Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Is Hip Hop Racist/Sexist?

In a word...yeah. Duh. Well, some of it anyway. The fact that I’m even addressing this question means that those sudden bastions of free speech (as long as they agree with it, anyway) on the right have been allowed to change the subject from Imus, but...yes, a lot of commercial rap is slightly racist and greatly sexist. It just is. For mostly those reasons, starting about 15 years ago, white males in junior high and high school started to dig listening to it as a form of rebellion.

But Don Imus hasn’t been a white teenager for quite a while. Centuries, actually. And if hip hop hadn’t introduced “nappy-headed ho’s” into his vocabulary, he’d have called them something else. He was making fun of them, not trying to rap.

But since we’re on the subject...

Salon today asked a number of different “hip hop scholars” about hip hop’s inherent sexism, etc. They did a good job of asking the right people, too. The first two on the list—Nelson George and Bakari Kitwana—have wirtten some of the best hip hop essays and books around. Here’s a sample (though since you have to pay for the content or watch an ad, I’ll keep the sample small):

From Kitwana:

If the question is attempting to address the corporate, commodified and packaged hip-hop music industry, which has helped enrich major record labels and corporate conglomerates, then the answer is no because even within the arena of corporate hip-hop there are rap artists whose music doesn't peddle racist imagery. For example, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, the Fugees, Queen Latifah, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West have all created very popular rap music that does not promote racist imagery. The answer to this second question is mixed … yes, the corporate attempt to put hip-hop in a bottle has often relied on racial stereotypes: black men as criminals, pimps and hustlers and black women as oversexed bitches and hos.
From Greg Tate:

Regardless of your wording, I know Salon means to ask, "Does the hip-hop industry promote sexism, racism and greed?" Absolutely. "Now just who owns the hip-hop industry?" would of course be Salon's follow-up question. Obviously, as we all know, the same captains of the American consumer products and media industries who decided Imus had to go -- and not because his decrepit comedic tongue flagrantly, unconsciously and unconscionably conflated racism and sexism in ways that hadn't been heard flowing so trippingly in public off a well-established and feared white man's tongue since Thomas Jefferson, but because he had suddenly become a very bad investment. Thank God for laissez-faire capitalism, the self-correcting invisible hand of the market, and all that other good doo-doo kaka.
That’s enough of a sample. If you’re not a Salon subscriber, it’s worth your while to take a moment to watch the ads. The people interviewed are both appreciative and critical of hip hop, and that's important to me for the sake of the argument.

First of all, it should go without saying that a lot of hip hop is not racist/sexist/misogynistic/bad in any way, which is the problem with the stereotype. I’ve talked about The Roots and Mos Def and Talib Kweli at length here, and you’ll have trouble finding too much in their music that fits the angry hip hop stereotype (aside from maybe Mos’ “The Rapeover,” which pushed those boundaries a bit. But having seen the other things that Mos has written, I give him the benefit of the doubt for that one.).

Maybe the commercialized version of hip hop really does veer more toward the negative stereotype, but is that the fault of “hip hop” as a whole, or is that the fault of a) the record companies that choose who to promote, and b) the consumers of hip hop music (mostly white) who snatch up the offensive stuff and leave the strong, smart choices on the shelf? Granted, (b) pretty much tells (a) who to promote, but I’d say there’s enough room to blame both to an extent. When Nirvana and Pearl Jam made it big, major labels desperately searched out bands that sounded exactly like them (STP, Bush, and Creed say thank you, by the way). They passed up on better bands for those that would sell. It’s the same thing in hip hop. And now that hip hop has proven how much money it can make, we find rappers willing to sink lower and lower down the common denominator scale. Mos Def himself touched on this a while back (though he did use a couple negative ‘hip hop’ terms in the process):

“Our priorities is gettin’ fucked. Lil Jon-I love his music. But why are the East Side Boyz names Big Sam and Lil Bo? What the fuck? What’s next, Kunta and Kinte? The South should know better. This is the same country that ran up in Fred Hampton’s crib and shot him in bed with his pregnant wife. You think the rules changed cause niggas got No. 1 records? What are we supposed to tell our kids? After Malcolm, Martin and Dubois we got Sam-Bo? I’m supposed to be down with that ’cause it makes me dance?”
To be sure, there are problems with hip hop and language, but it’s important to stay focused on the actual problems and their actual causes. In his latest Low Post, Taibbi (as always) says it much more creatively than me:

I love rap music, always have. But as an adult white male I also know a minstrel show when I see it, and that's what rap has turned into.

Satan himself couldn't have designed a more effective vehicle for marginalizing black culture than modern hip-hop. In the early days rap music was scary social commentary; it was raw and real and it vividly described a violent street culture that white people didn't know about and didn't want to know about. But very quickly rap turned into a multibillion-dollar industry in which the same corporate behemoths who sold us crap like Garth Brooks and boy bands and Britney Spears made massive profits selling a stylized, romanticized version of black misery to white kids in the suburbs.

That was bad enough, but even worse was the way black politicians and black intellectuals so easily bought into the idea that these endless video images of gun-toting, ho-slapping black men with fat wallets, rock-hard tattooed abs and fully-accessorized rides were positive living symbols of "black empowerment" and "black manhood." Like Tupac was the next Malcolm or something.

Yeah, right. Seriously, how dumb do you have to be to not see through this shit? Here you've got the modern-day version of The Man signing big checks to back your record deals and cheering along as all the artistic talent from the black community starts walking around in public wearing one-word stage names like strippers, writing song lyrics featuring preschool-level spelling and primping endlessly for the cameras with gold teeth and swimming pools and pimped-out cars -- all of them absurd caricatures of the capitalist wealth fantasy. How exactly is any of that that different from the minstrel show, the conk and the zoot suit? The black man who can dance and sing, but can't control his urges, can't resist pussy and just can't get enough of what Whitey is selling, can't stop preening in his Caddy...that's innovative? That's empowering?

Bullshit. Rap was real once, but once it became an industry it turned into the same con white people have been playing ever since they set foot in this country. It's a bunch of shiny trinkets for the isle of Manhattan. Here's your Hummer and your bitches, knock yourself out. You need us, we'll be buying the African grain market. Oh, and, thanks for the cap, my kid loves it, he wears it sideways just like you...No matter how catchy the music is, on a deeper level, that's what big-money rap acts amount to now. And the longer the black community eats it up, the more time Whitey is going to have to laugh all the way to the bank, like he always has.
Every type of music gets exploited and reduced to its lowest common denominator at some point—this is why I say hip hop is in its “hair metal stage”—and while I’m sure the quality of commercial hip hop will rebound at some point, the fact that a) mainstream hip hop artists are almost uniformly black, b) hip hop uses quite a bit of profanity, and c) the ‘n’ word is involved, makes it seem like a bigger deal. It’s not. It’s a rebellious form of art just like grunge and punk and Elvis. Using it as an excuse for Imus’ idiocy is a ridiculous waste of time, but since the subject was raised, I figured I’d share my thoughts.