By Michael E. Miller
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That much is obvious from the bitter debate lingering over Miami Beach's Memorial Day weekend and the fearful whispers that anticipate August's Source Awards show. The Winter Music Conference and its thousands of blissed-out electronica fans wobbling down Washington Avenue produces little anxiety, despite arriving each March with enough pharmaceuticals to bring down a herd of elephants. Likewise it's doubtful a rock-oriented event would spark much outcry. Given rock and roll's moribund state, the notion that it could motivate a crowd to do anything more than buy T-shirts is simply incredible. On that parents, pundits, and fans can all agree.
Hip-hop, on the other hand, seems capable of anything. To many residents, the 200,000 primarily young black partiers who recently converged on South Beach constituted nothing less than an invading army, a menacing force that threatens to return for Mays's Source Awards.
Ironically it's this same specter of violence Mays was hoping to avoid by moving the show to Miami. Last year's affair in Pasadena, California, was cut short when police cleared the hall after brawls erupted in the audience, a spectacle many critics cited as confirmation of their worst fears about rap culture. Miami, a city Mays calls "a neutral area" free of entrenched New York-Los Angeles hip-hop rivalries, seemed the perfect spot, a place to which black celebrities were already flocking.
Over several South Beach visits this past spring, Mays says, "I ran into Puff Daddy, Cash Money, Nelly, Michael Jackson, Brandy, just a ton of major stars hanging out. Everybody seemed real comfortable down here -- and that's the environment we felt would be more conducive to the show than New York City." By late May he'd finalized his plans.
Then came Memorial Day weekend. "You have a culture clash," Mays concedes. "The hip-hop generation, to those who are not part of it, can appear brash, aggressive, abrasive. If you're not used to being around this audience, you can be frightened by it. But those impressions are stereotypes."
Referring disparagingly to newspaper accounts of the weekend's troubles, he continues, "For those of us who are part of this community, we felt comfortable on the Beach. When I look at the statistics, my interpretation is that the number of arrests was fairly small given the number of people here. Whether it was 250,000 hip-hop fans or 250,000 country-music fans, it would've been fairly chaotic."
Although he anticipates a crowd of only 25,000 to 30,000 out-of-towners beyond the awards show's invite-only audience, Mays plans to be well prepared this time, and is working closely with local officials. He hopes to have police close off the streets surrounding the Gleason Theater, with security inside provided by the Nation of Islam -- a force even the most hardened thug respects (or at least fears).
"The message I would like to send is that this is a young, affluent community with a lot of disposable income," Mays says. "If the Beach opens its mind to this community and there's an attempt at mutual respect, good things can come out of it." Besides the economic benefits in what he reminds is the Beach's off-season, there's the prestige factor. "Most major awards shows don't come to Miami."
Most major awards shows don't end in a brawl either.
For the first time Mays's cool demeanor gives way. After a long silence he says brusquely: "We don't expect our show to end in a brawl this year -- or ever again." His voice rises: "Many awards shows and large entertainment events involve fights in the crowd. You go to a WWF wrestling event and there's people fighting in the crowd. You go to a hockey game and people are beating up each other on the ice, let alone in the stands."
They don't beat each other up at the Grammys.
"You'd be surprised!" Mays corrects. "I've talked to producers." He cites a little-publicized ruckus involving Rage Against the Machine at last year's MTV Awards: "They managed to contain it. When these things happen at white events, mainstream events -- when it's not a young black crowd or a hip-hop event -- they don't get treated the same way in the media. The same fears that come out of the underlying racism in our society don't come into play."
None of that is likely to calm aggrieved locals, particularly when they suffer attack simply for voicing valid opinions. Case in point: David Wallack, owner of Mango's Tropical Café on Ocean Drive, who resigned from the Miami Beach Planning Board following accusations of racism after the Miami Herald quoted him as saying that hip-hop fans "are not coming to appreciate the architecture. Their culture is violence. That's their only means of communication with each other."
While there are plenty of good reasons to run Wallack out of town -- his "anything goes" approach to Beach development, his pointlessly obstructionist actions at city hall meetings, his ponytail -- racism isn't one of them. Indeed less than a week after Wallack's public smackdown, one could have heard his viewpoint being echoed by a wide array of black academics, grass-roots activists, record-company honchos, members of the Congressional Black Caucus, and concerned rappers at New York City's Hip-Hop Summit, a two-day powwow convened by music-industry impresario Russell Simmons and The Source.