Category Archives: Essays

On Ferguson: White Fear Murdered Michael Brown

Ferguson

America was watching as St. Louis County Prosecutor Robert McCulloch scraped through every minor detail of the events of August 9, 2014. Painfully and impatiently, we heard this tired white man repeat the alleged interactions between Darren Wilson and Michael Brown; an incident that left Michael Brown lying dead on the asphalt and Darren Wilson in protective hiding, on paid leave from his post as an enforcer of the law.

Here was McColloch, sluggishly repeating that we know barely anything about why Michael Brown’s life was taken. And somehow, this uncertainty was appropriate background to justify a Grand Jury’s decision not to indict Darren Wilson. The jury wasn’t harbored to decide whether or not Wilson was guilty of murder, but rather if Wilson should be tried for his actions.

We have our decision. Wilson’s judgment to fire multiple rounds at Brown was concretely justified, says McCulloch. He feared for his life, and as an officer of the law, used “proper training” to shoot and kill a young black man.

I remember, vividly, the last time our nation gathered to hear one man speak. Barack Obama took to the stage in Chicago to announce a victorious presidential election. Like many, I was in tears over the moment. It seemed as if the nation was changing before my eyes. As if the dreams of Martin Luther King Jr. were realized in a moment of collective joy.   And yet we find ourselves, six years later, gathering around TV sets and rallying in the streets because the American justice system continuously justifies systematically profiling, incarcerating, and murdering American citizens solely because they are black.

McColloch’s statement treats Michael Brown’s death as a tragic, yet isolated incident. And by detaching Brown’s death as one event of tragic uncertainty, he attempts to excuse Wilson’s actions merely as an officer trying to do his job. In reality, this is one of many incidents of black men being targeted, instigated, arrested, and murdered.   Police officers continue to justify using their weapons because they are consumed with white fear; because they were raised and trained to see black men as useless thugs who belong either dead or in jail.

We cannot treat this decision as simply one incident of a white officer killing a black man. If we do, we ignore this culture of systemic profiling, of dangerous, poignant racism that underwent a significant surge directly following the election of Obama.   No, Rudy Guliani, Ferguson isn’t about black on black violence. No, Don Lemon, Ferguson isn’t about rowdy looting protestors. No, white America, Ferguson isn’t about Black rage or “reverse racism.” These issues are irrelevant topics to distract the American public from facing the fact that white people have reacted to President Obama’s election the same way we have reacted to any progress black Americans have ever accomplished in our nation’s bloody timeline of race relations.

Ferguson is about white fear; the same white fear that drove whites to create Black Codes to maintain supremacy after the abolishment of slavery. The same fear that had whites clutching to Jim Crow laws long after segregation was publicly eradicated. The same fear that urged present day republicans to establish the antiquated voter ID laws to intentionally prevent large portions of the poor black community from participating in our so-called democratic elections after we elected our first black president.

The same white fear inspired Darren Wilson and countless other white police officers to turn black citizens into thugs and “demons” who pose a threat to their livelihood, and therefore deserve to be shot and killed.

If we can’t enslave them, we’ll shackle them with laws. If we can’t segregate them, we’ll make them powerless. If we can’t control them, we’ll incarcerate them. And if at any point we feel threatened, we have the right to kill them.

Fear can stem from misunderstanding, lack of exposure, misrepresentation, or cultural differences. This mass white fear, however, cultivates itself in hatred. A cyclical hatred of black progress. Hatred of this illusion that white people are somehow losing their grip on American supremacy. Hatred of any threat of American post-racialism.

No, fellow white people, we cannot claim that we live in a post-racial America, and yet simultaneously use that façade to justify a mass hysteria that we have lost our superior majority. If we ever want to make any sort of claim to post-racialism, we need to stop fearing black progress, and using that fear to justify the mass incarceration and murder of black Americans.

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Rappers As Victims: Blame for Perpetuating Racial Stereotypes is Misplaced

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You might’ve seen the video once or twice. As the beat fades in, the camera scans a crowd of young black men standing on a street corner. Some guys are holding styrophome cups, others are leaning on cars, and a few are making gun motions with their hands. The camera zooms in on the crew’s leader, Bobby Shmurda, whose cold eyes stare into the lens as he begins to recite the lyrics to his hit song, “Hot Nigga.” The song, which made Shmurda famous in a matter of days, is a classic braggadocio of the rapper’s street presence and power. He raps about the daily dealings of his gang: “selling crack since like the fifth grade,” “running through checks till I pass out,” and, living up to his name, “try to run down and you can catch a shot, nigga.”

What do you see when you watch the video? A young artist selling himself out to the narrow ideals of commercialized hip-hop? A dangerous hoodlum who belongs in jail? A thoughtless kid who is obliviously perpetuating racial stereotypes of black men?

I see a victim.

Shmurda is a victim of white music executives, who throw money at him to portray a rigid, idealized character of the young black thug. Why? Because white suburban kids get a thrill out of imagining hundreds of black kids toting guns and selling drugs. Because rich white guys can sleep at night knowing that they are personally responsible for continuously codifying black men into a singular image of the dangerous black thug. It’s just another reason to throw that kid into jail for having a gram of marijuana, or saying the wrong words to a police officer, or making the wrong motion with his hands. The more black people we throw in jail, the less we have on the streets, and the more money we have in our pockets.

