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Footnote Records

Alan Lomax films children in Barbados

Rap Genius is the newest example in a long tradition of black music explained for whites, now with a neoliberal twist

Alan Lomax was not satisfied that Lead Belly was just playing a song. He wanted to know what the song meant, and suspected Lead Belly’s audiences felt the same. “What is ‘green corn,’ anyway? Tell us as you sing the song,” the folklorist asked the African-American musician born Huddie Ledbetter during a recording session for the Library of Congress in 1940. When Lead Belly continued to play “Green Corn” without explanation, Lomax asked again a few seconds later. “Green corn is yellow corn, when it’s green,” Lead Belly replied. According to music historian Greg Milner, while Lomax was fairly certain the song referred to green corn whiskey, Lead Belly was adamant that they were “just words in the song,” and that most people who sing it don’t even think about the words.”TNI Vol. 18: Family Planning is out soon. Subscribe for $2 and get it Monday. 

Alan’s father John had discovered Ledbetter several years earlier, when scouring the penitentiaries of the American South for “authentic” Negro folk songs, unaffected by the uplifting forces of jazz or the black churches. Lead Belly’s songs were musically complex and powerfully delivered, but those considerations were overshadowed by the fact that the tunes were also occasionally laden with tales of lawless behavior and sung in a regional dialect that often eluded the Lomaxes’ comprehension. The relationship was contentious, to say the least. They would force him to play in prison garb instead of the nice suits he preferred, and John adopted the nettlesome habit of staying onstage to “translate” the songs as Lead Belly played them. Such practices seem appalling to modern-day sensibilities. But at the time, African American blues and folk music was thought to come from a different world, and couldn’t stand on its own without translation into an idiom recognized by bourgeois white audiences.

The Lomaxes’ relationship with Lead Belly was primarily one of translating African-American music for mainstream audiences, and more than a half-century later, the practice remains. Today, rap culture is pop culture, but there still exists a strong desire to “decode” rap music’s meanings. And the translation is increasingly happening on the website Rap Genius. Founded in 2009, Rap Genius is a crowdsourced annotation website for rap lyrics. Start an account and accumulate “Rap IQ” points by providing explanations for bars, verses, even rappers’ single words. For the site’s visitors, clicking on a lyric brings up the associated annotation, like a virtual Alan Lomax guiding you through the tough thicket of rap meaning. Unsurprisingly, Rap Genius is beloved by lots of rap fans, tech nerds, and rappers themselves— RZA, Nas, and others have participated. This reflects the site’s usefulness as a just-in-time reference source for new music, and as an idea novel enough that the venture capital firm Andreessen Horowitz invested $15 million in it last year, cementing Rap Genius’ place as one of 2012’s biggest online music coups.

But Rap Genius presents problems old and new: Is the site’s network of lyric translators simply sitting side-stage, holding up cue-cards for audiences, like the Lomaxes? Does Rap Genius threaten, as Willy Staley writes in the New York Times, to eliminate the imperfection that creates playful mondegreens in favor of a dismal approach to lyrics as “problems to be solved?” What does it mean that the top three Google search results for a Das Racist lyric denouncing Rap Genius as “white devil sophistry” are occupied by Rap Genius itself? Good or bad, stupid or smart, the content of Rap Genius’s lyrical interpretations matters far less than how it circulates. Decoding Rap Genius means recontextualizing rap lyrics not just as signifiers of artistic meaning, but as cogs in a new, troubling online economy.

The act of translating black music is fraught, but it’s not necessarily a bad thing. As hip-hop culture was making its way mainstream, rappers often built translation into their lyrics and performances as a way to help audiences make sense of this strange, exciting new music. Such tactics are visible in this recently unearthed 1985 LL Cool J performance for a group of kids in Maine. When LL hits the stage, the first order of business is informing his audience what’s about to happen. “What you are about to see right now is known as rappin’ and scratchin’,” LL explains, before introducing his DJ, Cut Creator. After a brief demonstration, LL adds some commentary. “Every time you heard the record go, ‘super sperm,’ he was cutting back. He has what’s known as a disco mixer in the middle, and two turntables like you would play at home.”

The urge to translate came with rap when it moved to southern California in the 1990s and began to fully infiltrate mainstream conversations. A 1990 Newsweek feature titled “Decoding Rap Music” is emblematic of journalists’ desire to translate and contextualize the music for a broad audience. The article is at once comically out of touch — parenthetical citations throughout the piece defined terms for readers like “(hip-hop: the music that has rapping)” — and surprisingly sympathetic. “The language may be harsh, but rap reflects the wit, energy and hope of a generation who’ve contrived to make art out of what they were given,” writes the article’s author, David Gates. “It also neatly refutes the canard that the black ‘underclass’ is inarticulate.”

