Tag Archives: racism

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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Dear (Fellow) White People:

WhitePrivilege

Back in my grade school years, I developed a mindset that socioeconomic circumstances trumped skin color. I was raised in a relatively humble middle class home, attended an inner-city public school, and didn’t have cable TV. I didn’t inherit a trust fund or have a fancy car in a garage waiting for my 16th birthday. I was aware that there were kids born into families much better off than mine, and there were certainly kids who grew up in worse conditions. But my whiteness, I thought, didn’t make me any better or worse off than any other middle class sixth grader.  Woopty doo.

Convinced that our country’s problems were disproportionately blamed on race, I believed that improving America’s socioeconomic gaps would fix all of our problems. Segregation was a thing of the 70’s. Racism started and ended with Remember the Titans.  I lived in this mythical America where skin color was no longer a burden, and rather an aesthetic difference that contributed to cultural diversity. I gradually learned that this was all a product of my imagination, a fairy tale that continues to embody the façade of equal opportunity, freedom, and the ever-attainable American dream.

I’m not sure when the separation started, exactly, but I began to notice that number of black kids in my classes dropped drastically by the year. I was placed in “scholars” classes and shipped off to “gifted” programs once a week–both of which were, not coincidentally, stocked with the majority of the white kids enrolled in the Pittsburgh Public School system. There were a handful of black kids who received the same special treatment, but they were undoubtedly the exception.

As the grades went higher, the number of black students in my classes grew smaller. Was it merely a coincidence that my black peers had lower reading levels? That they were placed in larger “mainstream” classes with less teacher-student attention and inferior curriculums? That the only times I would interact with my black friends were on the school bus and in gym class?

The more black students disappeared in my classrooms, the more I realized that my educational experience was a microcosm of present-day racial segregation, a prime example of the many benefits I received because of my whiteness. It wasn’t until I reached college that I grasped how few white children had more than a handful of black classmates ranging back to their kindergarten days. I found myself thankful that I even attended an inner-city school, hearing from my college peers that their suburban prep schools rarely had more than ten black students, total. I imagined assembly halls filled with blissfully ignorant white children, celebrating black history month like it is some sort of annual accomplishment.

We find ourselves wondering why there are so many white people who have no idea what white privilege means. Who have never unpacked the knapsack, never grasped the blessings of their whiteness, or been called out for racist remarks or attitudes. They grew up to be the people who cried out for Obama’s birth certificate, who labeled Affirmative Action as reverse racism, and attended rallies in support of Darren Wilson’s innocence.

The truth is, my dear fellow white people, that we will never rid ourselves of our privilege. Feeling guilty about our whiteness does nothing to change our problems. Privilege isn’t a stain that we can scrub away. White privilege is the elephant in the room that only gets bigger and more damaging the longer we ignore it. We can only start empathizing, start changing the ways we view racial inequality, and stop contributing problem.

We can stop teaching children that racism ended with the 1970’s civil rights marches. Keep each other from perpetuating the myth that Obama’s election marked the beginning of a post-racial America. Stop bragging that we have black friends, as if it’s some sort of pass-go card to avoid being labeled a racist. Put an end to using commercialized hip-hop to categorize, homogenize, and diminish an entire group of people.

We can stop assuming that our justice system is colorblind. Realize, for instance, that the War on Drugs isn’t really about drugs at all, but rather a crusade led to intentionally target and incarcerate minorities. Accept that racial profiling establishes present-day caste system that labels black youth as suspected criminals because of their skin color. We can come accept that our current system takes advantage of the reality that plenty of people of all races commit crimes in this country, and uses this fact to police certain areas, prey on minority groups, and leave black youth feeling lucky being alive and out of jail by the age of 25. We can change who and what we vote for, and decide who and how we want to enforce our laws.

We can stop pretending that we deserve the jobs that we inherit because our grandfather’s grandfather made boatloads of money on the backs of slaves. Stop insisting that our legacy admittance to Yale was somehow a merit of our own accomplishments. We can call out our co-workers, friends, and family for racist habits.

Well, even after all this, we’ll still be privileged, but at least we can get up in the morning and proudly say that we aren’t part of the problem. At least we can go about our privileged white lives knowing that we are doing something to stop the oppression that burdens black Americans from birth. That carries with them from the hospital crib to the preschool, from the classroom to the workplace. From the convenience store to the jail cell to the cold hard asphalt that Michael Brown lay dead on for four hours. We can protest.

For too long, I believed that my own principles were somehow enough to reach some peace of mind that I wasn’t contributing to the damaging ways of white folks. But we, as white people, cannot sit back and blame “the white man” for having a stronghold of American discourse. We can’t lay blame on the police force and the judges and the teachers, because these people are our former classmates, our co-workers, our family and friends. As members of the white community, we are to blame.

