Monday, September 29, 2014

Rap is not the Sound of [White] Music. And it's Jailing our Black Youth.

While a minority of America accepts this...
Potentially, my blog post title alone has jeopardized the patronage of one-third of my readership, as I have thrown down the gauntlet in opposition to a part of my own Black culture, and to America's youth, of all races, who have adopted gangsta rap as their musical mascot.  In New Hampshire, white boys, in cars, run up alongside me, blasting gangsta rap; they lift weights to it on their smart phones in the gym, and get testy when asked to lower the volume (when my squash partner tells them they're interrupting our game).

It's always nice to be accepted by your own people, so their rejection of my blog's premise might sting a bit, but I love my people too much to care about what they think about me. I also admit to being a hypocrite because I originally embraced the PG-versions of Lil Kim on the radio before I realized she was actually X-rated (I had to give the "Hard-Core"-titled compact disc away; it just hurt my sensibilities too much). I have since wished that she could put her masterful beats and unique sounds to something more uplifting than extolling
...The Majority of Americans Accept This
having sex with "King Kong," and being someone else's P-_S-S-Y.  I have subsequently watched with horror at the proliferation of gangsta rap and believe it has contributed to the demise of our Black culture, and our vilification, by white America's, and, therefore, everybody else's consequential fear of Blackness.  What any sane observer might see as an inside joke, of middle class, well-spoken black actors playing thugs (Have you listened to 50-cent speak? He could be an English teacher, with his perfect grammar), instead, has played out in disastrous ways as white men show an inability to distinguish fact from fiction--and they both jail and kill our young Black men, our erstwhile kingpin rappers.

Over two decades ago, I wrote a screenplay, called "Poetic Rap," about the relationship between two teenagers, a girl and boy, the latter of whom loved rap music. I tried to make the argument, at the time, before gangsta rap was the norm, that the poetry of rap was no different than the sonnets of Shakespeare or Robert Browning, only showing more contemporary metaphorical ways to express love and romance, and, yes, carnal lust. That's before Hollywood let loose the F-bombs and curse words on cable that allowed all of us to witness what was once kept private. Now, swearing is part of our everyday lexicon. And Rap is one of its prime ambassadors.

Not being a psychologist, it's hard for me to speculate as to why rap has embedded itself in Black culture, but I would guess that there is a certain creative satisfaction in expressing one's thoughts in iambic pentameter.  As a child, when I saw "West Side Story" on television, in suburban Los Angeles where I grew up, and when the Crips and the Bloods were just neighborhood cliques, I figured it was because they had seen the movie.  The whole gang thing seemed relatively juvenile back then: it was turf control--don't come on this street or wear this color. The lawns were all manicured in those black neighborhoods. There were mostly two-income families. When we drove down Piru street in Compton, venturing from Carson, our  neighboring suburban city, we would drive, ducking our heads for fear we might get shot at.

There was also the rumor was that one should never flash his or her car lights in certain neighborhoods, to avoid inviting trouble.

Another falsehood about the hood.

Urban legends about suburban strife.

Robinson: America's Bad Favorite Boy
Yeah. I'm a different generation, and I feel blessed to be so. I played the violin as a child, imitated Tina Turner in a church band, singing, "Come Together."  I was in the Philippines when Rapper's Delight surfaced, and in my far-away outpost would try to translate the lyrics into Cebuano when my posse of young boys would ask me what they were talking about. I had no idea it was called rap music, that it had taken America by storm, and that, thanks to Ronald Reagan, real singing would become a lost art, championed only decades later on reality TV shows where young people are forced to sing songs with lyrics and beautiful melodies, from back in the day, in order to become famous.

Black America started on its descent with the ascension of Ronald Reagan, a B-rated actor, who anointed himself the arbiter of what was the acceptable purveyor of American cultural greatness.
Celebrated thuggery
Let's not ignore the fact that his colleagues, James Cagney and Edward G. Robinson, lit up the screen with their thuggish ways, pushing grapefruit in women's faces, and being all around nasty guys.  But everybody understood when they did it--that it was only the movies. 

Blacks did not get the memo that only white thuggery can be fictional.

If you rap about gang life, you must be a gang-banger; a big irony, considering many rappers are the guys who are too small to be jocks. They would have been members in the band back in the day, or geeks. Some of them still are, truthfully--they spend their time writing poetry, then justify such a feminine trait by funking it up with sex and danger they can only sing about. Rap performances, themselves, are a contradiction in terms. The speaker doesn't have to look you in the eye, and often wears sun glasses, a hoodie, and a hat as protective gear.  The rapper can grab his crotch for security, hold the mic so it covers his face, and can talk and express in the most macho of manners--his  feelings.

