There’s been a lot of angst about hip hop lyrics in the wake of the Don Imus firing. Sure much of commercial hip hop is misogynistic, homophobic and crassly commercial, but few commentators have taken a step back and asked why commercial hip hop is the way it is. Most have been content to lay the blame at the feet of rappers, like Snoop Dogg. It’s akin to killing the messenger.
There is a vast universe of hip hop out there — much of it positive and thoughtful — but that’s not what we hear on commercial radio or often see released on the major labels. To a large extent, the blame rests with the companies that are putting out the music, as Jeff Chang, an FMC advisory board member and hip hop historian, and Dave Zirin point out in an astute piece in the Los Angeles Times this week.
MUCH OF THE criticism of commercial rap music — that it’s homophobic and sexist and celebrates violence — is well-founded. But most of the carping we’ve heard against hip-hop in the wake of the Don Imus affair is more scapegoating than serious.
Who is being challenged here? It’s not the media oligarchs, which twist an art form into an orgy of materialism, violence and misogyny by spending millions to sign a few artists willing to spout cartoon violence on command. Rather, it’s a small number of black artists — Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and 50 Cent, to name some — who are paid large amounts to perpetuate some of America’s oldest racial and sexual stereotypes.
Local hip-hop scenes are thriving. Great art is being made not just in music but in visual arts, film, theater, dance and poetry. It can be seen in the works of Sarah Jones, Nadine Robinson, Rennie Harris, Kehinde Wiley and Danny Hoch. Hip-hop studies is a rapidly growing and popular field at colleges and universities, with more than 300 classes offered. In hip-hop after-school programs, voter registration groups, feminist gatherings and public forums, the future of hip-hop is under discussion. These hip-hop thinkers want to take the culture that unites many young people and channel it toward political engagement. In 2004, voter registration campaigns using hip-hop to target youth produced more than 2 million new voters under the age of 30.
To confuse commercial rap made by a few artists with how hip-hop is actually lived by millions is to miss the good that hip-hop does. If hip-hop’s critics paid attention to the hip-hop generation, they would learn that the discussion has already begun without them and that they might need to listen. Then a real intergenerational conversation could begin.