I’m not saying that it’s our fault that we were born with white skin. We are, however, at fault for the destructive oppression that our own community has afflicted on American minorities for centuries. We must hold ourselves responsible for changing the ways we enforce our laws, educate our children, and treat each other on a daily basis. Only then can we claim to be part of the solution.

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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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Kanye West: The Crazy, Ranting, Inarticulate Genius

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America, y’all have to see me.  Y’all have to get used to this face.

Imma stand for everything I’ve seen in my life.  And Imma try to express that to yall the best I can.  And I feel like I’m creative enough to make it work.

In my heart, there’s so much stuff I want to say to the world…it’s like I really got a lot on my mind.  I’m not using rap as a way that I’ll get paid or something.  I’m using it as an opportunity to really say some stuff that I think needs to be heard.

I probably don’t have to tell you who I’m quoting here.  In part, because his confidence and passion have echoed the same message throughout his career.  And perhaps even more so, because clips from his interviews have been circling the web for weeks.

 But these quotes aren’t from recent interviews, they’re excerpts from Kanye West’s hour-long interview on MTV’s You Heard It First (YHIF), in 2002. 

Two years before he released his first studio album, The College Dropout

Four years before he went on a nationally televised telethon for Hurricane Katrina and uttered the famous claim “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” a moment that the president would later claim to be the worst moment of his career. 

Seven years before he jumped on the stage at the VMA’s and interrupted Taylor Swift’s speech to announce that “Beyonce had one of the best videos of all time.”

And eleven years to the present, 2013, in which he’s projected videos screaming injustice and present day slavery, ranted at concerts about corporations and media misinterpretation, gotten into feuds with the likes of Jimmy Kimmel over a parody sketch of his BBC interview, and broken out into screams in several live interviews.  And how could I forget, Kanye released his sixth studio album, Yeezus.  A work that projects the rapper at his most angry, violent image to date.

Yes, America, I think we’ve gotten used to this face.

And plenty of Americans have turned against Kanye, either because they don’t like the aggressive sound of his new album, or they don’t like how he continues to rant on interviews or denounce the same corporations that he participates with. He’s even been labeled as crazy, idiotic, and childish, when in fact, he’s none of these things.  He’s a producer-rapper-fashion designer who, in everything he’s done artistically, has expressed the grave racial injustice that has slowly been hushed, systemized, and  subsequently accepted by the American mainstream. 

What makes you think Kanye is crazy?  Because he rambles in live interviews, and looks like he might cry every time he exhales? Because he breaks off into tangents about the white hierarchy of the fashion industry when asked why he worries so much about money? 

What makes you think he’s unintelligent?  Because he can’t fully compose himself to articulate a message that has been misunderstood and hushed and concealed for decades? That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

What makes you think he’s childish?  Because he strings together anecdotes that appear to have no correlation?  Because he starts yelling when an interviewer suggests that he’s going about things all the  wrong way? 

Sure, Kanye is egotistical and loud and persistent.  At times, he’s out of control and often, he has trouble articulating his message.  But he’s also more brave and passionate to stand against the entire industry of American racial injustice more than any other artist of our time.   There are things that are severely wrong with our country.  Money determines everything. Corporations have ridiculous amounts of money, and use to perform pathetic puppetry on the government. White hegemony has grasped a stronghold on American wealth, and uses it to carry on a nepotistic system that praises familial or fraternal connections over work ethic or achievement.

In an interview with New York City’s 105.1 program The Breakfast Club, Kanye spoke out on this deficiency:   

“You know we don’t know nobody that got a nice house. You know we don’t know nobody with paper like that we can go to when we down. You know they can just put us back or put us in a corporation. You know we ain’t in situation. Can you guarantee that your daughter can get a job at this radio station? But if you own this radio station, you could guarantee that. That’s what I’m talking about.”

White families more often live in neighborhoods in which the property tax funds better education for their children, ensuring that they can go to college based on their plethora of opportunity and financial support. Neighborhoods that aren’t policed and racially profiled by cops who are eager to put black people in jail to maintain systemic mass incarceration, fueling further economic gain through privately owned prisons that make their money from collecting inmates. Sounds a little like, oh, I don’t know, slavery?  If you think Kanye is crazy because he’s stating these truisms, then I urge you to reevaluate your perception of the role of racism in the American hierarchy. 

There’s plenty more in The Breakfast Club interview.  Kanye speaking on his futurist views, and how he compares himself with Steve Jobs and Walt Disney.  Speaking on his disputes with corporations such as Nike over royalties and fashion boundaries.  Claiming that he’ll be in the history books in a few decades. 

