Wednesday, February 23, 2005
Scene A: In April 2004, young black women at Spelman College in Atlanta protested the rapper Nelly's planned appearance there because his videos are offensive and misogynistic to women. The video for "Tip Drill," for instance, shows Nelly swiping a credit card through a woman's butt, as well as black men throwing money between women's legs and women simulating sexual acts with each other. Nelly cancelled the concert.
Scene B: Calling himself "Citizen Combs" and backed by a DJ and giant video monitors in New York, P. Diddy vows in July 2004 to make voting "sexy." He introduced his "Citizen Change" campaign to "educate and empower" the hip-hop community to try to overcome voter apathy and make exercising the right to vote a new trend—"the same way we make a Biggie album, a Sean John shirt, or a Spider-Man movie hot, cool and sexy."
Artistry or Clap-Trap?
Hip-hop and politics, over the years, have fought a seemingly never-ending battle on issues such as poverty, education, drugs, gang violence, misogyny in lyrics and censorship. As a result, the hip-hop audience has always felt like the neglected stepchild the government and its leaders have never wanted to help, or even acknowledge.
"There's a strong relationship between hip-hop and politics, and a lot of politicians don't want to recognize it, and a lot of older people don't want to recognize it," said Kamikaze, a popular Jackson rapper and a new JFP columnist.
Likewise, political leaders have responded that hip-hop is just a bad rebellious phase that should very well come to an end—and indeed often use examples, such as Nelly's credit-card swipe, as a way to curry favor with more conservative voters. Their argument? Rap music hurts society.
"I struggle to see how any enlightened person can be attracted to such mysogynistic, egotisical clap-trap," wrote Jackson attorney and former district attorney candidate Wilson Carroll on the JFP blog in January 2004 in a discussion about Snoop Dogg's rap lyrics. "And it's not enough to say 'if you don't like it, just stay home.' The glorification and proliferation of this stuff harms our world. How am I supposed to raise three small children in a society that condones and promotes this kind of 'artistry'?"
With such divergent responses, it's no surprise, then, that hip-hop and politics have never seemed to connect in a significant way on any level and continue to coexist separately in their own little worlds.
But even rappers, and their fans, get older. And as the hip-hop generation ages, many are starting to believe it is wise and a definite advantage to become engaged in what's going on in their country and their community—especially amid the great social and political upheaval of late.
That is, it may be time for hip-hop to rediscover its roots.
From Blight To Art
"Hip-hop" is about much more than rap music. It began as a cultural movement—music, clothing, graffiti art, breakdancing, attitude—in urban neighborhoods like the South Bronx and South Central L.A. in the early 1970s. It was the response of frustrated young people of color to the social and economic conditions that were the rule in the inner city.
Early pioneers, including street dancer Don Campbell in L.A. and Electro Funk creator Afrika Bambaataa in New York really started the movement in 1969 and 1970. Other young folks in the 'hood quickly started figuring out how to express themselves and create their own language (like 'hood), rejecting the music of the past (jazz, blues, soul). Soon graffiti taggers got in on the game. Vic, a mail courier, started "tagging" his name (Vic) and his courier ID number (156) on subway trains and buses as he delivered packages. Others (Tracy 168, Chain 3, Julio 204) followed, creating distinctive graffiti styles like wildstyle, bubble and computer style now considered art forms and studied in universities.
The deejay craze really hit its stride when 18-year-old Kool Herc played his first South Bronx block party in 1973, mixing old-style soul and funk vinyl in a very new way. He used two different turntables to mix beats during the "breaks" in the music, thus building a foundation for club deejay styles of the future—and the breakers the perfect opening to strut, or spin, their stuff during the rhythmic breaks.
Other deejays—including Bambaataa, Grandmaster Flash and Grandmaster Caz—soon joined Kool Herc and started playing house and block parties and in parks around the Bronx. According to the B-Boys.com Web site, the early deejays started using microphones to add light rhymes over the records—copying from the Caribbean "toast" and "boast" style—leading to the earliest form of emceeing, or rapping as it's well known today. Coke La Rock and Clark Kent became the first emcee team.
