Tag Archives: Race

Rappers As Victims: Blame for Perpetuating Racial Stereotypes is Misplaced

bobby-shmurda

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.

Tagged , , , ,

The Injustice of Incarceration

Jail Bars

It wasn’t until after I learned the capitals of all fifty states.  After I had been lectured on the triumphs of American independence and the basic principles of my country’s foundations of freedom and liberty and pursuit of happiness.  I even learned of the abolishment of slavery and the progressive narrative of the Civil Rights movement of the 1970’s, before I found out that the United States still had prisons.

I clearly remember standing at the window of my father’s downtown office, looking down at the courtyard of the old Allegheny County Jail, watching uniformed black men play basketball, wondering why they were surrounded by large walls and barbed wire.  Before this point, I was fully convinced that prisons were storybook structures, and jail time was a punishment that fell out of practice sometime between the middle ages and whenever Les Miserables took place (my older sister was an avid fan).

Let me be the first to admit that this delayed comprehension of the American Justice System was only made possible by the fact that I was born into stable middle class white family.   I didn’t live in a neighborhood that was policed heavily, my parents never faced trouble with the law, and I grew up under the infinite protections of white privilege.  I was never suspected of thievery, or pulled over or patted down by police because of my race.  I never had my father dragged out of my home for petty crimes, and I wasn’t raised by a struggling single mother who had to choose between working a second job and reading to her children.

I say all of this, primarily, because I’m certain that if I were born with a different color skin, that I would have learned about the harsh realities of mass incarceration long before I actually did.  That I would have been racially profiled, perhaps patted down and pulled over because of my skin, and maybe even dragged behind bars for something as trivial as marijuana possession.

Far too many Americans hide behind the façade of post-racialism, and refuse to acknowledge that systemic racism is alive and well, operating within the mass-incarcerating machine known as the American Justice System.  The notion that everyone holds equal rights and faces equal punishment is a myth.  People of all races commit crimes, and our current system relies on that fact to target and heavily police minorities to perpetuate a myth of inferiority. Once thrown in jail, young black men are stripped of their rights, removed from the voting population, and denied access to education.  These so-called “correctional facilities” are nothing but modern day slave cells.

I’ve written frequently about how hip-hop addresses racial profiling and mass incarceration on this blog.  How black men often lament that they’re lucky to reach the age of 25 without being incarcerated or dying. On the tragedy that jail-time and death have become a forced rite of passage for rappers, and on how it’s problematic that these rappers gain authenticity through punishment and fatality.

And yet we wonder why so-called “family values” have deteriorated in urban neighborhoods.  We ask why these children aren’t being read to, aren’t being fed properly, and aren’t forced to attend school.  What do we expect when police these neighborhoods heavily, thrown their parents in jail, and wonder why they can’t get a job that will properly support their children.

Go ahead, ban Donald Sterling from the NBA.  Boycott Justin Bieber and Paula Deen for their racist remarks.  Whatever convinces you that you don’t perpetuate racism enough to fall asleep.  None of this will fix the fact that white children can go through a large part of their lives without even knowing that prisons still exist, meanwhile black youth are targeted by police and introduced to the perils of incarceration from birth.

Tagged , , , , ,

Snubbed for his Skin: Kendrick Lamar’s Racially Charged GRAMMY Rejection

Image

When Kendrick Lamar took the stage at the 2014 GRAMMY Awards, he stared right at thousands of well dressed white people sitting in their seats, staring awkwardly at this rapper they might’ve heard of a handful of times.  They looked nervous, not knowing what to expect from this so called good kid from a M.A.A.d. city.  He was interrupting that Radioactive song that had heard on a couple commercials and they SO couldn’t wait to add to their running playlist now that they knew the artist’s name, so he’d better make it quick.

