Home > Uncategorized > War of the Genres: Rap “vs.” Opera

War of the Genres: Rap “vs.” Opera

Back in February, Tom Huizenga did a posting on NPR’s blog Deceptive Cadence, wherein he listed the musical blind spots of his NPR Music colleagues. He also asked readers to contribute their own thoughts on music that they have difficulty getting into, discussing the results in another posting ten days later. The title says it all, and is probably designed to underscore a commonality between two genres that could be perceived as very different: Why Do People Hate Rap and Opera?

I won’t comment on the canard “hate is a pretty strong word,” but people can certainly be quite virulent in their opinions about the merits of one genre over another. For that reason, there is the strong possibility of self-selection bias (and, as Huizenga admits, his polling was unscientific). Still, it is interesting that rap and opera both tended to emerge as objects of scorn among readers who felt strongly enough to give their opinions. While a more scientific approach seems in order, Huizenga’s story acts as a good starting point to formulate questions that could inform such a study, especially if it includes other genres and subgenres (which would need to be selected, operationalized, etc., etc., etc.).

I think many of us have a vague notion of what makes the yoking of rap and opera seem odd.  Nonetheless, to paraphrase Captain Renault, it seems worthwhile to round up the usual dualities, at least to aid with framing this apparent puzzle. Huizenga mentions broadly how individuals can use taste as a symbolic way to distinguish themselves and their social circles from others, and proffers the stereotypical delineation of the two genres in question:

There’s little doubt that both rap and opera have traveled with significant prejudicial (if stereotypical) baggage: Opera is for rich, white, elderly snobs; rap is made by poor, young, black thugs. Some people reject both groups, while others relish degrees of perceived inclusion.

Frannie Kelley, another NPR Music colleague whom Huizenga references, has some opinions on possible commonalities. She suggests the somewhat vague notion of “obsessiveness” among fans of both. I’m not sure how well that can be measured, but Kelley mentions a keen familiarity with the intricate knowledge required by connoisseurs of both genres. Both also have their own associated jargon, and the modes of verbal expression employed in both can be incomprehensible, especially to neophytes. Huizenga expands on this notion, saying that rap and opera can require higher levels of listener effort, likely due to the verbal aspects. And yet, they can both have a visceral impact. As Huizenga points out, “With all the melodrama, social consciousness, violence and intense vocal styles, they certainly are not musical wallpaper.”

I usually refer to comments sections as “trainwrecks.” They’re horrors to behold, but it’s difficult to look away. In this case, it seems worthwhile to reference some of the comments that appeared with Huizenga’s posting. Considering the general theme of commonality between rap and opera, I’d like to emphasize some of comments that discuss the complexity of individual taste and/or the merits of both genres together. I had hoped to link to individual postings, but I couldn’t find a way to do so. As an alternative, I include some of the more interesting ones in the comments section below the posting.

The notion of similarity between rap and opera does not even stop with broad affinities. Even motifs from opera are open to sampling in rap. Warren G’s 1997 song “Prince Igor,” which borrows the title from Alexander Borodin’s eponymous opera, repeats one of the main themes from the same work’s Polovtsian Dances (a personal favourite of mine).

Crossover soprano Sissel contributes as well, singing the original lyrics. There’s even a genre known as “rap opera,” or (as a portmanteau of “hip hop” and “opera”) “hip hopera.” Note in the Wikipedia entry the listing of stylistic origins, which confound traditional boundaries. The most explicit connection can be made in the retelling of Georges Bizet’s Carmen as Carmen: A Hip Hopera, with Beyonce as the title character.

These two very specific examples notwithstanding (even though they may blow a few minds, and piss off purists in rap and opera camps), I do not call myself an expert in either genre. I simply have specific areas of knowledge and inclinations towards both (more in opera than in rap), which have enabled me to be open to the possibility of similarities between both.

I first became aware of rap in the late 1980s and early 1990s. At the time, hair bands and beepy synthesizers were making way for different forms of popular music that had begun establishing themselves elsewhere. Rap had become appropriated within the larger culture by the time it had arrived in the small rural Ohio town where I grew up. The well-manicured appearance of rap artists had begun to supplant the scruffiness and mullets of hair band fans. Baseball caps turned backwards, and Midwestern teen insolence mingled with lingo straight outta Compton (via various media outlets). Racial epithets and all. How many people used the ironic racism of rap as a shield to conceal and reveal their own racism, I cannot know for sure.

Whether as a joke or a generous gesture, someone gave me a homemade cassette of 2 Live Crew’s As Nasty as They Wanna Be, which I listened to with various levels of bemused interest and curiosity. I was vaguely aware of the controversy surrounding the album, and somehow began to think that my nascent interest in rap would provide a key to understanding my own generation… even though I was also (at least superficially) aware of the rather different contexts in which it flourished.

Although my collection of rap ended up being fairly limited, something about the musical content of some rap songs appealed to me as well. Perhaps part of it came from the crisp sound and deep bass, the latter being one of the reasons why I also enjoy music by the late Austro-German romantic composers. As suggested in the NPR blog posting, there can be a visceral, physiological quickening that occurs upon listening to some rap, whether or not one can get into the lyrics initially. Although the response may not be exactly the same, I can say similar about some opera.

My first semester at Ohio Wesleyan University, wherein race relations was the Sagan National Colloquium topic, would clue me in further to rap’s historical and musical roots (as did a seminar class on race and media… a real eye-opener for someone from a small rural town). Miles Davis passed away in September of that same year, as announced on Saturday Night Live by Chuck D. before a performance by Public Enemy. Given my limited knowledge of both jazz and rap, it seemed a bit of a surprise to see such an outreach across genres. Upon reflecting more closely on the intricate strands that comprise the history of music, the affinities make perfect sense.