Here’s a brief sample of comments that sit below the video on YouTube:

“America would be much better if slavery still existed,”

“Wow just straight fucking niggers..this is why black people were better as slaves…look at them now…we don’t want some trashy biggest going around fuck that shit #stupidfuckingniggers.”

“These rise of the planet of the apes DVD trailers are looking good”

Somewhere, a rich white music executive is leaning back in his office chair, cheesing.

He’s a victim of peer-pressure, that suffocating presence that captures young black men in poverty, tempting them to protect themselves with gangs and violence and drug money. For many young black men, gang affiliation is not a choice. If you grow up on a certain black, you are assumed to be part of gang. If you aren’t affiliated with one gang, you are assumed to be part of another, and your life is in danger. If you want to walk home from school without getting mugged or shot, you need the protection of your peers. If you want to make anything over the measly minimum wage, you need to deal drugs. This cultural dilemma is a direct product of the four-decade war on drugs and the failures of the public education system. As long as drug dealing produces more money any job that doesn’t require a college degree, young black men will resort to gang affiliation.

Blaming Bobby Shmurda for perpetuating racial stereotypes is victim blaming. It’s like blaming women for getting sexually assaulted because of the way that they dress. Shmurda is not the first to release a music video bragging about his crew’s violent tactics and drug money earnings, and he certainly wont be the last. He is one of many rappers who fall victim to the temptations of white music executives, and we can’t blame him for that.

We can, however, encourage more funding for public education and after-school programs. We can start supporting artists who promote socially conscious lyrics. We can stop supporting white music executives and turn off the radio. We can end the war on drugs and provide our youth with rewarding jobs that pay enough to feed families. We’ve got a lot of work to do, but there is no time for blaming victims. We don’t need to give that rich white guy another reason to sit back in his chair and smile about his misrepresentations of black culture.

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Re: Dear White Gays: Stop Stealing Black Female Culture

Earlier this month, TIME magazine published an essay by Sierra Mannie, a young black woman who made an eloquent, fervent plea for white gay men to stop stealing black female culture. Simply put, we need to “check [our] privilege.” Mannie embodies the voice of many black women who are sick of seeing white gay men appropriate their fashion, slang, and style with no apparent awareness of their own inherited privilege. She claimed that these white gays have no notion of the line between appreciation and appropriation, and that this reenactment of black womanhood was therefore an offensive gesture.

Mannie’s essay is, without question, a profound statement, and it forced me to consider a different perspective on the behaviors of the white gay community. Some of her arguments, however, leave no room for the complexities of masculine and feminine identities within the gay community. She steps back momentarily to explain that she isn’t trying to “suck the fun out of your life” with her demands:

All of this being said, you should not have to stop liking the things you like. This is not an attempt to try to suck the fun out of your life. Appreciating a culture and appropriating one are very, very different things, with a much thicker line than some people think, if you use all of the three seconds it takes to be considerate before you open your mouth. If you love some of the same things that some black women love, by all means, you and your black girlfriends go ahead and rock the hell out.

This conflict is not as simple as “you can have your fun with your black girlfriends, but don’t take my culture.” Mannie claims that the line between appreciation and appropriation is “much thicker than some people think,” but doesn’t expand upon where this line begins and ends. The gay men who I know that come remotely close to appropriating black female culture are not doing so for pure enjoyment. They act this way out of appreciation, and more-so admiration for black women. They repeat slang phrases because they find them to be powerful expressions of femininity, a perspective that Mannie’s essay very rigidly dismisses: “womaness is not for you.”

I don’t have any claim to womanhood, but in this world where masculinity still has a firm grasp on cultural power and agency, I find the expression of the dominant feminine to be few and far between. Regardless of our white male privilege, gay men still have a rightful claim to femininity, and I’m proud to say that some of our best role models are black women. Women like Sierra Mannie and Beyonce and Lauryn Hill and Maya Angelou. I admire the way they express their femininity with such grace and power.

When white gays repeat a phrase like “throwing shade,” they may not be trying to appropriate black female culture. I, like many gay men, can often relate more to this expression of feminine power over the violent, rigid world of the masculine. In embracing and expressing the feminine, are gay men not then surrendering to its societal burden? Are we not leaving ourselves vulnerable to the oppression and discrimination that comes with feminine embodiment? While I certainly have the choice to pass as a straight man, isn’t my abandonment of this choice—whether it is manifested through the admiration of black female culture or through other mediums—a way to tear down the wall of masculine supremacy? The gay community has enough trouble idealizing masculinity and degrading feminine expression, as I’ve already explored here.  We don’t need any more voices telling us that we have no right to the feminine just because we have the privilege of passing as straight, or the convenience of getting back in the closet.

I have to assume that Mannie’s impressions of white gays are limited to young gay men who are still trying to figure out how to express themselves. And while they do not represent the entire community of white gay men, there are plenty of white gays who choose to imitate drag queens on RuPaul’s Drag Race because they finally have a source of feminine power to relate to, but have no concept of the line between admiration and appropriation. They just know that they love telling their friends to “sissy that walk” or “oh no she better don’t.” And this is by no means an excuse. I think her essay goes a long way to stop white men from “breathing fire behind ugly stereotypes” of black women. The gay community does not get a free pass to objectify black women or appropriate their culture, and we are responsible for policing our own circles to stop any sort of perpetuation of “ugly stereotypes” that mock women, or the black community, or any other community that faces oppression at the hands of white privilege. As much as her plea has surely resonated with the small sample of white gays who imitate black women for pure enjoyment, she fails to delve into the complexities of the problem. We shouldn’t be saying “don’t even think about identifying with black women.” We should be asking why gay men seek refuge in black female culture, and why they identify with the strength expressed through black womanhood.

