It’s unfortunate that Alicia Keys has backed away from her admittedly intemperate comments to Blender magazine. In her clarification, she says she didn’t intend to blame the government for creating gangsta rap as “a ploy to convince black people to kill each other”; rather, she intended to blame the media for overhyping music that, she acknowledges, sometimes portrays the reality of certain social ills. (As politicians know, when in doubt, blame the media.)
Now, I’m no conspiracy theorist — I prefer not to attribute to malice what can more easily be blamed on stupidity, short-sighted greed, incompetence, or neglect. I don’t think the government is clever or efficient enough to have invented gangsta rap as a hitmaking scheme, much less as a genocidal plot. (Also, if the music really is a plot targeted toward black people, where do all the suburban white kids buying the music fit in?) But it is worth asking how gangsta rap became so popular, to the exclusion of all other forms of rap. It wasn’t just media hype. Was it all just marketing? Or was it, as Keys suggests now, because it addressed social realities that were ignored elsewhere? I’m not fully convinced by any one of these notions, but these are questions that ought to be asked, and it would be a shame if the hyperbole of Keys’ earlier remarks became an excuse to avoid asking them.
If I were truly conspiracy-minded, I’d wonder if Keys’ newly apologetic tone had been forced on her by her management, by someone who worries that being seen as a firebrand will make it harder for her to sell tickets to soccer moms for her elaborately staged arena tour, which kicks off this weekend. I hope that’s not the case; I hope Keys isn’t discouraged from sticking to the goal she outlined to Blender to write political songs in the future; if anyone can make outrage into a hummable hit, it should be Keys.