Hip hop devotees are fond of recounting exactly where they were and what they were doing the first time that they heard a particular classic rap song. It frequently goes something like, "The first time I heard 'One More Chance' I was hanging out in front of my building in Fort Greene with my boys after school." From the perspective of my suburban California youth, it goes something like, "The first time I heard 'Parents Just Don't Understand' I was driving through Berkeley in my roommate's Honda Civic on the way to a girl's house."
Hip hop music and culture has come a long way since then -- that first time I heard 'Parents Just Don't Understand' there was no way I would have imagined that almost 20 years later, The Fresh Prince -- a.k.a. Will Smith -- would become a $20 million dollar-a-movie box office icon. There was really no way to predict that rap would one day supplant guitar-oriented rock as the staple pop music of American kids. And there was certainly no way that I or anyone else could have predicted that rap lyrics would one day be invoked by politicians, national columnists, and callers-in to conservative talk radio as their primary rebuttal to the backlash against one of America's most well-known radio personalities.
During the past week, many of us who consider ourselves part of the hip hop generation have watched, listened, and marveled as commentator after commentator -- from cable talk show hosts, to sportswriters, to anonymous internet posters, have zeroed in on the apparent contradiction that seemingly grants (ahem) carte-blanche to popular rap performers to indiscriminately sling terms like "nigga," "bitch," and "faggot" around at will while Don Imus gets run out of town on a rail for calling a group of student athletes "nappy-headed hos." I must have missed the meeting where we all decided that as long as a public figure like Imus can square his comments with the minimum requirements of the misogynist wing of rap music, then he's pretty much in the clear to say whatever he wants about anyone he wants without it being called into question.
The inference made by quite a few observers has been that not only Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, but the hip hop community and perhaps even African America itself are guilty of mass hypocrisy for criticizing Imus' remarks while supposedly overlooking the racist and sexist lyrics that are prevalent in much of the commercial rap produced and listened to today. But if the main defense offered for Imus' insult comedy really does boil down to "you said it first," then let's at least take a step back and bring things up to date. African Americans have been continuously debating amongst ourselves about the tension between creative freedom and the unwanted reinforcement of negative messages in rap music for years. Ever since former Pennsylvania Secretary of State, the late C. Delores Tucker and Reverend Calvin Butts of Manhattan's historic Abyssinian Baptist Church began protesting the increasing infusion of woman-degrading, violence-promoting, and thrift-discouraging lyrics back in the late '80s, there has been an almost non-stop discourse within the black community about whether rap lyrics are just an artistic reflection of the realities of modern urban life or a cynical ad campaign for a pathologically self-nullifying "pimpin'" and "hustlin'" way of life that never lives up to its own hype.
A word here about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson: most black people that I talk to, including those from my own generation, would just as soon see both of them retire from their self-appointed posts as spokesmen for African America. Every decade or so, Jackson does his part in freeing our military POWs (another few days and the Brits would have had to send him to Iran). And Sharpton does his part to keep his faction within the Democratic Party chugging along. But it's mostly the cable news shows that keep them in the spotlight because they provide good copy. To his credit, Imus apologized for his statements about the Rutgers women, but he also made a crucial mistake when he went on Sharpton's radio show, because he went looking for absolution that Sharpton has no mandate to give, and in the process may have unintentionally alienated a part of his core audience that sees Sharpton as a self-serving agitator.
The mainstream media would have done better to seek comment from authorities such as music industry royalty Russell Simmons, who offered this statement:
HSAN (Hip Hop Summit Action Network) believes in freedom of artistic expression. We also believe, with that freedom, comes responsibility. Don Imus is not a hip-hop artist or a poet. Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them, their experience of the world. Like the artists throughout history, their messages are a mirror of what is right and wrong with society… Language can be a powerful tool. That is why one's intention, when using the power of language, should be made clear. Comparing Don Imus' language with hip-hop artists' poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mindset that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship.
Last week, a number of commentators were quick to jump on the bandwagon of knocking foul rap lyrics as a way of mitigating the responsibility of Imus for his race-baiting shtick. Opinion shapers from Michelle Malkin to Tucker Carlson and numerous blogs cited an article by black sportswriter Jason Whitlock of the Kansas City Star and AOL Sports, and formerly of ESPN.com. Whitlock dressed down anyone who criticized Imus if they had not first denounced "gangsta" rap for its poor record on racism and sexism. But if he had taken the time to peruse the pages of his former publication, he would have quickly come across an article by ESPN.com's Jemele Hill, who was one of the first to note that several black media outlets and organizations have been involved in ongoing efforts to counterbalance negative rap lyrics.
Throughout 2006, Essence magazine ran its "Take Back the Music" series, in which a diverse cross-section of writers called on the music community to change course when it came to lyrics that characterized women as two-dimensional sex objects. The grass roots organization Black Girls Rock works to counteract negative stereotypes of black women in popular culture. In every black barbershop, church, and college dorm, the issue is discussed on a regular basis.
