Insight vs. incite
The onetime head of the National Congress of Black Women, C. Delores Tucker goes down in hip-hop history as one of the music’s most famously formidable foes. In 1993, after setting eyes on lyrics from Snoop Dogg’s debut album, “Doggystyle,” she recruited Bob Dole and William Bennett for a crusade against gangsta rap -- which she deemed, on the U.S. Senate floor, “pornographic smut.”
That hullabaloo encouraged Time Warner to dump its share of Interscope, the distributor for gangsta rap label Death Row Records. For this victory, Tucker remains triumphant: Snoop, she declared during an interview years later, was “committing genocide on our children, and I had to stop him.”
That victory, of course, was fleeting: Today Snoop’s career is thriving, and Interscope is not only alive and well, it’s caught up in a recycled controversy. The recent renaissance of gangsta rap and its real-life accouterments -- multiplatinum albums by Interscope artists 50 Cent and the Game; a heated rivalry between the two that, in March, climaxed in gunplay outside a New York radio station -- has spawned a resurgence in hip-hop antagonists who, though more even-minded than Tucker, are as alarmed as she was in the ‘90s.
In May, the year-old Coalition for the Revolution of Corporate Rap -- several hundred L.A.-based college students, religious leaders and activists -- staged a rally in Santa Monica and issued an online “Rap Manifesto” (at www.TakeOurMusicForward.com). It calls for “an all-out consumer assault on mainstream music corporations that are censoring black artistry by signing and promoting only a certain flavor of rap music.”
The group -- like its endorser Al Sharpton, who has taken the cause to town meetings and the FCC -- urges record labels to regulate hip-hop violence and asks fans to boycott Universal Music Group, owner of Interscope Geffen A&M; and Island Def Jam, until the company agrees to diversify images in rap.
But if Tucker’s tumult from a decade ago teaches us anything, it’s that attacking record labels and the conglomerates behind them is an ineffective tactic.
Gangsta rap is like a cockroach infestation: Shining a light on it can cause some scurrying, but curbing it is a Sisyphean task. Targeting the corporate powers-that-be boldly ignores the practical here-and-now of the situation: Like it or not, children do listen to 50 Cent’s verbal gunplay and gossip about his real-life gunplay.
While adults are busy battling companies, youths are soaking up the good, the bad and the ugly of hip-hop culture. If critics are worried that, as the “Take Our Music Forward” movement puts it, “girls and boys who are bombarded with these damaging stereotypes cannot develop the self-esteem they need to succeed,” then where are these little girls and boys in their immediate game plan?
Travis Dixon, assistant professor of communication studies at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, has wondered just that. “Exposure to violent media has an effect on aggressive behavior -- it’s been proven,” says Dixon, whose work explores audience reception of rap music. Studies have shown, for example, that teens exposed to violent rap expressed greater acceptance of the use of violence.
Dixon says, “Now we’re beginning to say, ‘What do we do about it?’ Most scholars are loath to promote censorship, so we don’t want to move in that direction. What’s the alternative?”
One that’s been gaining currency in the last five years or so is media literacy.
“People are not robots,” Dixon says. Instead of passively absorbing their cultural influences, they synthesize and filter them through various frames of reference. Especially among preteens and teens, who are particularly susceptible to surrounding images, such synthesizing is promoted and refined by media literacy training, which helps young people become shrewd readers of pop culture -- not inert consumers of it.
“Hip-hop is, hands down, the most important issue that’s facing young people today. If we’re not confronting it, we’re missing the boat,” says Elana Yonah Rosen, the founder and director of Just Think, a 10-year-old San Francisco-based nonprofit (www.justthink.org) that produces national curricula and develops media literacy programs for educators, particularly in low-income communities.
Recognizing that countless young people formulate identities -- senses of style, buying habits, even morals and ethics -- from hip-hop songs, videos and culture, Rosen also recognized that plenty of teachers, who can’t tell Biggie from Tupac, are ill-equipped to tackle the subject in their classrooms. So Just Think added a curriculum to its offerings: “Flipping the Script: Critical Thinking in a Hip-Hop World.”
Kym Glanville, community outreach director for Just Think, has seen this curriculum work wonders among youths.
She’s seen students analyze, for instance, the feud between 50 Cent and the Game in light of a fact most didn’t know coming into the class: These artists share a record label. This simple point, Glanville says, profoundly affects their sense of how “real” rappers are; students who look up to the men as independent agents suddenly begin to comprehend that 50 Cent and the Game are also characters who, like most images on television, “are created, manipulated and put out by various media agencies.”
Glanville has seen students examine images of women in a particular rap video, then shattered their indifference to those images by posing a simple question: Would you like that woman to be your mother or your sister?
They’ve counted the number of brand names flaunted in a video and then, after claiming that endorsements don’t affect their buying habits, located those brand names in the classroom -- on themselves and other students.
Such exercises, Glanville continues, are lessons in theory -- “They haven’t just deconstructed a music video; they’ve explored misogyny, politics, power dynamics, economics,” as well as real-world tactics in the fight against unfortunate side effects of hip-hop culture.
Glanville holds herself up as an example of how successful such tactics can be: She grew up in a housing project in the Bay Area and, while in high school in the mid-'90s, participated in a Just Think pilot program that trained her to “think critically about the elements of media.”
Exposing the elements
Stanford University graduate Wanda Watson, on the other hand, grew up in Harlem and says she wasn’t “directly given the tools necessary to think critically about hip-hop.”
While studying education in college, Watson -- who begins graduate work in education at Stanford this fall -- began working to change that.
She taught a hip-hop literacy course to middle-school students in East Palo Alto; among its aims was training students to “distinguish between music that [is] garbage, thought-provoking, or purely entertaining.” This meant exposing young students to lyrics by socially conscious acts -- Dilated Peoples, Talib Kweli, Dead Prez -- whose recordings they’re unlikely to hear on mainstream radio.
Watson’s approach suggests that hip-hop, like any other piece of pop culture, is a paradoxical melange: stunningly creative, inspiringly progressive -- and brashly and depressingly lowbrow. Even the pop hip-hop scene is diverse enough to house bulletproof vests (50 Cent) and cable-knit sweaters (Kanye West).
Pigeonholing artists as either “conscious” or “consumer-driven” is a challenge; Jay-Z, for instance, is practically a poster child for conspicuous consumption, yet he’s also responsible for last year’s potent hit “99 Problems,” which touches on racial profiling and police misconduct.
Thanks in part to the Alliance for a Media Literate America, a national leadership organization, all 50 states have in the last two years incorporated some form of media education into their curricular standards.
What that means, however, is widely divergent: For some states, media education is merely bringing video equipment into the classroom; for others, it means adopting a state-approved curriculum such as Just Think’s or sending junior high and high school teachers to training courses such as that offered by New York City’s Partnership for After School Education: “Teaching Literacy, Media Literacy, and Critical Thinking Through Hip-Hop Culture.”
So as activists busy themselves with boycotts and contemplate how low hip-hop culture has sunk, media literacy programs provide young people with the skills to process intelligently whatever that lowbrow culture should send their way.
Such programs transcend rhetoric; they move beyond theory and into practice. And practice -- analyzing, reading, thinking critically -- is just what the next hip-hop generation needs.