Starting To Delight
Significantly, from the beginning, hip-hop wasn't just about emceeing, mixing, dancing or tagging. Thanks largely to efforts of Afrika Bambaataa, it was also about politics.
Bambaataa, known as the "Godfather of Hip-hop," was born Kevin Donovan in the Bronx on April 10, 1960. He helped found the Bronxdale Projects street gang, The Savage Seven, which would later be called the Black Spades. But after visiting Africa and then learning about the bravery of the Zulu warriors who resisted British troops in the Michael Caine film, "Zulu," he changed his name, taking his new name from the film; it roughly means "affectionate leader."
"Bam," at the ripe age of 14, formed The Zulu Nation, a collective of deejays, emcees, breakers (break dancers) and graffiti artists with the express purpose of bringing social activism and black pride to the new hip-hop movement—and their parties functioned as a way to shield participants from much of the gang activity going on in their neighborhoods. He was joined by five other "b-boys," calling themselves the Shaka Zulu Kings. The B-Boys Web site reports that they, and the Shaka Zulu Queens and the N*gger Twins, were the first b-boy crews on record.
Bam's influence on hip-hop—and the coming rap music boom—was immense. He laid the groundwork for the rap revolution by following DJ Kool Herc's lead and organizing block parties all over the Bronx for the B-Boys to play throughout the 1970s. He, Caz and Flash were soon joined by many "rappers"—from Kurtis Blow to the Sugar Hill Gang (from the neighborhood, Sugar Hill, in Harlem), which recorded the first commercial rap song in 1979 on Sugar Hill Records: "Rapper's Delight." By the 1980s, the record labels started paying attention. By the mid-1980s, Run-DMC was recording records like "Proud to Be Black."
Kamikaze remembers the first time he heard hip-hop. "When I was first introduced to the music, I remember it being really powerful; it was something that captivated me right off," he said. "It was something new and creative. It was something that was a means of getting attention, and it made people stand up. My first introduction to it was listening to 'Rapper's Delight' and memorizing all the words to it."
Mississippi native and nationally known hip-hop artist David Banner also remembers his first encounters with the art form. "I've been into rap since '85, '86. I've been influenced over half of my life by rap. My first experience was when my uncle was a deejay up north and the music wasn't playing here on the radio, and he gave me all his records," Banner said.
Rappers With Attitude
Right around the late 1980s and early '90s, hip-hop began its rebellious phase—taking on aggressive, political stances many found offensive and others found refreshingly honest. Groups like Public Enemy and A Tribe Called Quest began making records filled with political protests and praising Afro-centricity. This was music expressing the need for social justice—something that felt elusive to much of the young hip-hop audience, who didn't feel like their voices were heard.
Then there were groups such as N.W.A. (N*iggers With Attitude) with songs like "F_ck the Police" and "Straight Outta Compton." N.W.A. became one of the main groups responsible for taking rebellious rap music and leading it to full-fledged "gangsta rap"—talking directly back to the "establishment" that they saw hurting young blacks. Popular hip-hop then began to contain lyrics that were much more graphic and controversial, ostensibly to portray graphically what was happening socially and economically in their communities. That is, what seems like two sides of rap—the social justice and the lurid lyrics—grew from the same place.
The following lyrics from "F*ck the Police" show both sides of what the new attitude meant in rap:
A young nigga got it bad 'cause I'm brown
And not the other color so police think
they have the authority to kill a minority
F*ck that sh*t, cause I ain't the one
for a punk motherf*cker with a badge and a gun
to be beatin on, and thrown in jail
It didn't take long for what started as a cry for social justice to become a way to glorify the negative events that were going on in the ghettos and inner cities across the country—instead of changing the conditions. It was during this era that America also saw a rise in illegal drugs imported into urban neighborhoods and an increase in gang activity, largely used to support the drugs, much as organized crime had worked in other communities. The way the trade went was, often: White suppliers brought in the drugs, young "gangstas" of color were recruited to run the street trade.
