Hip Hop’s Challenge to Traditional Aesthetics: Empowerment and Music

David Hume’s aesthetic theory posits that art should appeal to a common morality and a universal human nature. Hip-Hop uncovers the false assumptions that underlie Hume’s theories of artistic value.

Sep 10, 2022By Sam Murphy, BA Philosophy
Hip hop challenge to traditional aesthetics music

 

Determining artistic value has always been at the cornerstone of the philosophy of art. Philosophers want to answer an important question: What is it that makes an artwork beautiful? How do we judge something to be a masterpiece? The variety of answers to this question have led to different schools of thought within aesthetics. In this article, we will first go through a traditional answer to aesthetics’ main questions proposed by Scottish philosopher David Hume. Afterwards, we will explore how hip hop’s artistic value poses a problem to traditional aesthetic assumptions in western philosophy.

 

David Hume’s Aesthetics: An Overview

David Hume Oil Canvas Allan Ramsay Scottish 1766
Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1766, via Encyclopaedia Britannica.

 

An important contributor to the answers to these lofty questions is none other than David Hume. Hume was an 18th Century Enlightenment Philosopher who had plenty to say on all branches of philosophy at the time. When it comes to Aesthetics, his essay Of the Standard of Taste aimed to answer how we can judge art’s value.

 

As an empiricist, Hume attempted to ground the arguments in his findings within the real world. For Hume, a masterpiece is a work of art which a consensus of ideal critics agree is worthy of the title. An ideal critic is skilled in the medium of art they judge, and free from prejudice in their judgement.

 

In many ways, Hume’s argument based on the ideal critic is valuable. He finds a way in which artworks can be judged without appealing to their material or formal qualities. Nonetheless, his mode of judgement is still grounded in an empirical analysis.

 

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However, when one looks at Hume’s aesthetics from the modern eye things start to become questionable. Hume grounds his theory on an appeal to a universal human nature. This means that for Hume, art should have universal appeal across cultural and historical barriers. But is this really a valid requirement for art?

 

Hip-Hop’s Challenge to Hume’s Aesthetics

NWA Group Photo LA Aesthetics
The Rap Group ‘N.W.A’ posing for a photograph in LA, via the LA Times.

 

Let’s turn our attention to the world of hip-hop and its aesthetics. If you ask any young music lover whether hip-hop is an artform, the question will appear almost nonsensical. Of course it is! There have been plenty of hip-hop albums which critics and fans alike consider masterpieces. So, it should follow that hip-hop’s artistic value is compatible with Hume’s aesthetics, right? The actual answer is not so clear.

 

When we think of hip-hop’s origins, there is no way in which it cannot be linked to its historical and political origins. Songs such as N.W.A’s “F*** tha Police” or “Mathematics” by Mos Def highlight the political underpinnings of the ‘Black’ experience explored in the genre. While general audiences may listen to hip-hop for catchy beats and flows, its true value is found in its lyrical content.

 

mos def photograph aesthetics
Rapper Mos Def, photograph by Tuomas Vitikainen, via Wikimedia Commons.

 

Part of hip-hop’s lyrical appeal is the fact that it refuses to conform with mainstream opinions and sentiments. Plenty of hip-hop artists aim to make music solely for Black audiences. Artists such as Noname have expressed their disapproval of performing for white audiences, who aren’t the intended listeners for her music.

 

When we think of these examples in hip-hop, it’s hard to see how they are compatible with Hume’s ideas on aesthetic value. Some hip-hop artists have no interest in appealing to a universal audience, and why should they? The political undertones of hip-hop songs aren’t designed to appeal to everyone. Should it really be such a stringent requirement that great art needs to appeal to everyone?

 

Hume’s Thoughts on Morality in Art 

Painting David Hume Pink Hat
Portrait of David Hume by Allan Ramsay, 1754, via National Galleries Scotland, Edinburgh

 

The problems with Hume’s aesthetics in relation to hip-hop don’t stop at the fact that hip-hop music is not intended to appeal to a general audience. Hume also maintains that moral commitments can interfere with an ideal critic’s aesthetic judgement. Imagine the main character in a play commits an immoral act and the audience are expected to align with his decision. Hume would argue this would be enough reason to devalue an artwork.

 

Hip-hop is notorious for presenting its audience with sentiments which offend the morals of the mainstream. We need look no further than a Fox News discussion about Kendrick Lamar to prove this:

 

Lamar stated his views on police brutality with that line in the song
Quote “and we hate the popo, wanna kill us in the street fo’ sho'”

 

‘Not helpful at all to say the least. Not helpful at all. This is why I say that hip-hop has done more damage to young African Americans than racism in recent years’ 

 

Kendrick Lamar Heart Part V Aesthetics
Still from ‘The Heart Part V’ Music Video by Kendrick Lamar, via NBC News.

 

The question of morals in Hip-Hop is a nuanced one. Often the genre’s moral compass reflects the Institutional racism that leads to this perceived ‘immorality’. For instance, consider the prevalence of police brutality against African Americans. It’s consistent that a hip-hop artist will have anti-police sentiments given this fact and they should be allowed to express it. But for Hume, this could hinder hip-hop songs from being artistically valuable.

 

What Can We Learn from Hip-Hop’s Challenge to Hume? 

Outkast Stankonia Album Cover
Album Cover for ‘Stankonia’ by Outkast, via NPR.

 

Hip-hop places great pressure on traditional aesthetics due to its narrow cultural focus and its tendency to go against mainstream moral opinion. But to argue that this should disqualify masterpieces of hip-hop from being artistically valuable is absurd. Hip-hop artists have the right to empower themselves through artistic expression, and traditional philosophical ideas shouldn’t get in the way of this.