Four minutes later, the tuxedos stood and the flashy dresses swayed. This Kendrick guy had just spit two verses about gang violence and young poverty with a hungry motivation that would make you believe he had just escaped the madness of Compton.  All of a sudden he was jumping up and down pounding a bass drum with his hands, and they had to clap along.  If you haven’t seen the performance, I suggest you check it out.

So this was the guy who just lost in all seven categories in which he was nominated? Listen to the last verse of the song, which didn’t appear in the original version of M.A.A.d. city, written specifically for the GRAMMYs performance.  The last few lines sound as if Kendrick expected the snubs.  As if he was screaming out to primetime television that he doesn’t give two fucks about a GRAMMY award:

Fuck, look in my eyes, tell me I died, tell me I tried, to compromise

Tell me you love me, tell me that I, don’t give a fuck and can barely decide

Wishin’ good luck on my enemies, all of my energy go to the almighty God

I could drown in a bottle of Hennessy, fuck your amenities, I’m gettin’ better with time

And why should he care?  Good Kid M.A.A.d. city will stand as one of the best albums of Kendrick’s career.  The work earned him well-deserved commercial success and acclaim, and the credibility to claim his spot as one of the best rap artists in the field.  Can he really beat himself up for losing an award because of the color of his skin?

That’s right.  The reason why Kendrick Lamar lost in all seven of his categories was because there were white artists—generally Macklemore and Ryan Lewis–in contention.  The general response to Macklemore’s GRAMMY sweep wrote off the awards show as a popularity contest.  Like every other awards show, they recognize artists because of their likeability.  Or because they’ve attained commercial success by making pop hits.  Or because they look good in the spotlight.  But most of all, because they’re white.  Skim the list of GRAMMY winners  this year, or last year, or the last ten years.  Count how many times a black person won an award over a white contender. For years, the GRAMMYs not-so-subtly awarded black artists by crowning them within the rap and r&b genre categories, rarely awarding them  with album or song or performance of the year.  Kanye West might have won best rap album or rap performance competing against other black rappers—he is  ranked sixth all time with 21 GRAMMY awards–but has never won album or song or performance of the year.

As much as I’d like to toss away the GRAMMY Awards  and every other show into a black hole  of irrelevance, the racial discrepancies here are far to pertinent to the current  state  of  American race  relations, and more specifically, how the music industry perpetuates and demonizes black stereotypes, mutes any form of socially conscious black counterculture, and rewards white artists who make us think  that everything is hunky dory. Excuse the pun.

Friends of mine can confirm that I was one of many music heads who had Macklemore’s “Thrift Shop” video on a tab, preloaded, ready to press play to anyone and everyone with a few minutes to share.  The four-minute secondary shopping spree was one of  my favorite music videos of the year.  Hell, the duo’s  album turned out to be a decent compilation.  So  when GRAMMY nominations were announced, I wasn’t surprised to see The Heist listed in several categories, although rumors have spread that the rap nomination committee stirred controversy over Macklemore’s eligibility as a rapper in the first place.

Macklemore is a rapper.  His music belongs in the hip-hop genre, and his album deserved nominations for Best Rap Album, Song, and Performance.  His race shouldn’t be a factor in his eligibility any more than Kendrick’s.  But history has spoken, and Macklemore four more awards to add on the wall, and Kendrick chose to celebrate his seven snubs with a TDE fan appreciation concert at the House of Blues, even bringing a fan on stage to freestyle to a Section 80 classic.

Macklemore texted Kendrick to apologize, saying “You got robbed” and “I wanted you to win.”  A nice sentiment, perhaps, but Macklemore shouldn’t have to apologize for his white privilege.  The issue is so much bigger than Kendrick being snubbed.  Rather, his main stage elimination is part of a long lineage of racial discrimination in the music industry.  For that, apologies have long been due, and will most likely never come to pass.  Kendrick’s electric performance was a slight slap in the face to an audience that was hesitant to clap along at first, but when the smoke finally cleared, all we seem to talk about is Beyonce’s over-sexualized twerking.

Tagged , , , , ,