Let me begin by saying I generally try my best to avoid Ben Shapiro on all social media. For years, I followed him on Twitter to just to get a sense of what was going on in right-wing intellectualism, but the casual implied racism and mountain of conservative apologism eventually drove me to muting him.
Generally, his hotter takes have been limited to politics and society, with cultural claims usually being limited to regressive notions of Americana. But for years, he has cultivated a take on rap music that finally came to a head when he spoke with (right-wing) rapper Zuby.
His claim is fairly simple: all music is made up of rhythm, melody and harmony. If it fails to satisfy all of these conditions, then it isn’t “real” music. To him, rap fulfills the category of rhythm, with only trace elements of melody or harmony.
Most music, including rap, has all of these elements, but what’s more important is establishing that there are not only endless counterexamples to this trichotomous theory of what is “music,” you could also name any number of other elements to music that are excluded.
Why do we listen to solo voice if it’s not really music? If there’s no presence of harmony, except maybe in our heads, then shouldn’t it suck? You could also think about all the drum music that relies almost solely on rhythm for its musical effect. In fact, most of its melody comes from the rhythm itself.
Wait, aren’t melody and rhythm separate? Well, even though Ben appears to believe they are, the unequivocal answer is no. Melody is partially composed of rhythm, with pitch also factoring in.
This next point is one I cannot stress enough: these categories that Shapiro constructs are not mutually exclusive, which he appears to portray them as. He seems to think of them as distinct entities that make up music, rather than as interweaving components.
Let’s say, hypothetically, that this theory of music has any grounding reality. His claim, again, is that rap cannot be considered music because it is light on the harmony and melody, yet heavy on the rhythm.
Not only is the theoretical basis for his argument false, so is his application of it.
The argument that rap places too much emphasis on rhythm is old and tired, and has been abandoned by most rational music commentators. The vocal performances are rhythmic, yes, but again, you need a rhythm to make a melody. Saying it’s devoid of harmony is also a total misrepresentation, given that there will almost always be backing instrumentation.
Lots of modern rap has also begun to move toward larger, powerful vocals that place greater emphasis on pitch. Many artists in the emo-rap genre, like Juice WRLD, are rarely monotonous. A number of prominent rappers have embraced genre-fusion and live instrumentation, such as Kendrick Lamar on “To Pimp a Butterfly.”
More unorthodox rappers like Tyler the Creator will often pair unusual or unorthodox production styles that change the tone quality of their voice, or rely more heavily on dynamic contrasts for effect.
What Ben Shapiro’s theory represents is an outdated, ethnocentric viewpoint on modern American music. It’s designed to exclude what he and the old guard of American social attitudes don’t like, the volume and power of minorities. After every generation, this group slowly watches their “values” slip away from them.
For reference on how far back this kind of thinking goes, consider the fact that Shapiro derived this theory from his dad. Apparently, his dad not only has a music theory degree, but went to music school (quoting from him on this one), which means that we have to take his opinion as being informed.
I hate to break it to you Ben, but your dad’s degree doesn’t grant you authority on things he studied, or that his opinions on abstract topics are automatically correct. It just so happens that I also have a dad and a mom with a couple music degrees. But their years of study and decades of building expertise do not grant me the license to make incorrect statements as if I have authority by proxy.
What I understand or argue related to music comes from my own experience playing an instrument, listening across genres, and not dismissive and antagonizing towards what I don’t like. I feel as though I can comment and discuss rap because, unlike Shapiro, I actually listen to it.
That’s not even a rhetorical exaggeration. Shapiro has conceded he doesn’t even know very much about the genre. Just that when he has listened to it, he didn’t like it.
I will admit that I don’t have a definition of music, or even a solid set of parameters for what constitutes it. Cultural concepts are not constant or easily indexed, and like I said before, I don’t really have enough experience as an artist to make extremely bold claims with the proper substantiation.
If I had to decide on the spot if I would call rap “music,” I would probably side with whoever has actually received recognition that their work and presence in the field is important. So, that means I would end up siding with the guy who has a Pulitzer.
That would be Kendrick Lamar, by the way, who won the award in 2018 even with “only rhythm” on his side. Last time I checked, Shapiro (and his dad, for that matter) and his lib-destroying books are still waiting to make the longlist.
Maybe one day Shapiro will clarify his theory a little more, and find some way to make it even somewhat coherent. Until that day comes, though, the backlash he faces whenever he opens his mouth on this subject will continue to be music to my ears.