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Hip-hop's socially conscious side
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.
But none of the critics who accuse hip-hop of single-handedly coarsening the culture think to speak with members of the hip-hop generation, who are supposedly both targets and victims of the rap culture. They might be surprised at what this generation is saying.
In his recent PBS documentary "Beyond Beats and Rhymes," filmmaker Byron Hurt made clear that rap music can be as sexist and homophobic as it can be positive and enlightening. Marginalized young women and men have found their voices in hip-hop arts, gathering to share culture at b-girl conventions around the world or reading for each other in after-school poetry classes. Hurt's film pointed the finger where it needs to be pointed — at American popular culture, which has trafficked in racist and sexist images and language for centuries and provides all sorts of incentives for young men of color to act out a hard-core masculinity.
If all the overnight anti-hip-hop crusaders really cared about the generation they want to save, they would support the growing Media Justice movement led by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and such outspoken women activists as Malkia Cyril and Rosa Clemente. The group contends that such media powers as Emmis Communications and Clear Channel have corrupted hip-hop radio.
The critics would engage young public intellectuals like Joan Morgan ("When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost"), Gwendolyn D. Pough ("Check It While I Wreck It") and Mark Anthony Neal ("That's the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader"), who are defining what they call a new hip-hop feminism.
The gap between the programming on Viacom's MTV and BET and young people's interests seems never to have been bigger. According to the Black Youth Project, a University of Chicago study released in January, the overwhelming majority of young people, especially blacks, believe rap videos portray black women negatively. That's one reason rap music sales declined 20% last year and remain down 16% this year.
Yet sales are a poor indicator of what is really happening in hip-hop.
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.