Racial appropriation, alone, is part of a larger problem that extends far past the gay community. To think that white gay men have any right to identify with black oppression because of their own experience with discrimination is erroneous. Drawing parallels between black and gay oppression doesn’t do any good for social progress. White people–gay or straight–who perpetuate black stereotypes or appropriate black culture for enjoyment are inherently racist. There is nothing about my sexuality that will ever erase my white privilege, and nothing about my experience that will ever make me understand what it’s like to face the burdens of an American societal system that was built to privilege whites and disenfranchise the black community. But I don’t think singling out white gay men for their appreciation of black women is a solution, especially without considering that any semblance of misappropriation is certainly rooted in admiration for black female culture, and for the strength of feminine expression.

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The Same Love Conflict: Macklemore, Le1f, Angel Haze, and the Search for an Authentic Voice for Gay Rights

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I’ll admit it. I shed a tear or two when I first saw Macklemore’s “Same Love” music video.  The heartwarming story of two men sharing their lives together.  Walking along an aisle of scattered flowers to join hands in marriage. Embracing each other in a hospital room. The whole nine yards. Maybe it was because I had never seen gay marriage portrayed on the stage of mainstream media.  Perhaps I thought it represented a larger movement among straight allies to support LGBTQ rights. Possibly it’s because I had just began my journey as an openly gay male. Whatever the reason, the tears were there.

In retrospect, the video is somewhat of a token anthem; something for straight people to post on their facebook and say: “this song was a hit! Macklemore is such a great guy! It’s ok to be gay!”  Yet, we’re still at the point where queer hip-hop is forced underground, popular hip-hop groups still throw out “faggot” as an insult, and thousands of teens suffer from suicidal thoughts because they’re excommunicated by their families and churches, bullied by teens, and misrepresented in mainstream media.  Same-sex partners are forced out of hospital rooms, denied civil rights on a daily basis.

I’m not saying that Macklemore has done any wrong by making the video.  We need allies in the straight community to speak out in support. But there’s a part of me that’s nauseated at the fact that queer artists have been pushing the same message for years, and Macklemore comes along, makes one record in support of LGBTQ rights, and it goes platinum.

So when Le1f went on a twitter rant criticizing Macklemore’s video, I wasn’t surprised.  For those of you who don’t know Le1f, he’s a leading voice in queer hip-hop.  His most well-known song, “Wut,” features lyrics like “Ukrainian cutie –he really wanna cuddle/The fever in his eyes. He wanna suckle on my muscle.”  One of his songs is titled “Gayngsta.”  In “Fresh” he spits:

I made this song for my girls in Timbs, boys in gems posing real femme

It’s not pretend. No Barbie, no Ken. Hater step up and I poison them

I poison them with a 10 10 10. Homophobes, go watch ESPN

The point is, if anyone should be the authentic voice of queer America, it’s Le1f, not Macklemore.  Le1f is the man who unabashedly breaks the boundaries of mainstream hip-hop, pop music, and the narrow ideological views of the black community.  He slides seamlessly between what we’ve defined as masculine and feminine roles.  He boasts about his conquests of men, his fabulous fashion, and how “he’s the type of john closet dudes wanna go steady on.”

But as popular as Le1F has become in the queer rap scene, I haven’t heard one second of his voice on the radio.  In fact, the most recognition he ever received was when he spoke out against Macklemore, with many criticizing him for refusing the support of a perceived ally.  Well, can you blame him?  Le1f has devoted his entire career to giving a proud, authentic voice to the queer community, and a straight white man comes along, makes one song about gay rights, and he’s made a hero.  As Le1f said best in one of his many twitter-rants: “it saddens me out that a straight man is the voice pop music has chosen for gay rights.”

As with all things, there is a grey area here.  I’m not mad at Macklemore.  I appreciate his support for gay rights as much as I want to see Le1f’s music to go platinum.  I want the straight community to support gay rights without needing a straight white guy to lead the charge with a feel-good story.  A story that hides all the bullying and suicide and discrimination.  A story that makes everyone think that the world is fully accepting of any lifestyle.  Realistically, the fact that Macklemore’s video has become this anthem for gay rights speaks volumes to how far we stand from true equality, genuine acceptance, and a space for an authentic voice for the queer community like Le1f.

If you want to hear the real story about growing up in America as a queer individual, listen to Angel Haze’s remix of “Same Love.”    Here’s a glimpse of her message, which tears down the fairytale that is so happily portrayed in the original video:

So don’t badger and abuse the solemnly defenseless

See us as yourself

There’s no equality in difference

Until we all get it, we’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

We’ll be drowning in the same blood

Despite orientation, we all feel the same love

Angel Haze has rested perfectly in the middle of this Le1f vs. Macklemore conflict.  She tells the real, bloody tale of facing childhood bullying and a narrow-minded family without bashing allies.  She provides a message of hope without ignoring the reality that we still have a long way to go.  And hopefully, her message will make us realize that how Macklemore’s video doesn’t begin to tell the real story of the present state of acceptance in America.  For now, it’s a feel-good pop anthem for straight America.

