|By A.D. Freudenheim||
18 June 2001
Last week, industry leaders and artists from the hip-hop music movement gathered in New York, at a summit convened by music legend Russell Simmons. Simmons, who became famous as a co-founder of Def Jam Records, an early and important rap music label, is seen as an elder statesman of hip-hop, and just the kind of important (but somewhat apolitical) figure who could organize a conference for this occasionally fractious group of artists. His goal: to discuss the future of hip-hop music and the direction it should take - artistically, politically - as its popularity grows and as mainstream American audiences continue to adopt it.
However, aside from the prestige of gathering these people together - which catches the eye of the news reporters and television cameras, and gives everyone a fair shot at being quoted - the real issues for this conference were nailed down by Manning Marable, the head of the Institute for Research in African-American studies at Columbia University, who said "The political moment for the hip-hop generation has arrived. We must find a new language of resistance."
Earlier rappers (and rap groups) such as Public Enemy brandished their political opinions like weapons, but always, it seemed, with the understanding that their words had weight. Since the popularization of "gangsta" rap by artists like Dr. Dre and Snoop Doggy Dog, the tone of violence - in both the music itself and the community of artists who make it - appears to have risen. The murders of rappers Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., along with media-glorified trials such as the one for Sean "P. Diddy" Combs and his colleague "Shyne" only seem to prove the point.
This suggests that Marable's use of the word "must" is the correct one. It may be time for hip-hop artists to confront the two key paradoxes (and challenges) facing them, their industry, their art, and their audiences. The first is simple: can the voices behind the music articulate an effective argument that clearly shows how the medium of hip-hop is not the same as its message? And, if so, can they then argue that there is still no need to reduce the amount of violent, sexual, or drug-related content in their art?
The first paradox should be easy to overcome in the eyes of all but the most conservative cultural critics. However much one doesn't like the rap or hip-hop musical styles, the artistic issues are different than the content issues. Rapper and actor Will Smith, who became a star under the moniker "Fresh Prince," is a good example of the possibility of success without vulgarity, since his songs mostly avoid profanity or violence. Groups like Arrested Development followed in that vein, drawing more on humor and intelligent word-play than on rough-and-tough imagery. It is not a foregone conclusion that rap or hip-hop music must be violent in order to be "real."
Arguing for reducing the violent or sexually-explicit content in the music is another thing entirely. Some do fight it, such as summit-organizer Simmons, who was quoted as saying that "...I'd love to see more social, politically conscious" rap. Others are more ambivalent; the Reverend Louis Farrakhan, leader of the Nation of Islam, addressed this issue implicitly when he spoke at the summit. Farrakhan asked rappers to acknowledge that their art has an influence on its audience, even as he defended the content for being a reflection of "aspects of a government that is 'gangsta'." Rapper Luther Campbell, famous as a member of the banned group 2 Live Crew, also acknowledged the contradictions, noting that he has, on the one hand, "been fighting this battle [over free speech] for about 12 years now," but also agreed that "parents should definitely be concerned."
Despite this, lowering the volume of sex, drugs, and violence in hip-hop, even as they're acknowledged to be bad influences, isn't so easy - particularly if the popular (and occasionally, media-fueled) view is that rappers must take this content out of the music in order to save it and restore its integrity. The belief appears to be that hip-hop's integrity depends in large part on the perception of audiences that the artists themselves understand the things they're rapping about; that they not only have experienced a hard life but that, in many ways, they continue to do so. Unlike white teeny-bopper pop stars such as "'N Synch," whose credibility quotient appears to decrease as both the artists and the audience ages (remember "Menudo" or "New Kids on the Block"), hip-hop stars seem to face a different kind of pressure.
With good reason, perhaps, given what could easily be called a "crisis" in the African-American community. According to numbers from the Bureau of Justice Statistics for the end of 1999, more than 3,400 of every 100,000 black men in the United States are in a Federal or state prison. Reduced to a smaller scale, that means more than 34 of every 1,000 black men have some kind of governmental restriction on their freedom and independence. Compare: that's more than twice the 1,335 (out of 100,000) number for Hispanic males, and more than three times the number of imprisoned white males (417 per 100,000). With so many young black men behind bars, the appeal of music that seeks to explain and justify, condemn and condone the problems in the black community is obvious - despite the fact that it reinforces the same poverty and impoverished values that helped create this crisis in the first place.
To reject the idea that rap or hip hop can change is to reject the idea that those who listen to the music can change themselves, when clearly, neither is true. While it may be that singing or rapping about violence doesn't create violence any more than singing or rapping about peace will make peace, it can have an effect on how people approach their life and their community. Even if audiences can make distinctions between the "entertainment" aspect of the music industry and the realities of life, with rap (and pop and rock) musicians who can't keep the distinctions clear for themselves, it isn't surprising that audiences find imitating the stars - while the stars themselves mimic real life - appealing.
Ultimately, the long view will be the one that is required to survive. Variety's Justin Oppelaar reported that Cornel West, a professor of African-American studies at Harvard University, "stressed the importance of music as both a reflection of and an agent for change in society, citing historical examples ranging from Miles Davis to Marvin Gaye. Hip-hop, despite its flaws, is capable of carrying on that legacy." Professor West is on the mark. Even if everyone agrees that the content of hip-hop lyrics is not the cause of social problems within the African-American community, and is not to blame for the numbers of young men behind bars, it may nonetheless be that by its very nature hip-hop has to be part of the solution if it wants to avoid being part of the problem. Which, for that matter, goes for the rest of us as well.
Summit probes rap's potential," by Justin Oppelaar,
Leaders Focus on Hip-Hop," by Nekesa Mumbi Moody, Associated
Speaks at Hip-Hop Summit," by Nekesa Mumbi Moody,
Adopt Stricter Warning Labels," by Nancy Chandross,
Bureau of Justice Statistics, U.S. Department of Justice.
Oppelaar, 13 June 2001
Copyright 2001, by A.D. Freudenheim.
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