On Oct. 5, a video showing a woman’s angry, tearful response to the song “Norf Norf” by Vince Staples went viral. In the clip, she describes the shock of hearing such a vulgar song on the radio and tearfully rants about how such music is affecting the current generation of young people, including her four daughters. The video was quickly shared by major music publications and viewed by over one million people on YouTube.
It’s easy to imagine that some of the woman’s criticisms of “Norf Norf” come from a malicious place. Are her opinions legitimate concerns for the innocence of her kids, or is she shaken by exposure to the plight of others that she would rather ignore? Does race play a factor in her reaction? Does being middle class cause her to push away from consuming depictions of poverty?
The Internet was quick to laugh at the woman, and so was I. Totally perplexed, she describes the vulgarity of “Norf Norf” while pining for the completely “sanitized” pop artists of her youth like Britney Spears and Christina Aguilera.
“Norf Norf” was the third single from Vince Staples’ studio debut, Summertime ’06. An intricate and intense double album, the project is far from the empty hedonism the woman believes it to be. Staples’ lyrics are unabashedly violent, and occasionally crude, but he never lets the listener forget that his art is a reflection of the environment that shaped him.
“I just want to help people understand that we don’t get to pick, bro,” Staples said of his music. “We don’t get to pick where we was from. That ain’t how it works.”
Over the past few years, Staples has proven himself to be one of the most intriguing, complex, and surprising artists in hip hop. As a musical celebrity, he is something of an enigma. His grim and unrelenting musical persona, for example, stands in stark contrast to his upbeat and witty online presence. As an artist, Staples is consistently excellent; even his earliest mixtapes show a knack for musical cohesiveness that is rare in many established musicians. Staples continues this winning streak on August’s Prima Donna (EP) in which he expands on the lyrical themes of his older work.
Considering the thoughtfulness of his past endeavors, Staples’ reaction to the “Norf Norf Rant” is unsurprising. Staples shot back at his fans in a series of tweets, claiming that the woman “is clearly confused on the context of the song which causes her to be frightened,” and that “no person needs to be attacked for their opinion on what they see to be appropriate for their children.” His tweets made me give the clip a level of consideration that I might not have otherwise. The woman’s video is a vehicle for valuable questions about the purpose of art, the cultural barriers that divide its listeners, and the reasons why people reacted so strongly to the video in the first place.
Like Staples, this woman is a product of her environment. Based on the clip, it is reasonable to conclude that her views are conservative-leaning and that she has lived a somewhat sheltered life. Considering this, how else would she have responded to lyrics like “folks need Porsches, hoes need abortions”? Of course she doesn’t want her children to hear about moving drugs and running from the police. She doesn’t want to hear these things herself. Of course she would rather they don’t know what an AK-47 or a Crip is. She would rather not know herself.
Staples likes to harp on the demographics of his audience and for good reason. A large section of Vince Staples’ following are flannel-wearing, Pitchfork-reading white people. For this demographic, bitterly attacking the “Norf Norf” woman reinforces a notion of superior cultural and artistic understanding. It is a way of patting oneself on the back for being a good, enlightened white person.
“Who the activist and who the devil’s advocate?” Staples asks on the opener of Prima Donna (EP). I never thought about the line seriously until considering it within the context of this video. By condemning this woman, are we genuinely pushing for change in mainstream American opinion? Or are we devil’s advocates, criticizing for the sake of criticism? As Staples suggests in his lyric, the distinction isn’t always clear.