Insights missing from most accounts of Rap Genius demonstrate the need for further ethnography of online environments.

Over the past year, I have been engaged in an on-again, off-again ethnographic study of Rap Genius, an online platform for the annotation of rap lyrics and other texts. Especially since Andreesen Horowitz’s 15 million dollar investment in October 2012, the site has been the subject of widespread media coverage. Most commentary has focused on Rap Genius’s rapid rise, the ill-gotten gains of its “Google bombing” strategy,1 or the antics of its founders; some has also addressed the site’s broader cultural implications. However, very little writing about Rap Genius has looked at the experiences of users on the site, and what these experiences can teach us about alternative or oppositional modes of participation in the system.

Although it is largely a “view from above,” I read Eric Harvey’s recent essay “Footnote Records” with interest, not least for its invocation of Alan Lomax as a key antecedent in the “translation” of black music for white people. Harvey situates Rap Genius within the historical lineage of Lomax’s mediation of Lead Belly’s blues performances for bourgeois white audiences, noting that such “translation” often entails the projection of criminality onto black subjects (as when Lomax makes Lead Belly wear prison garb onstage, or when Rap Genius annotators impose a “gangsta” interpretation on songs that do not invite such readings).

Harvey also addresses the question of Rap Genius’s economic impact. He asserts that the true ‘genius’ of Rap Genius is “a pure product of Web 2.0 neoliberalism: Getting music fans to provide free labor that is simultaneously pleasurable (for fans) and profitable (for the site’s owners, and, indirectly, Google).” This dynamic is much the same as the one described by Tiziana Terranova in her theorization of “free labor,” developed in relation to the 1999 class action suit over AOL’s abuse of volunteer workers.2 Though the specific mechanisms may vary from site to site, the extraction of surplus value from uncompensated user labor is ubiquitous in the contemporary media landscape; there is nothing unique about Rap Genius in this regard.

Certainly it would be a mistake to ignore the late capitalist framework in which sites like Rap Genius (or Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter, Wikipedia, etc.) have flourished. However, a reading of Rap Genius that focuses solely on the neoliberal logic that undergirds it cannot tell us anything new about how neoliberalism operates within our lives, and forecloses the possibility of critique from within in a way that is fundamentally disenabling. It is more useful to examine the practices of the people who participate in these fraught systems, seeing how they negotiate systemic constraints and sometimes push back against them in productive ways. Only by spending time in these domains, engaging in what Clifford Geertz called “deep hanging out,” can the nature and import of such practices be understood.

If, for a moment, we take Rap Genius’s stated mission to “critique rap as poetry” at face value, a few broad questions may arise. Do reader-listeners simply decode the meanings encoded by authors, or, if they are “free” to invent new meanings, what factors shape and constrain the realm of interpretive possibility? Further, how can we understand the relationship between rap and the lived experience of the black/Latin@ underclass, as record companies, certain performers, and now web startups enjoy immense financial success while most people remain immiserated?

Though one might not realize it from isolated annotations, Rap Genius’s users think about these issues and actively contest them both directly in the site’s annotation process and in its other social spaces, such as the forums and chatrooms. A forum discussion about Jay-Z’s book Decoded leads to an argument over whether users should strive to uncover artists’ intentions (a process aided in some cases by the participation of the artists themselves) or to bring their own interpretations to light. In another discussion, titled “What is ‘Real Hip Hop’ to You?”, one user raises the question of the competing and pervasive discourses of “realness” and “authenticity” in hip-hop. The participants evince complex and contradictory understandings of sincerity in art, as well as the impact of commodifying marginalized experience. These debates reflect the diversity of opinion on the nature of Rap Genius’s enterprise; the editors and moderators all have their own takes on these issues, which impact editorial decisions and thus the site’s character as a whole.

Some internal reflection is explicitly directed at the racial stratification that Rap Genius reinforces by virtue of its business model. In yet another forum discussion, a user nicknamed “_ƨҟ↻འġ™ (score)” critiques the site’s profiting from hip-hop without giving back to the community:

RapGenius just got 15Mill, yet the Urban Communities which the Art Form Originated from are still suffering from lack of knowledge of how to turn their Communities into 15Mill off of their NATURAL TALENTS. RG not even considering their EXTRINSIC VALUE to a Kulture that gave them Life.