It was also a period when conservative politicians such as the first President Bush's drug czar William Bennett started calling young, black men "super-predators" suffering from "moral poverty." It was also a time that police brutality, "three strikes" policies (even for minor offenses), and profiling of young, black males, in particular, became an epidemic.
At the same time, hard-core rap music was continuing to sell and oftentimes topping the charts. A common belief among the fan base was the "harder" the rap artist, the better the CD.
Even now, 15 years after "gangsta rap" actually came onto the scene, rap artists are still measured by how "street" they are—meaning that they put on a "street" show, even as some also try to promote social change. But, it has now evolved into not only a measurement of how rough a person is, but how much money they have and how many women they've been with.
And, often, the "street" shows are an exercise in misogyny.
No More 'Crack' Tricks
In its quest to become "harder," hip-hop also became more misogynistic than ever—with lyrics berating "tricks" and "hoes," while "pimps" like Nelly use women's backsides as credit-card machines, in a song with a title that stands for "ugly girl with a nice body." While the message of a rhyme that tries to capture the horrors of police brutality can make sense even to people who find the words offensive, it can be much harder to stomach rap lyrics that treat women like pieces of meat who only want men for their money. Still, even that music keeps selling.
Today, hip-hop has gained a new band of critics not only in the feminist and conservative communities, but within much of the young African-American female population who are sick of being presented as prostitutes on MTV and BET. Last year the young women at Spelman College, a respected all-women's black school, rose up against Nelly for his "crack" trick—protesting a visit he'd planned there to raise money to help leukemia victims. But countering offensiveness with good acts wasn't good enough for the Spelman women.
Student Government President Asha Jennings told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "We care about the cause, and we understand the need for bone marrow is so great within the minority community," but added, "We can't continue to support artists and images that exploit our women and put us out there as over-sexed, non-intelligent human beings." They called for Nelly to also appear at a forum to discuss the implications of his "Tip-Drill" video. He cancelled the appearance instead.
Kristen Tegtmeier-Oertel, associate professsr of American Hhistory professor at Millsaps College, says the prevalence of misogynist lyrics takes the focus off of truly talented women, "I think the portrayal of women in the majority of videos that I've seen are purely shown as objects," she said. "They're valued for their body parts, and that's it. It has nothing to do with their intelligence or creativity."
Still others believe the critics are overreacting. Jackson rapper Skipp Coon say that women should take more responsibility for their own actions, rather than just complaining. "You can go to any club in the city on any night of the week, and find women who are scantily clad, drinking, hanging on men," he said. "Shania Twain dresses all sexy, and she's a country singer. Sex sells. Women and men both know it." He also points to rock videos: "They had women with bikinis on way before rap did."
Yet, Coon acknowledges that, in a perfect world, music would move away from the misogyny and the sex. "Men wouldn't call women the B-word. Women wouldn't act like the B-word," he said, adding that the big money has led to the over-the-top pimping and gyrating in the videos.
"They didn't have that before they got famous. It's misleading."
Brian Fry, a Jackson native who works with young African Americans, believes that the problem is due to hip-hop being a largely male-dominated genre. "Hip-hop, as far as with young ladies, can be negative because they see a lot of other women on TV in the videos all over the men and maybe wearing a little less clothing than normal," Fry said. "Hip-hop is more of a guy's spectrum. It's male-dominated." He said that because there aren't many female emcees, women aren't enough in the forefront to make a difference—"although there are some great female emcees."
Changing The 'Ho' Culture
Not only did hip-hop dramatically change in style from the Grandmaster Flash to the Dr. Dre years, but the female representation within hip-hop also took a huge turn. There was once a time when female emcees such as Queen Latifah and MC Lyte created major hits such as "Ladies First" and "Please Understand"—songs that made you proud to be female in a respectful way that did not require being half dressed or proving that you could be just as much a "female pimp" as some men could be.