The L.A. riots of spring 1992 further solidified rap lyrics as documentary and/or autobiographical evidence. Rappers were some of the most articulate and visible commentators on the riots, and N.W.A.’s ”Fuck the Police,” four years old at the time, was one of its unofficial anthems. A few months later, Ice Cube’s “We Had to Tear This Mothafucka Up,” and Dr. Dre’s “The Day the Niggas Took Over,” offered commentary from a participant-observer’s perspective. The distinction between rappers’ lives and the content of their lyrics were blurred — violence was not simply a metaphor for rap skills, but a representation of lived experience. When such lyrics sparked national scandal, rappers were again faced with the critic’s task of translation — situating their lyrics within existing frameworks.

“We call ourselves reporters. We’re not on the good side of violence, we’re not on the bad side. We’re in-between,” N.W.A.’s Ice Cube claimed in an interview at the time. In defense of his band’s song “Cop Killer,” Ice-T claimed “I’m singing in the first person as a character who is fed up with police brutality…I ain’t never killed no cop. I felt like it a lot of times. But I never did it.”

Rap Genius, however, shears lyrics from any larger context. Rap Genius is built on a long-standing notion that lyrics are the primary bearer of musical meaning. Simon Frith explains, “in everyday terms a song—its basic melodic and rhythmic structure—is grasped by people through its words.”

This leads to a paradox of interpretation: for rappers as for pop musicians, Frith claims, lyrics aren’t words but a form of oratory. The context of delivery and performance is just as important as the words’ semantic meanings (which goes a long way to explain why artists roll their eyes when asked what their lyrics “mean”). Rap lyrics are often much more a matter of delivery (or a convenient rhyme) than dictionary meaning. In this regard, rap music follows in a tradition dating back decades. Did it matter what “da doo ron ron” means? Chuck Berry wasn’t “driving over the hill” in “Maybellene,” he was “motorvatin’.” Which one sounds better?

Misplaced or not, song lyrics’ central role in listeners’ understanding music have given them a strong presence on the web that predates Rap Genius. Google the title of any song, and you will find dozens of fly-by-night, advertising-laden, likely bot-created lyric sites with names like AZlyrics, lyrics007, Sing365, and the perfectly titled Songmeanings.net. These sites don’t seek to contribute to any larger project, but are merely crude cyberstorefronts for Google-abetted advertising money, driven by music fans’ desires to gain a deeper understanding of their favorite songs.

Rap Genius is at its core a much more savvy and elegant version of the lyric-bot model. In a brief Tumblr post, the rap critic Andrew Nosnitsky explained: “The annotation format gives them a good excuse to create a standalone page for each individual line, which maximizes their presence on search engines. Any way you search…you’ll be likely to draw one of the fifty or so individual pages they have up, each titled after every individual bar, which will then redirect you to the main lyric page…It’s a clever smoke screen for an old fashioned Google bombing.”

This “Google bombing” is where Rap Genius separates itself from its lyric translating predecessors and contemporaries. As with other online platforms that fall under the Web 2.0 banner, Rap Genius epitomizes a neoliberal model in which pleasurable activities are themselves translated into “content,” which is then sold to advertisers seeking to attract eyeballs to their products.

Neoliberalism is typically explained in terms of economic policies like market deregulation, or as an ideology where financial speculation redefined as populist triumphs of individual freedom. But economists Phil Mirowski and Dieter Plehwe have recently argued that neoliberalism is first and foremost about the pseudo-populist construction of knowledge itself. They note that Jimmy Wales got his original idea for Wikipedia from Friedrich Hayek’s “The Use of Knowledge in Society and link the online dictionary to what they term the “ur-text” of neoliberal thought:

the precept that objective knowledge is a state rarely attained by any individual because his or her experience is subjective and idiosyncratic; that no individual is capable of understanding social processes as a whole; and that individual beliefs are frequently wonky beyond repair, but given appropriate (market-like) aggregation mechanisms for information, the system ends up arriving at the truth through ‘free’ entry and exit.

Wikipedia might rely on the donations of its users for funding, but by aligning so closely with Google, it fits right into the search engine’s plan for the wide-scale commodification of the internet’s information. Wikipedia entries show up first on Google searches because they’re a pre-processor for “the vast masses of dreck clogging the Web,” in Mirowski and Plewhe’s phrasing. Like Wikipedia entries, Rap Genius translations that show up toward the top of every Google search for a rap lyric exploit Google’s search algorithm while simultaneously legitimizing it, by ensuring that a vetted, “official” result answers a search query. The real genius of Rap Genius is a pure product of Web 2.0 neoliberalism: Getting music fans to provide free labor that is simultaneously pleasurable (for fans) and profitable (for the site’s owners, and, indirectly, Google).