Two weeks ago, I attended a panel at a community arts center that featured several young African American artists and academics, including respected producer Pat "9th Wonder" Douthit, and the broadest part of the three-hour discussion circled around the paradox that African Americans over 30, who have been listening to rap music for most of their lives, are buying new rap CDs or downloads at a steadily decreasing rate, and have now reverted to older classics or different genres like soul or reggae because they have a harder time finding current rap that can meet the standards of the music of the '80s and '90s that, along with so-called alternative rock, resonated with the youth culture of that era.
Many young African American professionals, myself included, have mixed feelings about the debate. We're uncomfortable placing ourselves on the side of stifling free expression and artistic freedom, but at the same time can't intellectually reconcile ourselves with the reality that a lot of the music that we hear in clubs we patronize, radio shows we listen to, and videos that we watch degrade women and glorify drug dealing and thugging as a way of life. It's a conversation that happens all the time at my house. My wife, a moderate, young, black, upwardly-mobile corporate type, will turn up the radio in the morning when a song she likes, such as Rich Boy and Polow Da Don's "Throw Some D's" (currently #21 on the Billboard Hot 100) comes on, and I will chuckle and ask her if she knows all the words -- she usually doesn't. It's because rappers have become skilled at coding sexually explicit material without running afoul of the FCC's lists of banned terminology.
You may have heard of an old stand-up comedian named Bill Cosby. Cosby has cashed in his entire chip stack, amassed over four decades of entertaining, to lobby against, among other things, black people degrading other black people in their music. To date, he hasn't had much success, because his missives have sounded more like scoldings than entreaties. But in any case, Cosby is yet another major figure within the black community who has sought to underscore the negative messages in hip hop culture.
The issue is also part of a conversation that hip hop is having with itself right now. For the last few months, hip hop heads have been talking about Nas' Hip Hop is Dead and Jay-Z's Kingdom Come. Both of these multi-million selling rap icons are old veterans by today's standards, and both, in very different ways, are calling on the younger generation of rappers to tighten up their agenda. Jay-Z chides the new school in "30 Something" with, "Y'all go to parties to ice grills/I go to party with nice girls," while Nas takes on his critics in "Hip Hop is Dead" with, "What influenced my raps?/Stick-ups and killings/Kidnappings, project buildings, drug dealings … 'Cause we only talk on ass we gettin'/Most intellectuals will only half listen … If Hip Hop should die we die together/Bodies in the morgue lie together." Fifteen years ago, you could unearth the tension in hip hop just by listening to one Tupac album, where on one track he implores single moms to "Keep Ya Head Up" and on another he advertises that when it comes to sexual exploits, "I Get Around." Both songs charted -- and this was all coming from a guy who grew up partly in Marin County.
African Americans have to take responsibility for continued patronage of artists who routinely and shamelessly talk about women (all women, not just black women) like two-dimensional sex objects and regularly portray them in videos as half-naked, gyrating sluts whether or not they actually use the words "bitch" and "ho." Someone is buying the records, and although black people alone don't account for most of the purchases of rap CDs, we do purchase our share. But black people don't run the cable networks, black people don't own the major music retail outlets, and it wasn't black people who made the bafflingly lame decision to give the 2006 Academy Award for song in a motion picture to "It's Hard out Here for a Pimp." The unspoken implication that African America sits back and passively accepts destructive and degrading rap lyrics and images is bogus. The problem is compounded when those commenting lack the breadth of knowledge about hip hop culture and music to give a balanced analysis.
The Wall Street Journal's John Fund asks whether or not the Imus situation will "trip up" rap music. Maybe down the road, but as a conservative and proponent of free markets, he ought to realize that in this case, the market has spoken. Imus wasn't taken off the air by the FCC, Al Sharpton, or by his own listeners. He got the axe after his show's corporate sponsors decided that it wasn't good business to be associated with Imus' insult comedy. As soon as that happened, MSNBC and CBS had to decide whether they could live without the advertisers and the goodwill that they would lose by continuing to broadcast Imus in the Morning. Credit such public figures as Cal Ripken, Jr., whose immediate response to the Imus remarks was to cancel his scheduled appearance on the show. Ripken didn't call for Imus' firing -- and he shouldn't have -- but he made a clear statement that as a national sports hero, he didn't want his image tarnished by association.
By contrast, rappers who call women "bitches" and refer to their contemporaries as "niggas" are still offered a platform by recording companies, broadcast networks, and lots of consumers. Nothing will (or should) change until consumers of all different demographics stop their patronage of negative rap, or the corporations that own record labels, radio stations, and produce video broadcasts stop bankrolling that kind of music.
The First Amendment protects Imus, Sharpton, and every musician, rapper or otherwise, from censorship or other government interference with the expression of ideas. But free speech isn't an arbiter of good taste. Free speech isn't the right to have people accept what you say, or the freedom from being shouted down by your critics or losing your job because you're getting in the way of your employer selling toothpaste or diet soda. The public didn't support Imus, and he got the boot. As soon as the public stops supporting misogynist rap, the music industry will stop producing it. That, however, is not going to happen anytime soon. Even if you've never heard of them, the kids love Trillville, Yung Joc, and Polow Da Don way too much.
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