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The Language of the Unheard

Recently, a video of a conversation between The Daily Show host Trever Noah and rapper T.I. went viral. In the snippet, Noah presses T.I. about the content of his new song and video, “Warzone.” The controversial “War Zone” video portrays an alternate reality where a young white male who lives in the suburbs is shot and killed for playing with a toy gun on the playground (closely resembling the circumstances surrounding the death of 12-year old Tamir Rice in 2014). 

After talking a bit about the hip hop video’s affect, Noah transitions into a more nuanced discussion of the  genre, asking “…I’m a huge hip-hop fan. You get people who say, ‘I hear you guys saying you want justice...but in hip-hop people are talking about guns and shooting.’ How do you reply to it?” T.I. responds with conversational jujitsu, turning Noah’s question on its head, defending the artform and exposing the flawed thinking behind such questions.

“People need to take into consideration that hip-hop, traditionally, has always been a reflection of the environment of the artist... So if you want to change the content of the music, change the environment of the artist and he won’t have such negative things to say,” T.I. retorts. 

I want to say that I am here for T.I. I am here for him because he does not offer a lengthy explanation or a strategic narration. Instead, T.I. highlights the underlying circumstances that create unhealthy and resource-deprived environments for Black and Brown people. Many politicians, pranksters, and pundits stumble into the very pitfall that Noah displays in the segment from “The Daily Show.” In reaction to indictments against systems of brutality and economic and political exploitation, many people raise the question: “But what about Black on Black crime?”

While Noah does not explicitly inquire about the rates of intra-group violence among people of African descent, the tone of his question falls along similar lines. Noah essentially asks: “How can you say ‘Black Lives Matter’ when you indirectly contribute to the death of Black people?’ The problem with this logic isn’t just that it does not account for the fact that people harm the people with whom they are geographically closest, but that it completely ignores (or mistakenly overlooks) the very real effects of state-sanctioned violence, inadequate education, and manufactured scarcity. These factors ought to be the beginning point for any conversation about hip-hop music.

As T.I. rightly points out, since its genesis, Hip-hop has always been about giving voice to the reality of people’s daily struggles and experiences. To ask why the genre glorifies violence is to absolve power-holders and law-makers of guilt and to displace the blame onto the very people that are harmed by those agents.

T.I.’s conversational jujitsu should give us all pause — those of us in the Academy, in the streets, and in the office. His answer is akin to Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s profession that “A riot is the language of the unheard” in a 1966 interview. It also echoes King’s indignation, when during his 1968 speech The other America, he says, “…it is not enough for me to stand before you tonight and condemn riots. It would be morally irresponsible for me to do that without, at the same time, condemning the contingent, intolerable conditions that exist in our society. These conditions are the things that cause individuals to feel that they have no other alternative than to engage in violent rebellions to get attention. And I must say tonight that a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the negro poor has worsened over the last twelve or fifteen years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice and humanity.”

Maybe we should listen to T.I. Maybe we should pause and consider that Hip-hop is “the language of the unheard.”