And yes, Kanye often struggles to articulate his thoughts in a linear form for interviews.  Does this make him unintelligent?  That he can’t come up with a perfectly eloquent answer to a question like “How are we slaves if we have a choice?” A question that requires a multilayered response, dipping into commercial control, the roots of slavery and white manipulation, and a thesis full of other complexities. 

Kanye West is not a teacher.  He doesn’t aim to educate the masses or start a career in public speaking.  Instead, he’s an artist, whose art has ignited flames of misunderstanding and confusion.  Because Kanye is taking chances, and sending messages that no one else has been brave enough to even consider, he feels compelled to explain himself to the masses.    

Sure, plenty of Kanye’s claims dismiss any sort of humility on his part.  But we’ve never loved Kanye for his humility.  We’ve always seen him as an egotistical maniac who could care less about what people think of him, or what he’s supposed to say, or what kind of music he’s supposed to make.  That very ego fueled a decade of brilliant music production, several momentous occasions in the public spotlight, and some a few ruffled presidential feathers.  You can see the hunger in Kanye’s eyes in the 2002 interview with YHIF.  It’s the same hunger he carries with him today, a burden to throw injustice back in the face of white America. 

If that makes him crazy, then what does that mean about us?

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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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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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All Them Fallin’/For The Love of Ballin’: Sports, Hip-Hop, and American Race Relations

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The 66th anniversary of Jackie Robinson’s monumental debut in Major League Baseball has inspired me to write a post on the current issues we face with professional sports, hip-hop, and race relations.

Let’s get one thing straight: an entire college course could be taught on the plethora of racial issues intertwined in sports and hip-hop.  Countless rap songs portray the harsh reality that from a young age, black men are taught that there are only two ways to break away from inner-city poverty: either be blessed with the skills to make it to the NBA, or pursue a rap career.

Hip-hop is scattered with sports references. J. Cole’s entire catalogue, for example, follows a metaphorical path of athletic success: The Warm Up, The Come Up Friday Night Lights and The Sideline Story.  This model for success—get rich or die trying–presents a new-age, narrow-minded image of the American-American dream.  Pull yourself up by the bootstraps and get signed by any means, because there’s no use pursuing a career as a doctor, lawyer, or banker with an education from inner-city public schools. The majority of role models for today’s black youth are either on stage rapping about monetary success, or on TV signing multi-million dollar contracts to play professional sports. The spotlight given to athletes and rappers provide a “they made it, so why can’t I?” mentality to black youth who have suffered through poverty too much to idealize anything less than a high-class lifestyle.

The main problem here, is that the probability of success in either field is lower than any other professional pursuit.  Even worse, failure along either of these paths, even after success in the underground rap scene or collegiate athletics for example, leaves next to nothing to fall back on.  The idealized African-American success story, in reality, ends much more often in tragic letdown than in triumph.  Young black men in poverty who don’t succeed in professional sports are often left with inadequate education.  They are drawn toward the only glorified option left as a means for monetary success: drug dealing.

Kanye West’s line in “Gorgeous” comes to mind: “All them fallin for the love of ballin/got caught with 30 rocks the cop look like Alec Baldwin.”  Notorious B.I.G. also chimed in on “Things Done Changed:”

If I wasn’t in the rap game

I’d probably have a key knee-deep in the crack game

Because the streets is a short stop:

Either you’re slinging crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot

For every player who signs a deal in the NBA and has the fortune to move their family out of the dangerous neighborhoods from which they came, there are hundreds of young men who remain stuck in poverty.  Young men who were ushered through their high school (or even college) classes because they were stars on the basketball team, but were left with nothing to show for it.

While professional sports do provide an avenue for the lucky few who are blessed with incredible talents, they also perpetuate a flawed, misleading ideal for African American youth.  Moreover, professional athletes and rappers give others a façade to deny any existence of present-day racism.  When Adrian Peterson voiced his opinion that professional sports are a modern-day form of slavery, an angry reaction erupted, citing how much money these professional athletes make compared to the average American income.   I don’t align with Peterson’s view that professional sports are present-day slavery, per se. But there is something significantly wrong when young black men are taught from birth that they need to attain athletic success, so that rich white men can pay to watch them compete as a spectacle.  As if pointing to the few famous black men who have attained elite success somehow negates the fact that most black men are considered lucky if they don’t die before the age of 25.

For me, the most severe problem is that escaping from inner-city poverty is a ridiculously difficult task.  Faced with racial profiling, endless crime, and a disintegrating education system, who can blame these kids for looking up to athletes and rappers, who to this day remain the only prominent role models for the black youth.  Perhaps we need to change how we glorify athletic success, especially at the high school and college level.   Instead of spending so much money funding athletics, why don’t we spend our time, money, and attention creating other avenues to escape poverty, so that our future children will have role models in any field they wish to pursue.

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