its implications prove startling as the model encourages behaviors that contribute to the widening of class stratification. Because the model stresses order and a highly structured disciplinary system, certain working-class behaviors (i.e. obedience, deference, mildness) are favored over others found more prominently in middle to upper class settings. Skills such as creativity, independence, and assertiveness aren’t nurtured, a problem only compounded by the diminished role of the arts.  

This isn’t the only time the youth were deprived of creative expression. In the 1970s, New York City funding cuts had a harmful effect on school’s ability to provide students with basic courses in core art areas, including the visual arts, music, dance and theater. With very little as creative outlet, youth turned to hip hop one of the only artistic alternatives at the time. Visual arts took the form of graffitied railway cars, dancers turned B Boys, and house parties evolved into theatrical DJ/emcee performances. A new, vibrant art form was birthed out of perceived squalor and very real neglect.

Despite the generational distance, it comes as no surprise that today’s youth are following in the steps of hip hop pioneers as they birth their own forms of inventive expression. For them, silence isn’t an option anymore. Their creative freedom is at stake. 

Last Saturday, I watched as my younger brother and his crew performed in a tightly packed room that could comfortably fit eight. The size wasn't a deterrent because during his performance it held five times as much. The room was alive as the crowd rocked in unison. In that fleeting ten-minute set, years of regiment lifted. Their bodies wriggling free from control contorted in praise. So what, I couldn’t catch every syllable. They were free, breathing fresh air in a culture and society that needs it. Arts education be damned. 

No matter the age, Hip Hop has been a platform for uplift in the face of institutional neglect. Let us remember that the next time we have something to say about Mumble Rap.