Queer rappers like Le1f, Angel Haze, and Mykki Blanco continue to devote their careers to providing an authentic voice to the gay community.  But until they gain recognition and popularity on the mainstream stage, I’ll remain unimpressed with the progress we’ve made in hip-hop, music, or the American social atmosphere as a whole.  If you’re going to be an ally, then at least be cognizant that a video of rainbows and flower petals isn’t exactly an accurate representation of acceptance in mainstream America.

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Reminiscing and Rambling: Thoughts on Subdued Racial Commentary in OutKast’s Catalog

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It’s a beautiful thing, revisiting some of your favorite childhood anthems.  Putting on a throwback jam that you listened to on repeat for days when it hit the airwaves.  Reminiscing on the exact feeling you experienced when you first heard the song and knew, right then and there, that you wouldn’t be able to get the track out of your head for at least a week.  I’ve been doing this quite often with OutKast lately, whether it’s playing “Heyya” on the commute to work, or pestering my neighbors with the funkadellic bass line of “Southernplayisticcadillacmusik” at 3 am.  My apologies to the lady in apt. 1, but I’m having too much fun with the funk.

“If not I’ll wait, because the future of the world depends on

If, or not if the child we raise gon’ have that nigga syndrome

Or will it know to beat the odds regardless of the skin tone”

With every spin of Stankonia, I’ve realized that what made me love OutKast back then was very different from how appreciate the duo now.  I remember learning how to play the chorus of “So Fresh and So Clean” in piano class, and giggling when I found out that my 8th grade English teacher’s name was Ms. Jackson; but I hadn’t even begun to realize the musical genius and political lyricism rampant in OutKast’s catalogue.  All the funk and silliness and head bobbing was a front, and I was one of many lab rats of my generation, racing around the wheel of the music industry, “sipping a milkshake in a snowstorm.”

Y’all tellin me that I need to get out and vote, huh. Why?

Ain’t nobody black runnin but crack-kers, so, why I got to register?

I thinkin of better shit to do with my time

Never smelled aroma of diploma, but I write the deep ass rhymes

I’ve only recently realized that Outkast’s catalogue acts a microcosm of the subdued tensions of racial atmosphere in the late 90’s and early 2000’s.  How was I supposed to know that OutKast had picked up where George Clinton and his Parliament Funkadelics had left off? How could I have possibly recognized that “Ms. Jackson” was a testament of black male demonization, or a critique of the flawed child support system that contributes to the tragic downfall of young black men.  I was only certain that I could listen to Andre 3K say “foreva-eva?” forever.

On a first offense drug bust, fuck the Holice

That’s if ya racist or ya crooked

Arrest me 4 this dope I didn’t weight it up or cook it

It’s no coincidence that the album that drew me into OutKast as a young teenager, Speakerboxx/The Love Below, was also the duo’s least political compilation.  Dre and Big Boi abandoned the racial commentary ever-present in Stankonia to embrace a funkier, pop-driven album in Speakerboxx, which led to phenomenal commercial success, and an entirely new fan base of young white kids such as myself who knew nothing of Outkast’s previous work.  We only knew that “Roses” was a hilarious anthem about fecal matter, “Heyya” got us up on the homecoming dance floor, and “The Way You Move” had a killer beat.   Speaking for my generation, we viewed OutKast as a goofy duo of funny black men who differed from the aggressive rappers–DMX, Ludacris, and Cam’ron, for example–who dominated hip-hop at the time.

The United Parcel Service & the people at the Post Office

Didn’t call you back because you had cloudy piss

So now you back in the trap just that, trapped

Go on and marinate on that for a minute

To think that I completely bought into this clown-like parody of OutKast’s later albums is troubling.  I wish I could’ve recognized, at the time, that these men were performing this image of happy funky black men to criticize the epidemic of subtle racism heading into the new millennium.     If you didn’t align with the “angry black gangster” identity, they couldn’t portray you as a threat to society.  If you didn’t make fun of yourself, young white kids could take your music too seriously, and maybe even learn something about the tragic systemic racism that continued to thrive in a nation insistent upon keeping up an appearance of equality for all.  OutKast proved that there was no room for the politically critical socially conscious black men in mainstream hip-hop.

Of course you know I feel like the bearer of bad news

Don’t want to be it but it’s needed so what have you

Now question: is every nigga with dreads for the cause?

Is every nigga with golds for the fall? naw

I can only hope that more of my fellow oblivious white kids take a moment to revisit OutKast’s catalogue.  Perhaps they’re realize that there’s much more to their music than shaking it like a Polaroid picture.  They just might find a new perspective on the deeper message hidden in OutKast’s music, and maybe even have an awakening about the racial injustice that has remained in the closet of mainstream hip-hop for decades.  That’s the only way the genius of the two dope boyz of OutKast can be adequately appreciated.

Now look at yourself, are you an OutKast? I know I am

As a matter of fact, fuck being anythang else

It’s only so much time left in this crazy world

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Guest Post: Taking Control; Kendrick Lamar’s Wake Up Call to Hip-Hop

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By Adam Cancryn

We are on notice.

As of about 11 p.m. on Aug. 12, we are all on notice. That’s when Kendrick Lamar dropped the verse of the year, the verse that reverberated across the internet and shocked the hip-hop community to its core.

We were shocked by the viciousness. We were shocked by the hunger. We were shocked by “King of New York” and those 11 names, rattled off with venomous precision.

Most of all, though, we’re shocked that, days later, we’re still shocked. This wasn’t just some tricky wordplay over a sick beat. This was a challenge:

Step back and look around at the hip-hop you’ve wrought. Do you like what you see?

