Lil Wayne and Emmett Till: Pop Nihilism

John Stonestreet | BreakPoint | Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Lil Wayne and Emmett Till: Pop Nihilism


I don’t stay up on the world of rap music, but it was hard to ignore the recent media storm caused by an “artist” who goes by the moniker Lil Wayne.

His recently leaked song was so over the top that even the hip-hop industry — known for its casual use of sex and violence — reacted. The song, referencing a sex act and a part of the female anatomy, contained the line “beat that [blank] up like Emmett Till.”

His recording label apologized. Apparently, although violence against women is commonplace in rap lyrics, it’s still taboo to mock the Civil Rights movement.

Many musicians, such as Stevie Wonder, took the rapper to task, as did Till’s family. Said Till’s cousin, “He wouldn’t even be out there rapping these stupid lyrics without the sacrifice Emmett made.”

If you’re unaware of what she’s referring to, Till was a 14-year-old African American boy who, in 1955, was savagely beaten, tortured and killed by two white men in Mississippi for allegedly whistling at a white woman. My wife’s grandfather was one of the prosecutors in the trial, despite the great risk to his life and livelihood as a white man prosecuting a black lynching in deep Mississippi. The jury, in a kangaroo court, acquitted those men, who later confessed.

But it was the courage of Till’s mother to hold an open casket funeral that finally exposed the deep evil of racism in the south. The horrific images of Till’s body were published in Jet magazine and provided a major spark for the Civil Rights movement.

Now on what planet could a musician, his producer, his writer and whoever else was involved think that it would be funny or clever to simultaneously trivialize the Civil Rights movement and glorify sexual violence against women?

Look, you can tell a lot about the health of a culture by what we joke about, and a lot about the soul of a person by what we laugh at. Just Sunday night during the Oscars, the satirical online publication The Onion called a nine-year-old Best Actress nominee a horribly offensive name — all in the name of humor.

While I’m thankful the extreme cases of Lil Wayne and The Onion sparked outrage, truthfully their words are merely a few steps further down a road we’ve been on culturally for a long time. So much entertainment today is what Thomas Hibbs called “pop nihilism” in his great book Shows about Nothing. Pop nihilism doesn’t directly say there’s no objective truth or our existence is meaningless. Instead, it implies that it is the case by making fun of everything, especially those things once considered sacred — like family, truth, morality and sexuality.

In Shows about Nothing, Hibbs examined the humor of "Seinfeld," "The Simpsons" and other programs popular at the time and showed how they consistently crossed lines and mocked things previously considered sacred. There was also a tendency to mock moral decisions, as if doing the right thing was ultimately impossible or futile. Of course, those shows seem tame when it comes to shows like "The Family Guy" and "Two and a Half Men" today. In these shows, nothing sacred remains, and nothing taboo is off-limits. Everything is a joke.

The deeper tragedy is our laughter is merely the final gasps of a culture dying of passivity that was sold to us in the name of “tolerance” and open-mindedness. Dorothy Sayers described this well: “In the world,” she said, “it is called Tolerance, but in hell it is called Despair ... the sin that believes in nothing, cares for nothing, seeks to know nothing, interferes with nothing, enjoys nothing, hates nothing, finds purpose in nothing, lives for nothing, and remains alive only because there is nothing for which it will die.” We laugh as the most important things in life are stolen from us just to make a joke.

Not so for Christians. Yes, we laugh, we joke, we enjoy life as it comes from the hand of God. But we also must care. Too much is at stake.

John Stonestreet, the host of The Point, a daily national radio program, provides thought-provoking commentaries on current events and life issues from a biblical worldview. John holds degrees from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (IL) and Bryan College (TN), and is the co-author of Making Sense of Your World: A Biblical Worldview.

BreakPoint commentary airs each weekday on more than one thousand outlets with an estimated listening audience of one million people. BreakPoint provides a Christian perspective on today's news and trends via radio, interactive media, and print.

Publication date: February 27, 2013

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