Monday, May 6, 2013

Forever the 'Other': How Segments of Hip-Hop Misuse Equalizing Platforms
Picture a scenario:

There once was a family in a neighborhood. Let's call them the Wilsons. Although every bit as dignified and able as any family in  that community, they had been dealt a heavy card in that they ended up in this neighborhood due to no will of their own, and had, for the longest time, struggled to keep up with the other families. Because of these disadvantages and the resultant , the family was treated poorly by the rest of society: they were a disgrace to the community; they would never be able to fit in; why did they end up here anyway?

After a few years and despite their unfortunate circumstances, the Wilsons began to claim their stake in society. They had always known they had several talents that could benefit their neighborhood, but now people were beginning to see this and some were starting to involve them in the daily runnings of the community. They started off doing menial tasks and singing at the weekend shows. Now, they are part and parcel of the workforce, the community's sports teams and some of their learned children were high-ranking societal figures! While the resentment of early days remained rampant (especially among those who did little to contribute to the community anyway), a lot of it had now been lifted. Or so it seemed.

Then one day, one of the Wilson children was at work with some other neighborhood folk when he misspoke about his dad. "Old man Wilson is a lazy one," he was heard saying. What led him to say it, we'll never fully know. It might have been frustration or just a good ol' friendly jab at his father. The next day, however, word had gone viral on the streets! Everyone was not only talking about how lazy the Wilsons were, but how there was a father-son rift that was beyond repair and everything wrong with the family.
Was it true? Probably not. Mean-spirited? Perhaps.
What it showed, however, is 1) although it seemed that all resentment was gone, it only took the slightest catalyst to reverse any progress that the family had made when their community finally embraced them 2) the words of a family member are gospel to the outside world: they become the entire basis of how people view the family. It does not matter if the individual was being silly, or even if he is a renowned nutcase; if he spoke it about his family, it must be.

My opening statements are a thinly veiled metaphor of the awkwardly large ditch that continues to exist between African America- specifically Hip-Hop America- and contemporary society. Awkward, because we would like to believe and pretend that the ditch is a thing of the past. Awkward, because said pretense forces society to overcompensate for (portraying everything that happens as a racial injustice) or under-appreciate (throwing around the N-word because 'it has changed meaning", calling the US post-racial because Obama is president, etc.) the progress that still has to be made.

A few recent instances in pop culture speak to my point. The first one is the terrible (both musically and socially) song "Accidental Racist" by country superstar Brad Paisley and rap legend LL Cool J. As if the song was not already a train wreck from the moment we heard the title, Cool J chimes in with the absurdity of absurdities when he tells "White America" "If you forget the gold chains/I'll forget the iron chains".

Wait what? The great LL just told the world that the horrors of slavery can be remedied if everyone makes peace with black folk wearing gold chains? That's all it takes? People continue to die for that cause; and all folk want is to wear their gold chains in peace? Needless to say, that song has been ridiculed by many a smarter man than me, and I don't want to belabor the point of how bad it is.

The problem with this song's woeful message, for me, is it presented LL's- and thus rap's- and thus the African American community's- argument to an audience that one can safely assume does not usually hear them out. By being on a Paisley song, LL was essentially an emissary for an entire culture. Much like the Wilson boy earlier, he had a platform to speak to the glories of his people. Yet when he spoke to a crowd that may never pay attention to another rap song, he told them that the 'du-rag' was to African Americans what the Confederacy flag is to those who hold it highly.

 LL was chosen to speak for the family, and when he did he made the family sound ludicrous. Hip-Hop has, time and again, been called to speak for the family; and time again the 'stars' fall short.


More recently, Pepsi enlisted California Rapper Tyler, the Creator to help them create an edgy commercial for Mountain Dew. What followed is a contender for the most racist commercial in years.

To be fair, Tyler does not command a fraction of the respect that LL does in Hip Hop circles. He is newer and set out to cause controversy, while LL features in debates about the greatest rapper of all time and has gone on to have a successful writing and acting career. That said, he, again, got the opportunity to sit in front of the entire country, and chose to make a mockery of African Americans. By playing on the idea of young black men as criminals and especially as a threat to White Women, he sets the entire culture back a hundred-plus years to the era of the Black Brute caricature. Why is this a joke? Why is this even edgy? The same can be asked of the now infamous Rick Ross rape lyric that subsequently led to him being dropped by Reebok as their spokesperson.  How are individuals who represent multi-million dollar corporations (which, between music labels and drink-makers, everyone in these examples represents) allowed to let this happen? You mean, amid all the checks and balances of marketing executives, media people, music producers, managers etc, no one thought these may be a bad idea?
Unless, of course, the neighborhood just hasn't come to terms with the Wilsons being around and a perfectly fine part of their neighborhood. They might never come to terms with it, especially if the Wilson children keep feeding into society's lowly perception of them through their words and actions.


Anonymous said...

Shingi, love your articles!Comment on this one:
I like the way you've tried to link the Wilson's hypothetical situation to a hip-hop lyric. In so much as theoretically it's plausible, in reality it's highly unlikely, in my opinion, that a lyric (thrown by whom ever), song, album, movie etc could possibly change the mentality of any individual or group of a certain race.
I don't listen to hip-hop, but surely LL, in his statement "forget about the gold chains/I'll forget about the iron chains" didn't genuinely believe that this would be the case? Nor would any white person, one would hope, think that by virtue of accepting a black man draped in gold chains mean that he would miraculously forget about slavery?

Also, you say hip-hop has been called upon, time and time again, to speak for the family. When ever I have listened to hip-hop, the meesage has been very clear: wealth, riches, fat cars, bling on every part of the body, women - lots and lots of women, and other materialistic goods in life.

My point is, if the hip-hop family is so accepting of the message which is portrayed by the artists (largely thug life), surely a small statement like this can't be taken so seriously? Or is it that some topics are off limits depending on their sensitivity levels?

Shingi Mavima said...

Great points here! The defining metaphor in this argument is family. 'thug life', with all its vices, remains a case of the family telling a (albeit ugly) story on its own terms, in spite of who hears it.
On the other hand, what LL does is beyond just uttering his sentiments. Had that been the case, Hip-Hop would just toss it out as absurd. What he does, however, is attempt to serve as an ambassador beyond the genre to the rest of society. Instead of being any old Hip-Hop artist, he became 'the' Hip-Hop artist on the platform that very few had been able to stand on: he was on a song with a musical and cultural polar opposite, discussing the very issue that made them polar opposites. He failed to deliver the message he was trusted with