For too many, I suspect the honest answer is no. And that’s jarring, because we thought we’d made it. A genre that started in grungy Harlem basements and on street corners in the Bronx now dominates the charts. Rappers aren’t regarded as criminals or thugs anymore; they’re celebrities. Jay-Z hangs with the president. Questlove and the Roots are on NBC every weeknight at 12:30/11:30 central. That’s a long way from “Fight the Power” or “Licensed to Ill”

Hip-hop clawed its way into the mainstream, and now it’s firmly entrenched. This is success.

It’s supposed to be, at least. But the reality is that for a genre that was once the road to opportunity for anyone with rhymes and a flow, success is now being defined and enjoyed only by an established few.

ItstheReal’s Jeff Rosenthal once joked that the same six rappers are on every song nowadays. He wasn’t far off. Hip-hop, that rebellious, proletariat anti-culture made by and for the masses, is in many ways no longer. What’s replaced it is what you see everywhere else now, from music to politics to the economy: a small, rich clique helping each other get richer on the backs of the people and streets they long ago left and mostly forgot about.

Kendrick grabbed hold of that reality and threw it in everyone’s face. He tapped into mainstream hip-hop’s lingering guilt; embraced that elephant in the studio trumpeting that hip-hop gave up a bit of its soul in pursuit of its profits. That success made it lazy. That it focused too much on bettering individuals at the expense of bettering hip-hop culture as a whole. That, after climbing to the pinnacle of music, it pulled up the ladder, closed the hatch, and left the up-and-comers behind.

Why else could he come in and just take the crown as King of New York? Why else could he name-drop 11 rappers with no fear? Why else would a simple battle rap tip the hip-hop world on its axis?

This was the wakeup call that hip-hop needed. The hope is that rappers will heed it. Because, realistically, one great verse isn’t going to hit their pockets. Drake can still make a mil off talking about how he’s catching bodies, though it must’ve been hard to do all that killing in between rehearsals for Degrassi. Big Sean can still talk about how he “really raps,” even though he knew before anyone how hard Kendrick came on “Control” and still ran out of stuff to say at the end of his own verse. Jay Electronica can still drop one song every three years like that’s an acceptable thing to do. Nobody’s bank account or popularity will suffer if they don’t respond.

But you would hope that they all have more pride than that. Hip-hop’s stars have a greater duty to both honor the culture’s past and make its future better, and it’s one they’ve failed to take on so far. The pressure is on now for them to step up and prove that hip-hop under their stewardship hasn’t just devolved into big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

And the pressure is on us now, too. We have to demand more than a bass-heavy dance track every few days. We have to seek out the best; the kings of New York, of the West Coast, of the South and the Midwest, like we did before industry A&Rs beamed the throwaway song of the day directly into our inboxes. Rappers have to prove they can really rap. We have to prove that we really like rap, and not just big talk carried by a nice EDM beat.

So that’s the challenge. A few rappers have stepped up so far, but none of the 11 have dared emerge yet. Cassidy reminded everyone he’s still a born natural punchline rapper, Astro showed his potential and even Papoose came out of hiding to drop an otherwise solid diss track derailed by a rare combination of lyrics that were at the same time anti-feminist, xenophobic and homophobic. But the hunger long missing from hip-hop was there. They were punching up, and doing so furiously.

The next few weeks will teach us a lot about the state of hip-hop. It’s a chance for us to conduct a sort of recalibration of the ranks, a correction from the this-should-be-good-enough era. Kendrick reset the bar, and we’ll soon find out who’s suddenly too short to reach it.

Adam Cancryn is an editor and co-founder of the sports blog Began in ‘96.  

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Magna Carta Holy Grail: Jay-Z and the Significance of the New Black Elite

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When Jay-Z released his twelfth studio album, Magna Carta Holy Grail, I wasn’t in the right mindset to assess it properly; honestly, I don’t think any fan of hip-hop was.  I had just been on a bizarre trip to the land of Yeezus, where I was shouted at, crooned to, and scolded for my white privilege.  Of course, as soon as Magna Carta dropped, the inevitable question of “which album is better” arose.

“They’re different,” was my concrete answer.  Albeit lazy, this was the only response I could muster at the time.  Why do we feel compelled to compare two albums with completely different aspirations? When I started this blog, I didn’t aim to post reviews rating albums as good or bad.  I don’t make top-ten lists of tracks or artists of the year, or God forbid, “best rappers alive.”  MTV can have that role.  I created this blog to make a space for assessing the cultural value of hip-hop music, not to tell the world that I think J. Cole’s Born Sinner scored a 7.

That being said, I understand why Magna Carta scored poorly among critics.  After a couple weeks of spinning the 40-minute explosion that was Yeezus, full of angry critique of modern day racism and consumerism, Magna Carta felt like a repetitive drag of a work.  Aside from a handful of tracks that flaunt vintage Hov–somewhereinamerica and Picasso Baby are clear favorites—there are several songs that I find myself wanting to skip through when I listen through the album. But honestly, I’ve felt the same about Blueprint 3, American Gangster, and even Vol. 2…Hard Knock Life. 

Jay-Z has never set out to make a concept album that was meant to be listened to from start to finish.  Rather, Hov’s main goal, from the birth of his rapping career, has been to make money and consequently rap about it.  Lather, rinse, and repeat.  Despite these moments of repetition that appear in every Jay-Z album in recent memory, we can still find value in the  broader implications of Jay-Z’s catalogue, and furthermore, his iconic persona in the American cultural sphere.

