All week long, a culture war has been raging around country star Jason Aldean’s “Try That in a Small Town,” a turgid power ballad wrapped around an unsubtle warning to protesters and other outsiders: “Try that in a small town, see how far you make it down the road.” To many observers, that sounds uncomfortably close to the kind of threat that the Klan used to issue to civil rights activists, and that modern-day racists continue to spout today. The music video, which juxtaposes stock footage of Canadian protesters with scenes set at the site of a 1927 lynching, didn’t help dispel that impression. Scholars have noted the obvious parallels between “Try That in a Small Town” and white nationalist ideology; Aldean claims he’s just singing about “community” and neighborly harmony.
Some right-wing trolls, though, don’t want you to think too hard about any of that. They’d rather talk about rap music.
Alleged Republican presidential candidate Vivek Ramaswamy is moaning about Ice T’s 1992 song “Cop Killer” and “sex and violence in hip-hop.” Frequent hatemonger Matt Walsh whines that “nearly every rap song for the past 30 years has directly and enthusiastically glorified murder, drug dealing, robbery and every other violent crime, and these people say nothing.” TV comedian turned far-right fringe voice Roseanne Barr got in on the act, too, with a salty tweet about “gangster rap” (and furries, for some reason).
This is a familiar pattern to anyone who’s paid attention to the past few decades of conservative punditry. When the heat gets too high on the right wing, they try to change the subject to hip-hop. It’s why, when shock jock Don Imus was under fire for his nasty, racist remarks about the Rutgers women’s basketball team in 2007, some people wanted to talk about rappers’ language instead. (In the immortal words of Jay-Z, “I missed the part where it stopped being about Imus/What do my lyrics got to do with this shit?”) It’s why Bill O’Reilly had Cam’Ron on his show in 2003, and why Geraldo said that a Kendrick Lamar awards-show performance was worse than racism in 2015. It’s why any time a critic today points out something questionable happening in the Nashville world, their social mentions are flooded with variations on “but what about hip-hop?” For that matter, it’s the same reason why former president George H.W. Bush denounced “Cop Killer” — which is not a rap song, by the way — when he was about to lose his bid for re-election back in ’92.
These talking heads go after hip-hop because it’s a convenient punching bag. It’s much easier to appeal to Americans’ latent fear of Black expression than it is to defend something like Jason Aldean’s video. Never mind that this is the same ideological movement that’s always talking about free speech — the hypocrisy is nothing new. Neither is the failure to consider hip-hop as a serious artform that deals with all aspects of human life, including the negative ones. In a follow-up tweet, Walsh took an ugly pot-shot at the late rapper King Von, who was killed just as his career was getting off to a promising start in 2020. Has he ever listened closely to King Von’s music, or thought about what it might mean for an artist to give voice to the people he grew up alongside in Chicago? It’s doubtful.
But there’s no point engaging with this kind of argument, because there’s no real argument being made. This genre of right-wing Twitter typers just hope that if they can get you to think about hip-hop, you’ll be distracted from asking how a mainstream, multi-platinum country star could think it was OK to make a song and video that skate right up to a despicable line. Don’t take the bait.