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"The style of hip-hop culture is imprinted with the very economic and social misery that it intends to confront," offered panelist and DePaul University professor Michael Eric Dyson, author of Between God and Gangsta Rap: Bearing Witness to Black Culture. The end result was self-destructive rappers with "a narrow conception of what you understood authentic blackness to be."
Public Enemy frontman Chuck D concurred with Dyson, but shifted the onus of blame squarely onto black-entertainment moguls. He heaped scorn on the "spooks who sit by the corporate door," singling out BET head Robert Johnson for drenching his own community in visions of misogyny, mindless materialism, and murderous nihilism. As Southern Christian Leadership Conference president Martin Luther King III alternately blanched and nodded in agreement next to him, Chuck revved up to a fevered pitch: "Tupac [Shakur] sold five million records while he was living, and 22 million records after his death. Selling and marketing black death will make you a fuckin' mint!" He dramatically pointed at several prominent black record executives sitting just feet away and added sharply: "It will get many of you six-figure salaries!"
"Yeah, I was in the room when he said that," Mays says of Chuck D's speech. From the pained look on his face, it's evident he felt personally under attack. He picks his words carefully, acknowledging that the music industry needs to be pressured to change. "There's more at stake here than just dollars and the bottom line," he agrees. Imagery doesmatter. But is it possible that The Sourcecould be helping to spread debasing imagery?
Mays frowns and changes tack. "Why is the crime rate so high?" he asks. "Why are guns proliferating through our inner cities? How does this happen? It's a complicated situation and you can't blame rap music at the end of the day. It's a culture that produces so many more positive things.... There are a lot of political forces that don't like what the hip-hop generation represents, that don't want to see young people of a certain ethnic background succeed. Hip-hop is leading the way toward change in American society, bringing the races together, bringing people of different ethnic backgrounds, cultures, and socio-economic levels together."
It's apparent from Mays's furrowed brow that he remains unsatisfied with his own answers, perhaps conscious that this progressive "change in American society" is more often a theoretical promise than a reality. He pauses, deep in thought. Finally, as if speaking of a once-dear, now-estranged friend, he adds, "Somebody like Chuck recognizes the potential hip-hop has, its power, and it hurts him a lot to see that potential going unused." One wonders if Mays is really referring to Chuck.