The fact that Jay-Z has reached elite status in American society from bragging about selling large amounts of drugs is significant in itself.  His success completely revamps the American dream, tearing down the traditional model of going to college, working a 9-5 salary job, moving through the ranks and so on.  When Jay-Z was a youngster, that dream wasn’t readily available nor attractive to young black men like himself, and we haven’t made much progress in to improve upon that reality for today’s black youth.  In truth, today’s black men are consistently hampered by racial profiling and the war on drugs, suffering through poverty in homes without fathers and schools without adequate funding.  Not much has changed, and therefore, Jay-Z’s success remains a glaringly relevant slap in the face to the worn out, unrealistic, and nearly unattainable “American dream.”

If you can’t understand why a black man who rose from poverty, bragging about how his daughter can lean against a Jean Michel Basquiat painting because it is hanging in his house, is culturally relevant, then you must reassess your awareness of American race relations.

To criticize Jay-Z for rapping about his newfound elite status, as if it were in some way separating himself from his roots, would be ignoring the significance of his upbringing in the first place.  Jay-Z is not responsible for spelling out the significance of his success as a black man in America, although he does just that quite eloquently, with the help of Dream Hampton, in his memoir Decoded (If you haven’t read it, I suggest you add it to your summer reading lists).

As my favorite author Zadie Smith writes in her New York Times profile of Shawn Carter, “The House That Hova Built:”

“Asking why rappers always talk about their stuff is like asking why Milton is forever listing the attributes of heavenly armies.  Because boasting is a formal condition of the epic form.  And those taught that they deserve nothing rightly enjoy it when they succeed in terms the culture understands.”

Aside from making a poignant comparison between Milton and hip-hop, Smith highlights the importance of Jay-Z’s braggadocio throughout his career.  No, he doesn’t scream at white America for modern day racism, or make public outcries about President Bush being racist.  But his ascent to elite status as a black man in white America still carries profound cultural value.  For me, that’s much more important that discussing whether Magna Carta deserves a spot in 2013’s top-five albums list.

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Fraudulent Fireworks: Trayvon Martin, Racial Profiling, and America’s Broken Justice System

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We at war.  We at war with terrorism, racism, but most of all, we at war with ourselves

I didn’t get a chance to see the July 4th fireworks this year. I got out of work 20 minutes after the downtown celebration, but I thought it’d be nice to take an evening stroll through the packed streets of Pittsburgh.  Maybe soak up a little independence and raise a toast to liberty.  Halfway through my loop around the downtown triangle, police sirens sounded off from around the corner, and a large group of black teenagers began sprinting down the streets.  Girls and boys, ages 12 to 20, ran with fearful eyes, looking back only to make sure they didn’t leave their friends behind.  I remember vividly, a boy sitting on the sidewalk after he had run for a couple blocks, gasping for breath, checking every corner to make sure he was out of sight from the police.  For a brief moment, he was safe from being the next young black man behind bars.

These kids hadn’t done anything wrong.  What I witnessed was an ingrained, burning fear of police sirens; a trained reaction to run from law enforcement no matter the occasion. And I just stood there, nauseated with my white privilege.  This is liberty?  This is freedom?

They don’t want peace, they want a nigga deceased/So he’ll cease to be a problem, and by the way they perform/It seems the Klan gave the white police another uniform

Perhaps, for people blessed to have grown up in a small town setting, it’s difficult to understand why young black Americans hold a life-long hatred of law enforcement.  The inner city has a much more tenuous relationship with the justice system.  Police officers aren’t the neighborhood’s friendly guardian.  They’re the anonymous white man who knocks down your door to take your father away; the flashing lights that follow your every move, waiting for you to make a mistake that merits handcuffs;   the street patrol that stops you on your walk home to pat you down head-to-toe because you look “suspicious.”

The death of Trayvon Martin  isn’t an isolated incident, and George Zimmerman isn’t America’s only monster.  Martin’s death is just another tragic example of how black men are viewed, profiled, and treated in a so called “post-racial” America.  What advice would you have given Trayvon Martin that night?  If anyone approaches you, run for your life?  Don’t wear that hoody, put on a bright yellow American eagle shirt to make you less threatening?  Don’t go to the store to get skittles in the first place?

‘Son do you know why I’m stopping you for?’ Cause I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low?

Telling a young black man that the only thing preventing his imprisonment or death is to avoid the streets at all costs, as ridiculous as this might sound, is good advice.  Zimmerman decided to leave his car and pursue Trayvon Martin.  Zimmerman pulled the trigger that killed an innocent black teenager.  But we can’t label Zimmerman a racist monster and pretend like his actions were out of the ordinary.  That would be a lazy excuse to avoid dealing with a problem deeply ingrained in our country’s race relations.  We pay police officers every day to detain young black men because they look suspicious.  We make the laws that justify Zimmerman’s actions, enable stop and frisks, and allow for the mass incarceration of black men through mandatory minimum sentencing and double standards that target minorities every day.

This is to the memory of Danroy Henry.  Too much enemy fire to catch a friendly

It’s time we take a look at our society’s broader problems with racism.  Listen to one hip-hop song, and you might understand how it feels to be profiled and patrolled from birth because the of the color of your skin.  George Zimmerman made the news because he took the law into his own hands, but there are plenty of cases that don’t make national news because the so-called “monster” was in a police uniform.