 

However, perhaps hip-hop’s challenges to Hume’s aesthetics can uncover something about our traditional understanding of philosophy. Hume’s aesthetic ideas were centered on the perspective of his time and conditions. He wrote for upper class Europeans who could afford to spend all day reading philosophy. His ideas of human nature and aesthetics are entrenched in this privileged perspective. Hume’s idea of the purpose of art will inevitably be shaped by this historical reality.

 

John Willooughby de Broke Family
John, Fourteenth Lord Willoughby de Broke, and his Family by Johann Zoffany, 1766, via the Getty Museum.

 

Hip-Hop has a distinct aesthetic purpose in comparison to the world of art that Hume draws on for his theory. Hume never envisioned a popular art form which existed to affirm a neglected perspective to the world. When an artistic perspective is presented by an oppressed minority, it will inevitably clash with a mainstream perspective. However, it is exactly within this clash of perspectives that the wider value of hip-hop is found.

 

Hip-Hop’s True Artistic Value 

Crowd At Rally
Crowd at a Trump Rally, via the CA Times.

 

The reason hip-hop butts heads with Hume’s aesthetic theory is because its value can partly be found in what It uncovers about morality. Hip-hop has consistently aimed to challenge the status-quo of white America. In doing this, it must also challenge the reigning ethical standard of the American public.

 

Aside from its attention towards empowering Black perspectives, hip-hop also acts to expose. It exposes the hypocrisies of the dominant opinion and achieves its artistic standard in doing so. The shock of conservative white audiences towards hip-hop’s messaging is a way to ‘lift the veil’ on their prejudiced way of life.

 

WEB Du Bois Color Portrait
Photograph of W.E.B DuBois by Carl Van Vechten, via the Beinecke Rare Book and Manuscript Library, Yale University.

 

Sociologist W.E.B. Du Bois famously coined the term ‘second sight’. This term refers to the two modes in which African Americans see the world around them. They see themselves not only as they are, but as the rest of White America sees them too. Hip-hop is a means for them to affirm their true perspective without interference. In this sense, it is an act of empowerment.

 

If we take the perspective that great art should uncover something about society and ourselves, then hip-hop survives. Its poignant and direct messaging highlights the workings of white supremacy to a wide audience. In doing this, it’s bound to ruffle some feathers. Yet, this should be celebrated as a good thing!

 

Moving Forward in Artistic Expression

Columbus Taking Possession Of New Country
Columbus Taking Possession of The New Country, L. Prang & Co., 1893, via the Library of Congress.

 

In affirming their own perspective, African Americans also expose the dark underbelly of White America. Indirectly, they also corrode away at the colonial Eurocentric mindset of Western philosophy.

 

By exposing the dark truths of the reality of the Black perspective, hip-hop uncovers a new function for art within aesthetics. Hip-hop forces its white listener to reflect on the privilege that underpins their existence. It uncovers the hypocrisies and unfounded nature of philosophical appeals to human nature such as Hume’s.

 

Achieving aesthetic greatness through challenging the reigning ethical standard is something that Hume didn’t seem to envision. For Hume, one’s moral life shapes their entire existence. It makes sense that he would think that any art that challenges our morals is enough to discredit it. But through challenging the white moral standard, we bridge a link of understanding towards historically oppressed perspectives.

 

Martin Luther King Waves Crowd
Martin Luther King waving to his supporters in 1963, via the NYT.

 

Through this clash of perspectives, progress arises. By sharing the Black perspective in the form of art, problems of institutional racism and whiteness are brought to the forefront of cultural discussion. This means that people are becoming exceedingly more aware of the injustices that underpin the society they live in.

 

In my opinion, any artform that successfully challenges and widens your perspective is worthy of great aesthetic merit. The naysayers may argue that politics shouldn’t be bunched up with art. They may brand hip-hop as ‘propaganda’. If anything, hip-hop exposes the fact that all narrative art is propaganda. Any form of art that presents a moral world and expects you to align with their characters and opinions pushes you towards a perspective.

 

The Future of Aesthetics

Van Gogh Self Portrait
Self-Portrait with Grey Felt Hat by Vincent van Gogh, 1887, via the Van Gogh Museum.

 

While one may marvel at the beauty of a Van Gogh painting, we don’t discount it for not challenging our perspective. That’s not the goal of a Van Gogh painting. So why should we apply an archaic moral standard onto hip-hop, an artform that is not concerned with the same goals of Hume’s time?

 

Perhaps we should reconsider how we view an ideal critic of art. The ideal critic of classical music can’t be the same critic who judges hip-hop. In fact, the ideal critic of the average pop song can’t be an ideal critic for hip-hop either! By recognizing each artistic tradition as aiming towards its own goals, we save ourselves from ‘whitewashing’ the world of art like Hume.

 

museum interior eugene louis lami aesthetics
Interior of a Museum by Eugène-Louis Lami, 19th century, via the MET Museum

 

The perspective the Western world has consistently been fed is that of the white elite. Figures such as David Hume have inadvertently allowed for this perspective to be baked into what makes art great. By appealing to a universal human nature and a Western standard of morality, Hume undercuts plenty of art that may challenge one’s perspective.

 

Hip-hop highlights how this should never have been the case. Art that challenges us acts as an unparalleled tool for progress and unity. The doors of aesthetics are now widening to celebrate art from all traditions. Philosophy is finally catching up to the fact that not all art functions for the gaze of the colonial perspective.



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By Sam MurphyBA PhilosophySam is a philosopher with a passion for philosophy’s crossover with the world of art. His main interests include the philosophy of music, and the ideological undertones of art movements. He holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of Warwick. In his spare time, he composes music and writes about art.