As many as 200,000 visitors, mostly black hip-hop fans, flock to Miami Beach each year during Memorial Day weekend. And even though the overwhelming majority of them are responsible tourists who inject tens of millions of their hard-earned dollars into South Beach's economy, they still get a bad rap. That's why the Miami Beach Black Host Committee assembled law-enforcement officials from the cities of Miami and Miami Beach, the media, and members of the hip-hop community for a symposium on May 14 to set the record straight about what hip-hop is and what it isn't.
This public-relations move was a thoughtful gesture, but the discourse got a little heated when the focus turned to the infamous black binder containing profiles and personal information on more than 200 people in the rap industry, according to several articles published in the Miami Herald. Representatives of the hip-hop community alleged that the binder was used to discriminate against successful blacks, while others such as Miami Police Chief John Timoney defended its original intent as a tool for keeping tabs on the riffraff associated with hip-hop culture. (It should be noted that Timoney also said the binder caused more trouble than it was worth and that he planned to burn it.)
Still it was interesting to see opposite ends of the cultural spectrum side by side in a panel discussion. Stonewall Chief Timoney looked surprisingly comfortable sitting next to Luther "Luke" Campbell, the potty-mouthed rapper who won a landmark Supreme Court case regarding First Amendment rights back in the early Nineties. Seated in the audience, I was hoping Luke would take a couple of cracks at Timoney and Miami Beach Police Chief Don De Lucca. Instead he actually dropped a few notches on the street cred meter when he said he calls the police whenever any potential trouble-making rappers, such as 50 Cent, arrive in town.
Luke let the Black Host Committee have it when one of its moderators referred to the rapper Luke admittedly tattled on as "50 Cents." He quickly interjected, "See, that's why the Black Host Committee should have a member of the hip-hop community on board. That's ridiculous!" It wasn't long before Luke and BHC chairman Henry Crespo began arguing; the latter flaunted the fact that he lives in "the hood," while Luke lives in a posh place in Miami Lakes.
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But by far the most exciting exchange occurred between Chief Timoney and David Mays, publisher of The Source magazine. Timoney began with the Miami Herald's claim that the binder was being used by Miami and Miami Beach police for surveillance purposes. "The Herald article about local police surveillance on rappers is pure fiction," he bellowed. "As for the binder that caused many to have valid suspicions, they need to understand that police would be remiss not to investigate what is happening in light of what was going on with the East Coast versus West Coast in the rap industry. There were bodies in New York, Los Angeles, and Las Vegas, and there was a belief that it would eventually spread to other cities, but it quieted down."
At this point Mays chimed in. "This is complete misinformation," he said. "There is no East Coast versus West Coast war. It was created and sensationalized by the press. And comments like the chief's is perpetuating all the negativity that surrounds hip-hop, which is a shame. Hip-hop is a positive and empowering culture." Mays never got around to answering a question about his own magazine's coverage of the East Coast/West Coast beef back in the mid-Nineties.
The rest of the symposium was pretty telling. De Lucca, a middle-age white man, said, "I didn't realize that this was a culture that went beyond the music. I feel I am coming to a better understanding of it now." Other aged (though not elderly) speakers said they felt enlightened by the intricacies of a lifestyle they had formerly viewed as nascent and completely alien.
This had me thinking: Where have all these people been for the last 25 years? Hip-hop is not new. So why are they reacting to it with such befuddlement? Cedric Mohammed, political activist and Wu-Tang Clan's former manager, had a good answer. "A bunch of politically and economically empowered black people is a threatening thing," he said.