In hip-hop culture, we tend to refer to hip-hop as a thing, a possession, a living person. It is the spook that sat by the door, the infiltrator into mainstream society, the one that blew up black culture, the great corrupter. Back in the day, Chuck D famously crowned it as Black America's CNN, an up-to-the-minute source for news usually buried under mainstream America's doublespeak. On his brilliant debut Black on Both Sides, Mos Def raps a free verse in "Hip-Hop," extolling its qualities, only to reach the conclusion: "Hip-hop will simply amaze you, craze you, pay you, do whatever you say do, but black it can't save you."
Today, though, hip-hop has become our id, an impulse that too often leads to extraordinary acts of violence and brazen sexuality followed by remorseful shame. We honor the late Tupac Shakur because he could switch from being a thug who would kill without hesitation into the wayward son of the Black Panthers who advocated for revolution and was so sick of the man he saw in the mirror that he asked on "Changes," "Should I blast myself?" We love the late Notorious B.I.G. because he "hypnotized" us with his words, then admitted that he had "suicidal thoughts," validating our own fantasies of self-destruction.
Many acts have been committed in hip-hop's name, most of them lyrical and metaphorical. Some of them are so profound that we roar our appreciation, as when Public Enemy organized a fictional prison break on "Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos." Others are so horrific that we dare not speak of them, lest the rest of the world knows what evil we have associated ourselves with. Remember when DMX fantasized about raping an enemy's fifteen-year-old daughter on "X is Coming"? How about when Ja Rule condemned Eminem's daughter Hailie to grow up into a "slut" on his mixtape dis track "Loose Change"? To the listeners who read about it on MTV.com and subsequently downloaded it through the Internet, "Loose Change" sounded like the desperate railings of a fading rap star. But what makes Eminem any better when he tosses invectives such as "Bitch, you make me hurl" at imagined and real lovers on his own "Superman"?
In Hip-Hop Immortals: We Got Your Kids, a provocative new DVD documentary that explores the subjects captured in the acclaimed photography book of the same name, the cornerstones of the hip-hop Matrix are fetishized, criticized, and analyzed: cars, jewelry, endorsements, pornography, music videos, games, shoes. Ruff Ryders executive Dee Dean calls the rap game a "dance with the devil," a way to make money, get rich, and move out of the hood (or, in Eminem's case, the trailer park). It's a familiar morality tale narrated by writer Bonz Malone that results in young, impressionable children wanting to follow in the footsteps of their fathers, for better or for worse.
Malone's timeline accurately explains how big business, not necessarily the quality of the music, helped push the industry toward elephantine proportions. When the music was stripped of its humanity and reduced to the sum of its creators' obsessions, it became iconic, much in the way that Stepin Fetchit is a memorable, though maligned, cinematic touchstone. Black essence becomes "street credibility," as if black culture were nothing more than a dice game or a screwface.
Hip-Hop Immortals is all too eager to talk about the results of the hip-hop generation's success, but it doesn't reveal our secrets. A few days ago, a friend of mine marveled to me how someone like LL Cool J, or Snoop Dogg, could rap about committing violent acts on wax and still get paid to hawk corporate brands like Dr. Pepper and AOL. Most of the stars on the DVD consider this a point of pride. "We exploit ourselves," says Eve. "Why not?"
But what if you flip the equation? Corporate America uses these rap stars because they speak a language we can understand: drug dealing and addiction, pimping, broken homes, warring neighborhoods. They don't offer solutions to the community's problems. They just exploit it.
Who's to blame? Several artists pass the buck, indicting parents, other artists, themselves. But no one mentions the Faustian deal that has already been struck. It's no accident that the Fugees' 1996 The Score is the only rap album in the past decade to incorporate a thematic scheme wider than the familiar lust/crime trope and still sell five million copies. To win entrée to the fast life, we must act out the roles America expects us to play. We're "niggas"; we gotta keep it dirty and grimy. We've made it so, and now we can't do anything else.
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Call it typecasting. This was driven home to me when publicist Hasan Brown invited me to attend a presentation the Miami-Dade NAACP recently made at Booker T. Washington High School. Last year the State of Florida gave the school an "F" grade; its students scored a mere 18 percent on the reading portion and 34 percent on the math portion of the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, a statewide exam students are required to pass in order to receive their diplomas.
You couldn't tell from the physical beauty of the high school's campus that the state is impugning its reputation. The lawns there are neat and manicured, and the buildings are clean and free of markings. Inside the auditorium the school' s eleventh- and twelfth-grade classes cheered on as local rappers Draz and Infinite, then several members from Youth Expressions, rhymed about strong male/female relationships, integrity, and not selling out (a concept Hip-Hop Immortals' gallery of stars claimed was an oxymoron). People really got into it, leaping out of their seats and even turning on their cell phones the way rock fans often lift up their Bic lighters in salute. At one point a few students tried to get up and leave, but were quickly shushed back to their seats by the hall monitors. Is that an example of a bad school?
After the show was over, I went backstage and talked to Bruce "B-Right" Wright, co-chairman of the NAACP's arts and entertainment sub-committee, and Jack Delus, who promotes events at downtown Miami's Club NV and sits on the steering committee for the NAACP Youth Power Summit (scheduled to take place May 7-9 at the Coconut Grove Convention Center). "There's so much focus on the FCAT that we didn't want to throw more stuff at them," said Wright about the performance. Nevertheless the show managed to be both entertaining and positive -- the same qualities that major-league rappers allege are corny and not marketable.
I was both inspired and depressed. If an auditorium full of hundreds of students can bounce to clean rap, then why can't the record industry figure out a way to reach them with the same content? Wright said that it starts from the ground up. "As far as what's projected on TV, on the radio, we're trying to change that," he said. With luck, they'll grow up to remake hip-hop culture in ways we can't find the courage to do.