The Wall Street Journal Whoa!
Someone just emailed me that I was quoted in the Wall Street Journal today. It's crazy when my words travel so far.
Here's a link to the article
Here's the full text:
Heedful Hip Hop
Attacks on rap now come from within.
BY MARTHA BAYLES
Thursday, April 28, 2005 12:01 a.m.
On April 9 a young black working mother came to midtown Manhattan to attend a public forum on hip-hop violence sponsored by the Rev. Al Sharpton's National Action Network. The event was prompted by a shootout, one month earlier, between rival rap entourages outside Hot 97, one of New York's leading radio stations.
When the station's general manager, Barry Mayo, recited the cliché that parents should control what their children listen to and watch, the young woman rose to her feet: "I have a 12-year-old son, and I fear for him every day. I don't let him watch the videos, but I can't do it all by myself. I need help!"
Last spring another young woman, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta named Moya Bailey, was moved to protest by "Tip Drill," a video in which the male rapper Nelly takes to a new level the image of African-American women as "rump-shaking" meat available for cash by swiping a credit card between a dancer's thonged buttocks.
Violence and vulgarity are hardly unique to rap. The mainstream is full of gore and borderline porn. But these tendencies are undiluted in rap, which is why many young African-Americans and Latinos who grew up embracing hip hop as a grassroots, multimedia art form now deplore rap as a cynical "neominstrelsy" being mass-marketed not just nationally but globally.
This global twist is new. A decade ago, critics worried that "gangsta" rap was portraying African-Americans as drug dealers, killers, "bitches" and "ho's." Today the worry is international. Essence magazine recently launched an online debate about the image of black women in rap, and according to former editor Diane Weathers, that debate now includes Africans. "They are disgusted by what their African-American brothers and sisters are doing in entertainment," she says. "They wonder if we've lost our minds."
Significantly, these new protests come not as attacks from the outside but as self-examination from within. "Nobody is happy in hip hop anymore," comments Alison Duke, a Canadian filmmaker whose scathing documentary, "Booty Nation," was screened earlier this month at a conference at the Center for Race, Politics, and Culture at the University of Chicago . "We've allowed the system of slavery to come back into our communities."
If things are that bad, then perhaps these insider critics should be seeking allies in the larger society. Millions of Americans are fed up with the calculated coarseness that now passes for "edginess" in the entertainment industry, and many (not all) might be willing to join forces with hip-hop fans. Such a broad-based, genuinely diverse movement might actually have an impact. But don't expect it anytime soon--there are three major obstacles in the way.
The first obstacle is the shameless manipulativeness of the rap industry. Present at the Sharpton event were several community activists, such as writer Kevin Powell and youth organizer Erica Ford, who implied strongly that the gunplay outside Hot 97 (in which no one was seriously hurt) was a publicity stunt designed to pump the "street cred" of two rappers, 50 Cent and the Game (both on Interscope Records).
If true, this is a damning accusation. But amazingly, none of the industry representatives on the panel bothered to deny it. Instead, two smooth black executives, Ron Gilliard of Interscope and Kelly G of BET, reassured the crowd that they were "here to listen." Then two "gangsta"-attired moguls, Dave Mays and Ray Benzino of Source magazine, picked a "beef" with E-Bro from Hot 97, thereby reducing the meeting to the verbal equivalent of a sidewalk shoot-out.
Watching this happen was like watching an SUV collide with a bicycle: The big machine (the rap industry) kept rolling, while the little one (the community) got crushed. The industry's primary audience is not black: Between 70% and 80% of all rap CDs are sold to whites. Yet because rap draws its talent and mystique from poor black communities, the executives present seemed to regard sessions like this as nothing more than the cost of doing business.
Mr. Sharpton is a latecomer to this protest, according to Davey D, an Oakland-based DJ and well-known hip-hop commentator. But Mr. Sharpton is welcome, Davey D adds, as long as he aims at the right target: "Instead of calling the radio station and complaining about the artist, we need to ask who's in charge? Who's provoking violence and letting DJs use the 'N' word?"
According to Davey D, some of the younger activists have been reaching out to potential allies in the media, education and social work. But here we encounter the second obstacle to a larger movement: Mr. Sharpton's in-your-face style of politics may attract attention, but it rarely attracts supporters beyond his own narrow following.
The third obstacle is academic feminism. At the University of Chicago conference, "Feminism and Hip Hop," the focus was on "crunk," the Atlanta-based style of rap that casts black men as pimps and black women as strippers and "ho's." Some speakers--notably Ms. Bailey from Spelman and Joan Morgan from Essence--used the language of morality when describing how crunk degrades women. But when the academic feminists weighed in, moral revulsion got bracketed as naive, and we groundlings were instructed to view "Tip Drill" as part of a "hegemonic intertextuality" in which "the structures of racism, patriarchy, heterosexism and advanced consumer capitalism" are "embedded" or "inscribed" (I forget which).
This sort of thing may sustain graduate students through long Chicago winters, but it is not going to advance the anticrunk cause. For one thing, academic feminism rejects something most people hold dear, the traditional family. As one earnest graduate student put it, the late Tupac Shakur was a true artist because his lyrics "cut against the grain of the normative family," an institution she clearly regarded as the root of all patriarchal evil.
One is tempted to ask: Is this really an appropriate standard for judging any form of art? Like posters and cabaret, hip hop is an inherently populist and political art. But it is an art all the same, and it is striking that only one participant, Ms. Morgan of Essence, spoke about it in aesthetic terms.
At any rate, if rap is praised as an attack on the family, then feminist critics are not going to find many allies in either the white or the black mainstream. Yet interestingly, antifamily sentiment was not the dominant message of the conference. That message was articulated by Rachel Raimist, a Minnesota-based filmmaker, who said: "I've worked in the rap industry. I love hip hop. But when my seven-year-old daughter gets up and says, 'Shake it,' I realize something is wrong."
So perhaps there is some common ground here. No movement wants to get between the sheets with its political enemies. But politics makes for strange bedfellows, and unless these new critics of rap are willing to give some credence to the views of those who criticize it from the standpoint of public morality, neither side is likely to succeed.
Ms. Bayles is author of "Hole in Our Soul: The Loss of Beauty and Meaning in American Popular Music."
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