Queen Latifah—a former Burger King employee born in 1970 in East Orange, N.J.—dropped her first single, "Wrath of my Madness," when she was 18—and has remained a counter to the more gangsta tendencies of male, and now even female, rappers. In her rhymes, though, she shows that these aren't easy questions. From "Black Reign": "I see both sides. I've seen the abuse, and I've been the victim of police who abuse their authority. On the other side you've got cops getting shot all the time, you got people who don't respect them at all." Latifah has talked back directly to the misogynists, like in her single "UNITY (Who You Calling A Bitch?)."
Still, with the presence of misogynistic lyrics in rap music, some women may feel it is necessary to challenge such violent and sexist lyrics, while others may feel that the only way to successfully break into the business as a female hip-hop artist is to show yourself off as being overly sexual. Despite leaders like Queen Latifah, market forces have driven female rappers like Lil' Kim and Trina to try to show that the women can be just as "bad" as the men.
"Even the female hip-hop artists may be very talented and have amazing voices and maybe intelligence, but you wouldn't know it because what they're focused on is how good they look and how sexy they are," Tagmeier-Oertel said. "I think it sends a message to young women that it's how you look; it's not what you think or how you act."
Dr. Gwendolyn Pough, a women's studies professor at Syracuse University in New York and the author of the book "Check It While I Wreck: Black Womanhood, Hip-hop Culture and the Public Sphere," believes that views of women can be changed within hip-hop.
"I think that what we need to do is collectively begin to start by not buying music from certain artists. I think what the sisters did down at Spelman when they attempted the conversation with Nelly about the video 'Tip Drill,' they took a stance. When you take those kinds of public stances then that is making a move in the right direction. But at the end of the day what an individual artist decides to write, sing, or rap about is up to that artist, but we can hold them accountable."
Rappers themselves are skeptical that this accountability will work. "It would be advantageous to the black community if rap moved away from that, but realistically it's not going to happen," Coon said.
Kamikaze said that rappers aren't likely to move away from the "ho" and "bitch" language because it reflects their reality. "To a certain degree, it mirrors the attitude of the streets and what they experience. I do think that the artists need to try and curb it, but despite how politically correct you try to be, there are some women who carry themselves in this fashion (as ho's or bitches). Some men run into these women, and that's what they write about," he said, adding, "However, if you are a young lady and you aren't a bitch or a ho then it does not apply to you."
Other black leaders reject this rationalization. Maulana Karenga, who invented Kwanzaa, argues in his writings that young blacks should reject the idea that rappers are simply interpreting reality—and thus not buy into popular culture that promotes violence and disrespect for women. Further, he rejects the notion that getting paid for the offensive lyrics make them OK; after all, slave-traders were paid for their wares as well.
Jack Criss, publisher of the Metro Business Chronicle in Jackson and a former music critic, finds fault in both hip-hop culture and the music. "The element of soul so prevalent and beautiful in the great tradition of African-American pop artists is totally absent in rap," he says. "Really, it cannot even be classified as 'music' per se because of its atonal nature and lack of structure.
Rap has essentially taken the very worst elements of old Euro-techno music and added misogynist, anti-intellectual and obscene lyrics to create what amounts to an assault on the senses. I see it as yet another degradation of the modern pop culture scene."
Sweeping indictments of hip-hop, however, ignore its place as a positive force in the culture. Rappers like 50 Cent may wear bulletproof vests and rap against women, but others like Mos Def, The Roots and Talib Kweli do care about what is going on in their community and the world around them even though they aren't as widely publicized as others. Kweli's hit single "Get By" back in 2003 expressed the need for African-Americans to get up and make an effort to better themselves.
Still, at the end of the day, artists such as these aren't as commercial and never quite make it to the top of the Billboard charts. "There are about 50 Talib Kwelis for every one 50 Cent," Coon said, "but look who's on TV more."