Going back to the 2 Live Crew controversy, I thought about some of the difficulties faced by composers whose works were frowned upon by the powers-that-be, albeit in different times and places. This has been especially true for operas, whose lyrics conveyed (at least to some extent) what the music signified. Political implications, real and mythic, with Va, pensiero from Giuseppe Verdi’s Nabucco as a prime example.

Hot ‘n’ steamy themes, as well as blasphemy, which can come together with great force in an opera like Richard Strauss’ Salome (which actually did quite well, and enabled him to build his villa).

Or, just sounds that were (and can remain) generally disagreeable to more delicate ears.

Some have speculated on the mainly extramusical affinities between Eminem and Richard Wagner, focusing specifically on controversy. A posting on The Eminem Blog several years ago pondered the possibility, but dismissed it on the basis of their approaches. Wagner’s racist beliefs are well-documented as serious, whereas Eminem’s comments about gays and women are assessed as satire. Another posting on TopTenz placed Wagner’s opera Parsifal and Eminem’s song “Kim” on a list of “Top 10 most Controversial Pieces of Music.” While such lists can be subjective and tenuous when subjected to empirical analysis, they appear on the list for reasons similar to those mentioned above.

About a year ago, I finally watched 8 Mile. Some of you may know where I’m going. And, yes, it is a potentially superficial notion. Not all music contests are the same. But I had a shock of recognition in the rap-off between B-Rabbit (Eminem’s fictional avatar) and his nemesis Papa Doc, which brought to mind the final scene of the third act from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg.

Through a series of machinations, by-the-book antagonist Sixtus Beckmesser attempts to sing a piece written by Meistersinger Hans Sachs, but botches it horribly. Another character, Walther, sings the same piece with the right “spirit,” even while going somewhat against convention. (This is the same scene that includes the retroactively controversial speech by Sachs, about protecting German culture from foreign influences.)

In a similar vein, Papa Doc comes across kind of like Beckmesser. During his championship round freestyle, B-Rabbit talks candidly about his background and hardships, and exposes Papa Doc’s privileged background. Unlike Beckmesser, Papa Doc doesn’t screw up… because he knows that he can’t compete.

In both Meistersinger and 8 Mile, questions about “authenticity” emerge. In some ways, the motif expands to thinking about what really appeals to us in music. It can vary, and break a number of pre-set conventions. People who know of my operatic inclinations might expect that I would rather listen to Wagner than to Eminem, but the reality is more complex. Die Meistersinger does not appeal to me as much as the directness some of Eminem’s songs. Even setting aside the associations with Nazism, the former strikes me as ponderous, overinflated ritual (which some people would say about all of Wagner, and with which I would vehemently disagree).

And so, that leaves me with a question for you. What do you like that confounds expectations, whether to others or to yourself? Are you an opera listener who prefers some rap over some opera, or vice versa?

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  1. May 29, 2012 at 14:30

    Selected comments in response to Why Do People Hate Rap and Opera?

    Dimitri Smith (DimitriWalkerMarantosSmith) wrote:

    I think that ignorance of the genre is the main reason people dislike either of these genres, or any genre of music for that matter. People who think that opera singing is artificial, cold and expressionless have simply not taken the time to truly experience the intense expressions of joy, passion, despair, anger, and any subtlety in between that is found in opera. To say that a production as dramatic, tumultuous and profoundly beautiful as Richard Strauss’s opera “Salome” is devoid of expressiveness is just silly. Likewise, it is purely ignorant to not give credit to some of the truly brilliant minds that have becomes legends in rap. Despite his use of “profanity” (which is merely a style trait of the gangster rap genre, much like the use of vibrato in classical singing), the Notorious BIG made many profound statements and insights into the psyche of a downtrodden and desperate young man growing up in the ghetto. He tackles complex issues like suicide, self-loathing, parental abandonment, and criminal motivations in a remarkably poetic and unique way. To say that he, and many rappers like him, is not an artist would also be silly. Get to know a genre of music before you dismiss it, you’ll surprise yourself.

    February-21-12 4:50:24 AM

    John Altieri (rashawn) wrote:

    Please keep in mind that grouping an entire genre of music into “hate” or “love” is to reveal one’s minimized approach to listening. Just as with humans we meet from around the globe and from within our own communities, we must take each “artist” as an individual (for we know the dangers of clumping people together based on a surface aesthetic). I love Alban Berg’s opera Wozzeck, yet not Lulu (libretto in particular). I love Biggie Small’s album “Ready to Die” but think Lil Wayne is a moron. I love Louis Andriessen’s opera Rosa, but not Writing to Vermeer… I appreciate this article’s attempt to delve into these two genres and discuss what makes each great, but let us remember, it is often extreme negative reaction that is the cause of violence towards difference. So whether one is dismissing a genre of music, or more tragically a “genre of people”, we must educate ourselves to the point of recognizing one another’s beauty and genius amidst its amateurism and drivel.

    February-20-12 8:58:55 AM

    Candacey Doris (CDoris) wrote:

    I agree that there are preconceptions of those that make rap and opera as well as those who listen to it. There is a lot of rap that i don’t like-the mainstream, popular with teens and thugs type- but then there is the rap that is made with a message, an idea, or just a rhythm as its base. Those are amazing. Opera is the same, there are great operas that can cause even the coarsest barbarian to applaud- like Rusalka or Die Zauberflote- and those that do nothing but make you awn an pick apart the flaws in the casting, the costumes or the orchestra. To each their own, right? I’ve found that if you play either of them at high volume driving down a quiet suburban street, the police will pull you over all the same.

    February-18-12 11:09:00 PM

  1. May 21, 2013 at 19:03

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