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I'm a Sociology Professor at the University of Toronto. I write about gun violence, health disparities, and Hip Hop culture. When I'm not doing research, I like pop-locking, swimming, and learning Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. This is my first blog. I hope you like it.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

What do Willie Nelson and Nas have in common?

Every once in awhile, I get the urge to bump some good ole fashioned country music.  I don't know where this urge comes from.  I didn't grow up listening to country music, and sadly, I've never been to a live country concert (this is something that I gotta work on).

But, for whatever reason, there are days when I really enjoy listening to Willie Nelson, Johnny Cash, Merle Haggard, Hank Williams Jr., and a bunch of old 1960s-80s country musicians popularly linked to the "outlaw movement."
Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson: Two Badass Country Singers

Today was one of those days.  Sarah and I came back from seeing 21 Jump Street (which, by the way, is surprisingly funny and raunchy), and I had this urge to hear Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard's classic duet, "Pancho and Lefty."  Wow! What a great song!  One thing I love about Willie Nelson is that his voice evokes such pain and emotion.

After listening to "Pancho and Lefty" a number of times, I started to reflect on my attractions to country.  And then, it hit me.  Country musicians--even those that I don't occasionally bump on my computer--are great storytellers.

In many ways, this is one of the areas in which I think rap and country are very close in character.  Beneath the veneer of genre/classification, good rappers and good country musicians share a common knack for storytelling.

This is one of the things that I love about rap artists like Nas, Biggie, and Tupac.  In their own ways, each are/were masterful storytellers whose music could take you to different places and make you feel different things.  To this day, "Represent" by Nas is one of my favorite Hip Hop anthems of all-time--a great example of Hip Hop storytelling at its finest.

In different ways, Nas, Biggie, Tupac built their careers writing songs that made you feel as if you were getting a glimpse into their lives and their broader social worlds...This is sort of what I get when I listen to Willie Nelson and other outlaw country artists...

Of course, good storytelling also sometimes involves a bit of embellishing.  This, too, is another place where I think rappers and country musicians share a common skill.  Even when they are obviously stretching (or inventing) stories, good rappers and good country singers have a way of making these stories come off as deeply personal.