Hip-Hop: Poison or Art? (Part 1)
Today (Feb 23, 2007), cnn.com posted a video entitled The Hip Hop Debate in which listeners from Atlanta, GA called the radio station WVEE to voice their opinions on whether hip-hop is poison or art. As one might expect, there were support for both sides of the argument. One caller, a male, states “…they don’t understand everything we’re trying to do in hip-hop, so of course they’re going to try and label it as poison”. The next call-clip was from a female caller who stated that hip-hop is, indeed, poison, and that “the garbage that’s going on….needs to [stop]”. This old debate recently received new fire from an airing of Paula Zahn Now where this topic was debated amongst the night’s guests. This hour-long debated sparked reactions not only in Atlanta, but in Washington D.C., New York City, L.A., and other urban cities around the nation. At the core of the debate is the understanding, or the lack thereof, of what exactly hip-hop is portraying, and, more importantly, why hip hop, an institution of urban America, is portraying what it is. To answer the question of What? one need only commit an hour’s worth of reading to the history of the hip-hop movement in America. Hip-hop started out as a positive influence, often used to keep young black men off the streets and away from the gang and drug cultures that were flaring up around the nation. However, it wasn’t very long before hip-hop started to portray and glamorize those same gang and drug cultures rather than provide a positive alternative. Why did this happen? Well, there’s a multiplicity of answers to that particular question, but I think it boils down to two issues:
- I think more and more young black men started to be tired of the ‘same old sh*t everyday’, and this frustration with being stagnant in American society, despite their best efforts, started to come out in the music. After all, music, like other forms of art, is a barometer of the social climate in which that piece of art was born.
- Secondly I think many blacks, most commonly young black males, saw that the only way to make it out of the ‘hood’ was to run ‘the game’ as it was call in my town. ‘The Game’ was the drug game, most often run by local gangs. This was seen as a way to make lots of money very fast. Those who succeeded and made it out of those neighborhoods were idolized by those they left behind in the game.
It was only a matter of time before these stories made it out into the hip-hop arena. More often than not, the stories of these hip-hop songs were about the ones who made it out, told from the perspective of those who were still there. Then people like Jay-Z, The Game, and, most notoriously, 50 Cent (who I despise as an artist and a person, just to let you know) who told the same stories, but from the other perspective. This, I believed only further fueled the gang and drug problem by presenting it as something other than a life-ruining downward spiral.
These two reasons point to why hip-hop as a culture glamorizes and idolizes what it does, but they don’t really point to whether or not hip-hop has become a cancer, rather than a cure. In my opinion, I do believe hip-hop has gotten way off course in the past 10 years or so. Starting with the ‘Angry Black Man Gangsta Rap’ (which I think was justified under the circumstances 10 years ago), I think hip-hop artists became more enamored with producing the next number one instead of saying what really needed to be said.
Ok, side note here. Yes, I did just defend the need for gangsta rap 10 years ago. It was when my generation first started to feel the affects of racial profiling and the basic racial injustices that have always plagued our countries. My parents once chanted ‘WE SHALL OVERCOME!” Well, my generation now shouts ‘F*CK THE POLICE!” Needless to say, most cops don’t really like this sentiment, but as a victim of repeated racial profiling by white cops, I can honestly say I can see where the frustration comes from. Am I promoting the killing of cops? Absolutely not, I am, however, saying that something will break and it will break soon and in a very bad way. I mean, really, how do cops get away with blasting away a guy and his best man on his wedding day? Had this been 10 years ago, NYC would be out of four cops…I’m just saying….
Now back to your regularly scheduled entry…
Along with the quest of that ever-elusive chart-topper comes the need to not only appear to the ears, but the eyes of a male-driven, male-dominated culture. What does that mean? Well, look at any hip hop video out today, and you’ll see what I mean. Short skirts, no bras, ultra-high heels, and lots of skin. It’s all eye candy meant for one thing only: Getting the attention, thus getting the dollars: of young black men. Is it degrading to women? Absolutely. Even the video girls themselves will tell you “I have no self-esteem, I just need the money” (I happen to know a few…)
All of this is meant to be a rather long-form answer to the very short-form question “Is Hip Hop Poison or Art?” The answer, as one caller on WVEE put it “it’s both“. Sure, musical artist are, and should always be, free to express themselves in whatever way they see best (within reason). In the case of hip-hop, though, generations of young men and women actively seek to obtain the material successes portrayed in the music and videos, most often by any means necessary, including illegal means, often times with tragic results. Since hip-hop really is the ONLY voice of African American music for my generation around today, hip-hop artists carry a great weight on their shoulders whether they realize it or not. So yes, I think hip-hop is a bit poisonous in its current state, but I also believe that could (and should) change for the better.