But Rap Genius’ symbotic relationship with Google means it prizes quantity over quality: The more entries there are, the more likely a Googling internet user will stumble on it. Though there are criteria for contribution and annotations are vetted through a hierarchy of contributors (like Wikipedia), Rap Genius annotations are frequently trivial and unimportant. As the satirical Rap Genius Genius Tumblr shows, the appeal for many users seems to be using a cool social networking app and gaining “points” than contributing to an ever-expanding body of scholarship. Many “explanations” aren’t anything more than unnecessary rephrasings of otherwise very straightforward (or purposefully nonsensical) lyrics. Animated gifs, snarky commentary, and most troublingly, ill-informed armchair generalizations of the type typically found in YouTube comment sections proliferate on RapGenius.

Even when they’re serious, the translations are often bizarrely off-base, contextualizing rap lyrics within a gangsta mentality even when such ideas aren’t raised. One would think that Scarface’s “My Block” would be straightforward enough to resist further explanation in the first place, let alone the RapGenius annotation, which inserts violence, drug abuse, and poverty where they were not mentioned, or even tacitly referenced.

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The Lomaxes largely ignored the lopsided racial and economic dynamics of their dealings with Lead Belly because they believed their goal was a noble one. But Rap Genius’s founders are savvy about their position with respect to racial power dynamics and rap history. The Rap Genius founders are products of a globalized, neoliberal and ethnically diverse American society in which the ideals of much rap music resonate strongly (inasmuch as it’s still largely created by upwardly mobile young male entrepreneurs). Co-founder Mahbod Moghdam, of Persian descent, remembers being stereotyped and harassed in high school because of his own ethnicity, experiences that led him to seek solace in rap that seemed to emanate from a similarly marginalized mindset.

The founders are also intensely self-aware and prone to bouts of ironic self-aggrandizement, in a way that only well-educated Millennials can pull off. Moghdam admits that there’s a strain of Orientalism to Rap Genius, but sarcastically specifies that “it is more akin to the OG orientalists like Lawrence of Arabia,” also winkingly name-dropping Gobineau’s notorious Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races. Though it’s easy to target Rap Genius as a bastion of white rap nerds redefining the very idea of rap, the reality of the site’s driving force seems more nuanced, and maybe even more sinister: irony-laden, apolitical detachment.TNI Vol. 18: Family Planning is out soon. Subscribe for $2 and get it Monday. 

But the founders’ self-awareness is not Rap Genius’ main difference from Lomax. Rap Genius not only aims to compile a comprehensive archive of rap knowledge, but to redefine the idea of “genius” altogether. It seeks to acquire a significance and power known only to the world of religion. In an interview, investor Ben Horowitz explained that over time, via a site like Rap Genius, “knowledge about knowledge… becomes as important as the knowledge itself.” Horowitz claims that the site’s real predecessor is nothing short of the Talmud, inasmuch as it translates a dense text (the Torah) into something accessible and knowable. Alan Lomax himself was possessed of a similar desire to translate into data points and map the entirety of the world’s vocal music through what he dubbed Cantometrics, a taxonomical system of 37 criteria linking singing styles to social structures.

The quasi-religious quest for a perfect archive of human knowledge has possessed Internet entrepreneurs for decades. Discussing his company’s ongoing drive to make the world’s information searchable, Google co-founder Sergey Brin claimed that “the perfect search engine would be like the mind of God.” One might add Matthew 12:36 to Brin’s and Horowitz’s religious comparisons: “But I say unto you, That every idle word that men shall speak, they shall give account thereof in the day of judgment.”

Such ambitions — a world in which no action is left uncategorized, and no utterance unremarked upon — establishes a direct link between the metaphorical power of the almighty and the all-encompassing drives of online capitalism. It is unsurprising in this light that Rap Genius’s founders seek to expand the annotation model to all kinds of music, as well as literature, poetry, legal documents, and religious texts, even breaking news. Rap Genius’ drive to “annotate the world,” in Andreesen’s coinage, is a clever turn of phrase masking the logic driving the site: a killer web app is presented as a populist game-changer when in fact it’s simply a slick new model to drive existing activity — discussing texts online, searching for information — into a new, privately-owned space.

A final note on Alan Lomax: For his all his faults, he was a bright man, fiercely driven to expand his knowledge but keenly aware of his limits. In John Szwed’s biography of Lomax, he writes of the University of Texas undergraduate exploding one night in 1931. “Damn it!” Lomax cried, “The hardest thing I’ve had to learn is that I’m not a genius.”

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