Fry agreed. "Hip-hop can do a whole lot more than what it's doing, but the thing about it is you have to look at both sides. Nas had a song called 'I Know I Can' that was real positive, but it didn't really knock off the store shelves versus other people and other songs talking about partying, sex, selling drugs, and being in the club and all of that. Those songs are No. 1 and stay No. 1," he said.
Besides, Coon added, it's not as if attempts at censorship are fair. While curse words and sexual content are increasingly allowed on MTV and BET, he said, Kanye West got censored for a song about drugs, "All Fall Down," for saying that "the white man gets paid off" by the drug trade.
Fighting The Sterotypes
Ironically, the stereotypes that classify hip-hop as being all negative can increase limitations on its capacity to effect positive change. For example, Michelle McElroy, a Jackson resident who also organizes events in entertainment, received negative feedback while trying to host a youth hip-hop summit at a local park here in Jackson.
"The forum was basically about sex education for kids ages 13 and up. I felt as though they needed something other than just boring speeches in order to get them interested in what was being said. I got hip-hop artists from New Orleans and local hip-hop artist Kamikaze," she said.
"However, I felt that once Parks and Recreation saw the words 'concert' and 'rap', they decided at the last minute during the week of the event that I would have to go through a concert committee although the paperwork was already done. I ended up canceling the concert half of the summit."
McElroy says some people fail to see any positives in hip-hop. "I felt that they had a negative outlook on the event because they thought there would be violence and rough lyrics. What we were trying to do was bring out the positives of rap and hip-hop, but the kids really had a nice time anyway, and the parents were really pleased with the event," she saiyd.
There is also the issue of livelihood. Many people do not recognize the number of jobs that have been created through hip-hop. Hip-hop has allowed young people to discover their talents not only in music but also in business in the $150 billion a year hip-hop industry.
Staxx, designer of Official Blockwear based here in Jackson, says that hip-hop definitely plays a part in the livelihood of black people today. "Now people are making their living through hip-hop. It's corporations, it's not just music; it's fashion, it's food. They're doing magazines and movies. People go to work dressed like I dress everyday in blue jeans and t-shirts. It's a new day and age in hip-hop. Definitely, it's providing a way for people to eat and to live."
Banner agrees. "Hip-hop is more business than anything else," Banner said. "You know we get emotional about music, and we want to be as artsy as possible but the truth is, this is a business. This is a multi-billion dollar industry and we have to approach rap music the same way we would approach real estate, the same way we would approach a business venture."
Banner, who is a thesis away from a master's degree in education (and raps about everything from pimps to poverty), believes that too many people do not understand that you need to be educated to work within hip-hop. "The truth is you need to be more educated in rap than you do in just about anything else because you're dealing with every facet of education from traveling, to accounting for your money, to reading contracts. Every show that you do, a contract is involved, and you have to be able to read over stuff for yourself because people take advantage of young rappers because they don't read and they don't pay attention to their business. The thing that I want people to know is that this is a business, and we have to approach it and look at it as a business."
Hip-Hop In The Public Arena
As hip-hop has managed over the years to gain money, power and, more importantly, respect, it has also gained a lot of attention from lawmakers and law enforcers within our government. And that attention hasn't always (if ever) been positive.
The hip-hop community has felt for a long time now that politicians and the government as a whole care nothing for their struggles. Many programs to level the academic and work-force playing field for people of color such as affirmative action and welfare have either been taken away or are presently under threat to be taken away. The public-school system isn't as strong as it used to be, jobs are scarce, and people are struggling to obtain affordable healthcare.
Young people see a government that seems to routinely turn its back on them, and many ask the question, "Why should we even vote?" To some young people, it just doesn't matter. They feel as though it is easier to ignore what's going on and to just continue getting by any way that they can, even if it does mean selling drugs to get by and buy the stuff constantly marketed to them.
"The government needs to be a little bit more understanding of young people and don't be so turned against a particular group of people just because of one thing that you might dislike. It might be a thousand good things within it. Look towards the positive and not the negative," suggested City Councilman Kenneth Stokes of Ward 3.