Trayvon Martin is dead.  George Zimmerman is a free man.  Sure, we can protest for justice for Trayvon.  But why not take a stand for justice for the entire black community?  Why not fight against the war on drugs, racial profiling, and the inevitable mass incarceration of young black men? Until then, those July fourth fireworks will only be a façade of liberty, a revolting distraction from the police sirens that terrorize our country’s minorities.

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Parental Advisory: The Brutal Reality of Misogyny in Hip-Hop

My mother would stubbornly insist on having sit-down family dinners as often as physically possible.  Often, these meals would consist of brief anecdotes about my parents’ work frustrations, neighborhood gossip, or my most recent book assignment for class.  I  usually had nothing to contribute aside from answering their questions with the least amount of information possible before I scooped another twirl of spaghetti into my mouth.  But this time, I had something on my mind.

“I have something to announce to you both, “ I said, trying to hide my nervous shaking with some façade of confidence.  Both of my parents put down their forks and raised their eyebrows simultaneously.

“I think I should be allowed to buy parental advisory CD’s.”

This request wasn’t the bold statement my parents had expected.  They didn’t have a clue what was going to come out of my mouth.  But this family rule, prohibiting me from purchasing any explicit music that wasn’t previously censored, had been grinding away at my temper for some time now.  I was eleven years old, attending an inner-city public middle school.  I was bound to hear explicit language regardless of my parents’ restrictions.  It only seemed fair that I should be able to purchase Eminem’s latest album without the corny edits.  My mother thought otherwise.

“Name an album you want to buy,” she proposed, “and we’ll look up the lyrics and talk about why I don’t you think you should be listening to it.”

Perfect, I thought, I’ll pick an album that’s about love and companionship.  I’ll prove her wrong.

So there we were, looking up the lyrics to Ja Rule’s most recent album “Pain is Love.”  I know, you’re probably laughing now, because I naively picked an album titled “Pain is Love.”  What I initially thought would be my mother’s soft introduction to a softer side of hip-hop turned into an endless nightmare of “I told you so.”

At the obliviously confident age of eleven, I was trying to explain why I should be able to listen to Ja Rule rap about his so called “love” of women, with lyrics like: “Hold down on the bed while I’m yankin your braids/Thug style, you never thought I’d make you smile/While I’m smackin your ass and fuckin you all wild.”  I had convinced myself, perhaps because of the song’s catchy hook, that this was a love song.

Sometimes I find myself, eleven years later, still turning a blind eye to the ever-prominent displays of violent sexism in hip-hop.  For whatever embarrassing reason, I’ll cringe at one mention of the word “faggot” buried in a song centered around sexually dominating the entire female population.  This conflict appears in my hip-hop critique, too, as a few of my close friends have confirmed. I’ve written countless pieces praising rappers–Kendrick Lamar, Kanye West, and Common to name a few–for their socially-conscious messages without so much as addressing the rampant  misogyny in their verse.

Playing the “naïve brainwashed victim” role isn’t a substantial excuse.  I’ve close-read far too many hip-hop lyrics to try and pretend like rappers don’t objectify women in disgusting fashion.  Rather, I’ve been puzzled about how to appropriately criticize this glaring conflict.

Just as hip-hop embraces the “Black CNN” role for reporting inner-city violence, the genre’s widespread sexist imagery is a testimony of much broader, equally complicated problems within our societies double standards on gender and sex. We can label all mainstream hip-hop as offensive, sexist garbage, but that won’t change the fact that women are objectified in all areas of artistic expression, fashion, the workplace, and countless other platforms.

I don’t intend to give rappers a free pass on their sexist content.  But rather than dismissing its presence as simply wrong or shameful, we’re better off asking more critical questions: why is misogyny so frequently used to assert excellence or status? Why do rappers feel the need to objectify women, or use them as metaphorical subjects to claim dominance?

I don’t have simple answers to these questions. I do know that rapping about money and hoes is the easiest way to get a hit single on the radio.  Countless rappers align with this role of a sexually dominant pimp, in part because they feel pressured to perform that image, not necessarily because they believe everything they say in their lyrics.  From the schoolyard cypher to the BET Awards, hip-hop finds itself grounded in a braggadocios mindset.  Every rapper wants to be at the top, and this guy at the top has plenty money and plenty women, so why not start rapping about making it rain at the strip club?

Then, there are rappers who are simply being honest about their sexist thoughts. Sure, we can blame them for openly discussing their misogynist state of mind, but do they really deserve more culpability than any other 20-something straight male who objectifies women?  We can criticize rappers for perpetuating the idea that sexism is acceptable, and we should. But we must also recognize that their lyrics display the brutal truth about the tainted relationship between men and women in our society.

The problem, as I see it, is that men are born into a culture that glorifies sexual dominance over the opposite sex.  The alpha male is the ultimate desirable image, whether it be a CEO, rapper, or a pimp on the streets.  It’s the same glorified image that convinced me that Ja Rule was singing a genuine love song when he bragged about yanking braids and smacking asses.

I’ve made it a personal goal to criticize rappers more often for their sexist lyricism.  Even my favorite rappers are responsible for perpetuating an image of a sexually dominant, and inherently successful man.  But let’s take it a step further, and recognize that hip-hop isn’t here to paint a pretty picture about the world.  Hip-hop will always thrive on screaming the candid reality of our societal problems into our ears.  If we dismiss these rappers as repulsive scoundrels, then we just can’t handle the truth.

