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May 29, 2007

Message to the People: Issues after Imus, Part 2 (Reflections on rap)

ATLANTA — Imus is gone (at least for now), but rap remains. The distinction between rap and hip-hop may seem trivial, but placing them in one monolithic category is problematic. In fact, the cleavages distinguishing the two are profoundly important to many. In youth culture, rap is merely music. Hip-hop is hailed as a way of life carrying its own dress, rhetoric, rules, perspectives on the world and measurements of achievement. Not only do many now regard hip-hop as a culture — an entire generation is identified by the brand. Problematically, the most positive popular figures in this so-called culture are not currently among its most influential personalities. For every Chuck D, there are five Lil’ Waynes. For every Talib Kweli, there are 10 50 Cents. For every Common, there are 20 Young Jeezys. Hip-hop is the largest selling recorded medium in the world, and its Gangsta Rap variant (the dominant genre) rules the landscape. Youth dedication to it is almost religious.I grew up on rap and still listen to it at times. Most of it is a guilty pleasure. However, let me unapologetically say this “rap as religion” obsession and its oft-accompanying “gangsterism” have simply gone too far. Many people are so immersed that some now see hip-hop culture as black culture. It is not! At best, hip-hop is a byproduct of segments of youth and American market culture, and, quite frankly, it has numerous, maddening negative consequences. Sadly, many ignore the best of true black culture in attempts to gloss over the broad, nasty underbelly of hip-hop. Think! If we are to wed ourselves to something, it should be progressive, intellectual and liberating. Black folks have risen from the depths to show this country and the world the greatest examples of political struggle, humanistic movements, decency and forgiveness. In its current state, hip-hop does none of these.Contrarily, it reinforces anti-intellectualism, apoliticism, sexual and social frivolity, violence, greed, decadence, materialism and financial exploitation as norms. It is populated by “blinged-out” posturing males glorifying thuggishness and scantily clad women gyrating themselves into oblivion. I, for one, refuse to offer this up as an acceptable representation of black people, our histories, hopes, dreams and possibilities. This is not a blanket condemnation, but at some point we must seriously challenge hip-hop and ask: At the end of the day, how do we want our communities to look? Do we want to embrace and expand this approach to the world? Is this who we are? Moreover, if this is who we are, are we what we wish to be?We are greater than our musical contributions to the world, but even if one limits the argument to music, we are more than hip-hop. We “people who are darker than blue,” as Curtis Mayfield called us, are not just Li’l Kim. We are also John Coltrane’s horn singing pain in “Alabama.” We are not just Jadakiss. We are Harold Melvin, Teddy Pendergrass and the Blue Notes begging everybody to “Wake Up.” We are not just the Ying Yang Twins. We are the Isleys seeking a “Harvest for the World.” We are greater than R. Kelly’s water sports and foolishness about flirting and clubbing. We are Stevie Wonder, Sam Cooke and Marvin Gaye. We are Lady Day. We are Monk. We are Robeson. We are a vanguard people. We are NOT just hip-hop, and we would do well to remember it.Clearly, rappers are not alone in their attempts to bring the worlds of individualism, materialism and decadence they have imagined in their music into reality. They have had good teachers. Today’s black politicians, bourgeois educated elites, ministers, professional activists and business moguls have provided fine examples of how to “get paid” by any means necessary. Yes, the rappers have learned their lessons well, and, for good or ill, an entire generation of black youth is learning from the rappers. We have yet to understand the full length and breadth of the consequences. At this point, I’m pretty safe in guaranteeing that most of them aren’t good. This warrants serious, critical discussion. I sincerely hope it happens.Remember, until next time — have no fear, stay strong, stand on truth, do justice and do not leave the people in the hands of fools. Dr. Ricky L. Jones is associate professor and chair of the Department of Pan-African Studies at U of L. His LEO column appears in the last issue of each month. Contact him at blackvanguard@hotmail.com