Emmett Till was 14 years old when his eyes closed for the last time, a moment that arguably helped launch one of the most pertinent movements in our country's history. He was dragged to a shed in Drew, Mississippi where two fully-grown white men beat him, gouged out his eyes and shot him in the head. Till's mother insisted on an open-casket public funeral to call attention to the brutality. The boy's crime? Allegedly whistling at a white woman, something that should end in embarrassment for a young man whose only crime was experiencing the confusing desirous tugs of puberty.
So I suppose there is some sort of demented irony to the rap line that has briefly put Lil' Wayne back in the nation's spotlight: "Beat that pussy like Emmett Till." Of course, most people didn't see it that way, especially Till's living family, who reportedly pressured Mountain Dew to drop its multi-million dollar sponsorship of Wayne, which the company did. It's important to note this rap, from the song "Karate Chop," was totally unrelated to Mountain Dew, appearing on a mix tape with no ties to the company whatsoever.
While this might easily be the most offensive usage of the boy's name to date, the story was pounded in the ground this past month. But why?
After all, Wayne's not the first rapper to use Till's name in verse, not by a long shot. Rick Ross boasts, "I need to represent for Emmett Till" on his decadent "Tears of Joy." Kanye West's girlfriend is "scared as hell that her guy look like Emmett Till" after his car wreck in "Through the Wire." On "Misunderstood," Kendrick Lamar both gets physically beaten up and reps rhythmic skill in a single line: "Four fifteens, I got beat like Emmett Till." The Game combines social consciousness with brand names on "The Kill" when he raps "And since they did Oscar Grant like Emmett Till / Crack the Patron seal." Even Wayne had used Till's name before, on "Swizzy (Remix)," the Young Money rapper is "Beating up the block like Emmett Till."
At first glance, it might seem strange for a genre so seemingly obsessed with high-end brands to consistently bring up an important but unfairly unknown figure in civil rights history. But, just like the Maybach Benz, Louis Vuitton and Cristal, the words "Emmett Till," when used in rap, barely refer to the person any more. Instead, it's a form of gaining street cred, a signifier, a commodity, a badge of the insider.
Take a look at the rappers listed above. All superstars, not your socially conscious artists of today like Mos Def or Talib Kweli. Till's become part of what Dr. Susan Weinstein, a Louisiana State University hip-hop studies professor and author of Feel These Words: Writing in the Lives of Urban Youth calls the "black cultural set of references." If a two-word reference is "a way to pack an awful lot of meaning into a word," then it's an easy cultural identifier, like brandishing a flag. Rap superstars can quickly identify with the genre's early days. It's a fake way to "keep it real." "It's a way for an artist to say, 'This is how I'm situating myself. This is the culture I came out of,'" said Weinstein. Even if the reference, such the one in question, is "clearly dishonoring the memory."
And it works in way that name-checking Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X wouldn't, simply because people don't immediately know who Till is. Weinstein said, "There are a lot of white kids who don't know who Emmett Till is."
And this is what all that media coverage missed. The intersection of today's hip-hop culture and black cultural heritage.
It's a sentiment shared by Who Killed Emmett Till? author Susan Klopfer. "So many people still don't know this story," Klopfer said. "I am just amazed that, especially white northerners, really don't know the story." Not that she or Weinstein finds this particularly shocking. "That's a hard piece of history to teach because it is frightening," Klopfer said. "At what age should children learn the story of Emmett Till?"
So Till remains an easy cultural reference for a rapper to drop, an "insider reference" as Weinstein puts it. After all, aside from moments like this, Till doesn't get too much airtime in the national media. Rappers might use his name as a quick reference, but none of today's stars are taking any time to discuss what he actually stood for. Even if Till is referenced with an eye to the actual history, Klopfer said he's become "a caricature of someone who was brutally beaten."
"It would be so nice, so refreshing if a rapper would do something well with that story," Klopfer said. "I challenge Lil' Wayne to come up with a new rap song about Emmett Till and violence toward children and their civil rights."
Rap wasn't always like this, after all. "Black men have to deal with the fact that they could die at any minute, be it at the hand of another black man, at the hand of the police, even at the hand of a lover, " said Dr. Tommy Curry, a professor of Africana philosophy at Texas A&M. And hip-hop used to speak to this fact.
That's not saying that rap didn't used to push the envelope, but when it did, it was with socio-political ends in mind. "Before, when you had negative lyrics [in] hip-hop, it's because hip-hop was making a political criticism," Curry said. Now, "because everything is profit-driven ... I think there's a view of rap that says the negativity now is just for show." The headlines nowadays include Rick Ross losing a Reebok contract for rapping about using date rape drugs, or superstar Chris Brown beating his superstar girlfriend Rihanna.
Hardly the stuff of political commentary.
Curry thinks this is why symbols like Emmett Till have begun to lose their symbolism, why a boy who is considered an impetus for Rosa Parks' civil rights stand has become a name-check like a high-end car or champagne. "I think it puts symbols like Emmett Till, like the civil rights movement ... at risk."
Though he said it's hard to pin down, Curry said he sees white superstar Eminem's rise to fame as the moment when rap began to change. Eminem himself has rapped "I am the best thing since Elvis Presley to do black music so selfishly and use it to make myself wealthy" on "Without Me."
"He was copying," Curry said.
Now, the superstars of today are copying those of old. The casualty is hip-hop's meaning. The days of N.W.A. writing a song called "Fuck Tha Police" with the intention of carrying a political message into the mainstream are gone. The socially conscious rappers are underground, and the superstars are using sacred symbols to bolster their own stock. After all, "does anyone really turn to Lil' Wayne as a commentator on black history and politics?" mused Curry.
Superstars using Till's name for credibility isn't new. Why Lil' Wayne lost his contract over this particular reference is simply a perfect storm of events. The lyric pushed the line too far, and the family spoke out. "The reason [Mountain Dew's] cancelling his contract is not because he wrote the lyric," said Weinstein. "It's because it got publicized."
"The reality is that black men and black boys are dying," Curry said. "If we continue to distract each other with idiots, I think we lose the fundamental core of what hip-hop tried to serve."
Though Klopfer sees some silver lining in the debacle. After all, an important part of the Till story is that his mother did not want it hidden. She publicly displayed his lifeless, beaten body. "We cannot forget the story of Emmett Till, so if some rapper dishonors him and it gets people talking," Klopfer paused sadly. "I guess that's better than silence."