Stokes, who is popular in the local hip-hop community because he shows up to their events and listens to their concerns, says more can be done on a local level to work with young people in order to give them positive alternatives for activities within the city of Jackson. "Jackson is a pretty young city, and we need to do more to do positive things for young people. When we have different concerts that young people would have, we need not close our minds and think that just because young people come together there's got to be violence," Stokes said.
Certainly, the world isn't always what it seems—either to hip-hoppers or to their harshest critics. Hip-hop isn't all about drugs and violence, some political leaders do care enough to come around more than once a year and not only for a vote. To help bridge the gap, one can consider three influential leaders—President Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X, all assassinated, but whose voices live on because of their work for the people. Both hip-hop and the leaders within politics are accountable for their effects on those that they represent. To continue to metaphorically "kill" or reject those who reach out to us, and for us, will only result in a wider gap filled with misunderstanding, distrust and bitter rebellion.
Bridging the gap between hip-hop and politics may sound unrealistic to some but as the hip-hop generation becomes older and the political leaders of today begin to depart, it may be time to make that worthy goal a reality.
Adrienne Hearn is a Tougaloo College graduate and works with children at University Medical Center. She is also an editorial intern at the JFP. Additional reporting by Donna Ladd.
good job on the article. one thing, i haven't researched it myself, but i've heard at least 3 different "origins of hip hop" histories. the main thing i'd offer (esp. to ladd's editorial) is: "Misogyny, gangsta rap, and The Piano" by bell hooks http://www.strangelove.com/slideshows/articles/hooks.html (and the Digable Planets is a great feminist hip hop band: "In my vein lives bell hooks") and i love kweli (which goes to show, ahem, that i can love people and songs that don't agree with my politically). as for queen latifah on cops, i'll quote kweli: "Kurt Loder asked me what I say to a dead cop's wife/Cops kill my people everyday, that's life" another interesting side to hip hop is the ties to black radical Islam (esp. 5%ers): http://comp.uark.edu/~tsweden/5per.html
Great story..Good to see great artists like Banner and Kamikaze waxing eloquently about their craft. And the brothas are educated too. Wonder what the establishment has to say now. Rappers (popular and successful rappers at that) who have actually give a damn about things other than rims and jewelery. I'm glad these young fellas are ambassadors for our state.
I think its unfair to lump all rappers into one category. Back in 1989 I was one fo the few white kids who embraced rap at that time. Back then rap got 30 minutes a wekk on MTV. Even then you had groups like Public Enemy, Kool Moe Dee, and MC Lyte who promoted a positive image, while others such as NWA, Candyman, LL Cool J, and 2 Live Crew were womanizing and or gangsta. The Late Eazy-E, in 1989 contained graphic imagry on all his "side b" songs about rape, sodomy, etc. And then there were rappers like Too Short who preached a positive message but also portrayed women as bitches and ho's. Really Dr. Dre's "Chronic" was the album that brought rap to most mainstream (ie white) arenas. It dealt with ganja, womanizing, and also introduced us to a soon to be Icon---SNOOP! Bottom line is, rap is here to stay, if you think it will go away you are no brighter than the folks who though Elvis was just a fad in the 50's. Do I like all of it? no. But if you got a problem with it, do what I do, whange the chanel!
honestly it doesnt matter luke said it best when all this was going on in the black community it was fine and now its a problem because it has spread so much as soon as white america has a problem we all want to have the same problem hip hop has chnaged in many ways yet in most ways it the same the women wear less clothes than before and the men where less clothes as well at first LL was one of the few men who almost always appeared to be shirtless now its a million of them rock and rollers treat women as objects country singers have beautiful women in the videos women have beautiful women in the videos tv is a beautiful medium for beautiful people and unless your as pretty as me youre gonna be left out so most of us need to stop bitching about rap and stop buying what we dont want to be sold