Here and elsewhere, _ƨҟ↻འġ’s comments illustrate a critical yet ambivalent stance toward Rap Genius. He is pragmatic about the site’s potential as a promotional venue for independent artists to engage with fans, even as he remains opposed to its continuation of a long-standing dynamic of exploitation that appropriates (sub)cultural capital from black and Latin@ folks and leaves them with nothing. (In fairness, it should be noted that Rap Genius has dedicated some of its resources to educational efforts within underserved communities, such as a program to promote classroom use of its collaborative annotation platform and a science education initiative involving GZA and Columbia professor Christopher Emdin. The impact of these programs remains to be seen.)

While _ƨҟ↻འġ is an eccentric and somewhat atypical figure in the community, his uses of the site illustrate possibilities that fall outside of the “content farm” agenda that has been taken as the raison d’être of Rap Genius. For example, he refuses to annotate songs with typical informative explanations, articulating his rationale in a since-deleted annotation on the line “Somebody gotta explain why I ain’t got shit” from 2Pac’s “Troublesome ’96”:

This line would more likely be Makaveli’s response to RapGenius today, as a Rebuttal, on behalf of Urban Hip-Hop Kulture & Communities online & off. Therefore, in lieu of Explaining Rap Lyrics & ect [sic], I hereby exercise the Right to Decode the State of Aboriginal Hip-Hop Members, as a whole, whose Intellectual Properties and Intangible Assets are the Commodities Fueling 3rd Party Capitalist Machines[.]

The Answer to 2Pac’s “Troublesome” Question

_ƨҟ↻འġ expresses his opposition to the Rap Genius mission by “Decod[ing] the State of Aboriginal Hip-Hop Members”; that is, systematically revealing how the site is profiting unjustly from the work of hip-hop artists, while also suggesting ways that these artists may break out of this state of affairs. Given that Rap Genius cannot easily be unseated from its search engine prominence, it may be a more productive strategy to use the system against the grain, in order to push the site in unanticipated new directions.

I hope the above brief survey has given some suggestion of the varied texture of experience on Rap Genius. Far from a sterile knowledge base that treats rap lyrics as “problems to be solved,”3 Rap Genius is a venue for lively debates over the possible meaning(s) of rap and even the very premises on which the site itself is based. Although it is crucial to keep the larger capitalist context in mind, we cannot go far by ignoring content. Such a stance concedes too much to the totalizing logic of the content farm, obscuring the ways that individual users (influenced by their social positions and personal investments) are ultimately co-producers of the systemic dynamics that emerge.

Perhaps the most intriguing part of my experience with Rap Genius has been the realization that the site’s hypertext authoring facilities, far from being the tools of radical decontextualization and alienation from black experience that they have been presented as, can actually serve to remediate and riff on rap in accordance with Afro-Diasporic cultural priorities. In a follow-up post, I’ll develop the notion of hypertextual Signifyin(g), an online manifestation of the black rhetorical mode identified by Henry Louis Gates, Jr.,4 as it emerges on Rap Genius.

  1. Rap Genius often appears at the top of Google search results thanks to its creation of a separate page for every line of text on the site, a practice criticized by hip-hop blogger Andrew Noz: “On Genius and Geniuses,” Tumblin’ Erb, October 27, 2012,↩︎

  2. Tiziana Terranova, “Free Labor: Producing Culture for the Digital Economy,” Social Text 18, no. 2 (Summer 2000): 33–58; Lisa Margonelli, “Inside AOL’s ‘Cyber-Sweatshop’,” Wired, October 1999,↩︎

  3. Willy Staley, “Lady Mondegreen and the Miracle of Misheard Song Lyrics,” The New York Times Magazine, July 13, 2012,↩︎

  4. Henry Louis Gates, The Signifying Monkey: a Theory of Afro-American Literary Criticism (New York: Oxford University Press, 1988).↩︎