Lenny Bruce and Jack Kerouac were controversial counter-cultural commentators back in the 50s, and started a brand that spawned many of the foul-mouthed comedians of today. Words aren't as potent when spoken by a white person, however.  It is not the beatniks and the hippies, now, or even conscious rap that's under attack. It's Black youth, with their pants pulled down almost to the ground, walking bow-legged, showing their defiance of... other Black people?  I'm not sure.  Somehow, seeing dark-skinned men espouse controversy is very threatening, until whites embrace it.  In fact, Hollywood, e.g., the music industry, has perfected the monster, and demands that rappers continue to dig our culture into depths of their demagoguery, and, seemingly, purposeful accelerated destruction of Black culture:

Convinced that tales of sex and violence were the most profitable among rap’s White consumer base, in the early 1990s, record companies began pressuring artists to focus on gangsta-style lyrics that were largely devoid of the kinds of social or political commentary that many ‘‘golden age’’ rappers provided (Kubrin, 2005; Weitzer & Kubrin, 2009). This pressure, combined with massive consolidation among record companies and radio stations in the years thereafter (Rose, 2008; Spence, 2011), has drastically limited the variety in mainstream rap music, with a marked lyrical emphasis on what Sharpley-Whiting (2007) calls the ‘‘‘pimp-playa-bitch-ho’ nexus’’ (p. xvii) or what Rose (2008) terms the ‘‘gangsta-pimp-ho trinity’’ (p. 13). Although there are still many rappers taking up overtly political causes—Lupe Fiasco, The Coup, Immortal Technique, Brother Ali, Talib Kweli, Jasiri X, Rebel Diaz, and Dead Prez, just to name a handful—these rappers are often relegated to hip-hop’s ‘‘underground,’’ where they can build loyal followings but rarely achieve the kind of exposure enjoyed by mainstream acts. As a result, some critics have suggested that mainstream (or ‘‘commercial’’) rap music is no longer a force of opposition. Whitlock (2012), for instance, goes so far as to call hip-hop ‘‘the lobby of the prison industrial complex,’’ while Rose (2012) argues that it’s ‘‘the cultural arm of predatory capitalism’’ (see also Gilroy, 2013).

This is a dangerous proposition, in effect, because now, where words were once a nuisance, now they can put you in jail. Charis E. Kubrin, associate professor of criminology, law and society at the University of California, Irvine, and Erik Nielson assistant professor of liberal arts at the University of Richmond, have written about the disturbing trend of prosecuting rappers for writing lyrics that merely suggest criminal behavior. The quote above is excerpted from their work, worthy of intense scrutiny for its frightening implications.  My blog cannot do justice to the extent of their research, well-documented and presented in a cogent historical light. Their research should serve as a clarion call to rappers, and Black Americans who support the genre, to reign in the gangster hyperbole:  love your race but don't facilitate our increased incarceration because of a need to support "cool." Of course, there is the corollary of what has happened to law enforcement, and its fake-cop supporters that it fears the Black rapper to such a degree that it feels compelled to snuff him out, so deplorably--but that will be another blog post for a future novel.

I'm not sure whether life imitates art, however, I believe as Black Americans we are spooked by our own story, and now live in fear of each other. I dare not try to dissect Chicago's gang strife, and black on black crime, except to say Black Americans are a complex people, riddled with inherent inconsistencies and hypocrisies (some of which I readily admit).

A subplot in my own upcoming novel addresses the relevance of rap lyrics in a criminal investigation, but muddies the waters of potential culpability in my Louisiana setting where Whites and Blacks and so many other different races embrace rap music for its violence and overt sexuality.  Things aren't always what they seem. Would Eminem ever be prosecuted for his lyrics of misogyny and Oedipal rage should anything ever happen to his mother?

The cat is out of the bag, now, however, and it's not going back in, and, as a result, the cycle of hatred for rap and black culture has now pilfered into our educational system.  Public schools are penalized for not taming the wild, rap-obsessed youth, who must often look only to themselves to learn.  With music education only tepidly trying to make a comeback, there are several lost generations of kids who only know how to rap. They don't know music, they don't know melodies, so they sample music from back in the day when most Black male entertainers had really nice singing voices, played instruments, and knew four- and five-part harmonies. We all want to be noticed for our talents. I do not begrudge the innate desire for people to practice their craft. But I despair that bags of money are being placed into the outstretched hands of hungry kids who see faux gangsta rap as their only ticket out of anonymity.

I can only hope that American capitalism embraces Venezuela's socialist answer to the question of how to bring kids out from the shadows of poverty, crime and despair: teach them some damn music. Imagine where an already inherently, enormously talented people could go with music.

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