‘As We Speak: Rap Music’ on Trial dives into decadeslong history of weaponization of Black art


The new Paramount+ film As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial explores more than just the criminalization of rap lyrics in courtrooms in the United States. 

Director J.M. Harper tells ABC Audio that with the documentary, he intended to highlight the decadeslong weaponization of Black art dating back to slavery. 

Harper describes a scene in which rapper Kembawho narrates and interviews prominent rap figures in the doc, goes through library archives and comes upon journals from the time of the Middle Passage. The journals reveal that slave masters didn’t know what to make of singing and communicating among Black people.

The director says that the camaraderie Black art and music created — and white people’s inability to understand it — created a trickle effect.

“It goes from there to Negro spirituals to rhythm and blues to jazz to soul music, rock ‘n’ roll … all the way up to hip-hop,” Harper says. “Every single time you have the emergence of a Black genre you had white supremacists or state powers trying to stop it because it brought people together.”

Harper includes the banning of drums after the Stono slave rebellion in the 1700s and the censorship of music in the ’90s to help illustrate the “whole history” of hip-hop used as a tool to incarcerate. 

A main takeaway Harper says the “data” and historical lens might help viewers to gain: “If you watch the doc, you can see [criminalization of lyrics] comes from this 300- or 400-year history of cultural racism and oppression of music, Black music because of what it does, because of how it brings people together.”

As We Speak: Rap Music on Trial streams on Paramount+ Tuesday, February 27.




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