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The Death of Radio: The Liberating World of Hip-Hop Outside of the Airwaves

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Every once in a while, I resort to tuning into the radio in the car.  My iPhone is dead and, God forbid, the Usher “Confessions” album is skipping through my favorite verse of “Burn.”  Or maybe I just feel like partaking in a bit of brainwashing on my evening cruise–Hear the same five songs on repeat, start learning the words, jam out to a Kei$ha sing-a-long–It’s a slippery slope, that radio dial.  The music ain’t bumpin’ like it used to, and we should let it burn.

Modern-day disc jockey are shameless puppets of radio executives, plugging in pre-made playlists that repeat five or six songs on an hour cycle because they’re told such.  Your request is only honored if it plays into the game plan.  Some rich white guy approves of your song choice, because it perpetuates a societal stigma or stereotype.  He’ll just love it if you’re itching to hear songs that portray diamond laced black men bragging about their money and hoes.  He’ll make sure the volume at the main station is “turnt up.”  Oops, I didn’t mean to get that political.  Who knows if he’d block this article if it was published on a mainstream website.

And still, plenty of artists rely on radio play to propel their album sales.  Top billboard spots are the product of some bizarre, controlled popularity contest.  I find myself asking: Do I really like this song, or are “they” telling me what to like?  Of all things, we let “them” control our music, perhaps the most potentially influential sphere of our culture.  The business of radio maintains a stronghold on an art form that was created and harvested from a yearning for individual expression.

Luckily, it seems as if hip-hop has had enough. Utilizing a strong network of music blogs and well-connected fan bases, today’s rapper is far less dependent on the radio than the Nelly’s and Ja Rule’s of the last decade.  We’ve reached a point where radio play and hit singles are more burdensome than they are rewarding.   I discover new hip-hop talent by browsing hip-hop blogs and taking recommendations from friends with trusted taste.  Why would I rely on some faceless radio robot to tell me about the “hottest tracks out there.”

We’ve heard rappers bash the radio industry for years, but their tenuous relationship has certainly evolved.  Whereas hip-hop used to have a rebellious, “we can get rich and famous without your spins” attitude, present day artists treat the radio as less of an obstacle and more of an obsolete medium that has driven itself into irrelevance.

Gone are the days when rappers released hit singles to propel their upcoming album.  Instead, we have online releases from their personal websites and twitter-feeds.  We have six-track mixtapes and bonus tracks and, as of last week, worldwide video projection on inner-city buildings (thanks, Yeezy).  Artists like J. Cole release their music directly to fans, and Wiz Khalifa makes us feel like we’re hearing tracks as soon as they’re recorded in-studio.

In 2004, for example, Kanye rapped on “Jesus Walks” about radio’s barriers:

That means guns, sex, lies, videotape

But if I talk about God my record won’t get played, huh?

Well if this take away from my spins

Which will probably take away from my ends

Nine years ago, radio’s censorship controlled rappers’ “spins,” which ultimately affected their “ends,” their monetary income.  Almost a decade later, Kanye is releasing his next album without a pre-order or hit-single.  His only leaks stem from his world-wide video projections and a live SNL performance.  He has essentially created a worldwide concert audience to spotlight radio’s recent insignificance, and he isn’t alone.

Hip-hop has had a liberating realization that a world without the radio means no censorship, no contract disputes, and no more rich white men telling us what music to listen to.  Giving out music for free is more beneficial than selling your lyrical soul to the industry.  Now, we hear rappers bragging about how much money they make off of a show or appearance, rather than how many times they’ve gone platinum.  After all, they’re making much more money proportionally from concerts and merchandise than from album sales.  A ridiculous portion of album sales go directly to the same rich white men who control the radio.

It gets better.  The internet movement allows us to discover new artists like never before.  As much as Wiz Khalifa still uses the radio to promote albums, he relied on a grass-roots twitter movement to gain fame.  Curren$y left Young Money because he was tired of record label nonsense, and harvested his own fan base through internet streams and free mixtapes.  In the early 2000’s, Curren$y would’ve just been that guy we heard on “Where Da Cash At” and never saw again.  Wiz Khalifa would probably still be in Pittsburgh, still smoking blunts.  One of my earliest posts on this blog discussed how Kendrick Lamar used the radio to trick people into hearing a socially conscious message, masking lyrical relevance with a catchy hook.  He is one of many rappers who still release radio singles, but have figured out how to use it to their advantage.

Artists who continue to rely solely on the radio are behind the times, and it’s evident. Lupe Fiasco, for example, hasn’t figured out how to escape the limits of radioplay.  His most recent albums have painfully driven by a mainstream sound to garner “spins,” and the socially-conscious that made all of us fall in love with Lupe has dissolved into a muffled corniness.  He also started beef with a popular hip-hop blog, 2DopeBoyz, for leaking his song prior to his album release.  I’ll refrain from taking sides on music ownership and sales, but Lupe certainly lost the battle with the internet.  2DopeBoyz refuses to post about his music, cutting off Mr. Fiasco from a large database of hip-hop fans.

Taking this recent movement into consideration, I’ve learned to take radio for what it is: a monotonous stream of one, decade-old joke.  Listening in is certainly funny at times, if I need my fix of censored hooks like “A long-bad-b- is not my, not my problem/and yeah I like to—I got a—problem” (Yes, it certainly sounds like you have a problem, A$AP.  You shouldn’t let the radio get a hold of your tracks.) But usually, I like to stay away from the dial, even if it means I have to clean my  “Confessions” disc every so often.

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