Geraldo Rivera: Failed Hip-Hop Icon

Recently during a relatively innocuous interview, Geraldo Rivera departed from a line of questioning about his politics and recent experiences shooting a television show to say, "Hip-hop has done more damage to Black and Brown people than racism in the last 10 years."
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Geraldo Rivera is most famously known for his over 40-year-old mustache that curls up at each end and has transformed from dark brown to grey and then to variations of brown again over the course of his life in front of the camera. He describes it as his signature. Something that signifies him as "the last of the hippies" from a very "tumultuous" time in the country.

This tumultuous time he describes was a period where a new generation developed countercultural values and anti-establishment politics in order to respond to a larger sociopolitical landscape that excluded them. These young people created their own communities, listened to and created new forms of music, and used psychedelic drugs that in many cases may have permanently altered their cognition and perception. Geraldo openly describes how knee-deep he was in this hippie culture as a "dope-smoking Puerto Rican Jew from New York City," and while there is no record of his use of psychedelic drugs -- I question whether or not he suffers from some kind of altered cognition or perception, since the very critiques he launches against hip-hop were the same that were directed at the countercultural hippie movement he was so deeply embedded in during the 1960s.

Recently on the Huffington Post, during a relatively innocuous interview with Josh Zepps, Geraldo departs from a line of questioning about his politics and recent experiences shooting a television show with Donald Trump to say, "Hip-hop has done more damage to Black and Brown people than racism in the last 10 years." This statement, and the ones that followed it, were not only offensive, but were underhanded and nitpicking at the hip-hop generation. Ironically, this statement came on the heels of an earlier part of the interview where he described his unpleasant experience on the television show he was on with Trump as riddled with backbiting, underhanded actions and nitpicking. Beyond the irony in his statements, what Geraldo displays in his tirade on hip-hop is a deep hypocrisy that is revealed when one looks at his work prior to his career as a reporter and FOX News personality.

One may think I am bringing up his work on the 1980s television show Geraldo, which one could easily argue has done serious damage to representations of Black and Brown people on television through its ushering in of an era of playing on stereotypes, airing fights, and arguing loudly on television. On the contrary, I am bringing up the work that brought him to the attention of the media -- when he became involved with The Young Lords (who were described in their time as an anti-establishment Puerto Rican street gang).

The Young Lords wore Afros, berets and Dashikis (perhaps the 1960s version of pants hanging down low and tattoos) that were visibly distinct from the attire of the more mainstream youth organizations at the time. They were often described using the same words that Geraldo uses to describe hip-hop. They had a "distinctive culture" that is removed from the mainstream, they encouraged people to "be so different from the mainstream that they can't participate." However, beneath the counter-cultural exterior, they were young people looking for a voice and calling for attention to the sociopolitical issues in their neighborhoods. What is most fascinating about the Young Lords, and particularly the group that Geraldo associated with in New York City, was their role in what we know today as hip-hop. During the time that Geraldo worked with the Young Lords, Felipe Luciano was the Deputy Chairman of the New York regional chapter of the organization. Luciano had previously been arrested following the stabbing of a teenager and wore clothing that was perceived at the time to be counter-cultural, but there was more to him than his clothes, his past, or his environment. As he got older, he fought to show that there was more to the young people who didn't look the way society wanted them to. He showed that beneath the clothing and even sometimes beneath the violence, they were concerned about high poverty, unfair housing, and not being able to fully participate in society. Geraldo represented Felipe Luciano and the Young Lords proudly and publicly. Eventually, Luciano went on to become a member of the iconic coalition of musicians called The Last Poets. This group of artists are credited by many to be the forefathers of contemporary hip-hop. In some roundabout way, Geraldo had a part to play in this story through the way he stood up for, and with Luciano.

Today, Geraldo stands as a man who continues to stand behind those who are misunderstood or judged wrongfully in the court of public opinion. Unfortunately, he now does so as the mouthpiece of the powerful, and the enemy of the marginalized. During the Huffington Post interview where he insulted hip-hop, he spoke of his contempt for people who have critiqued NBC News anchor Brian Williams, who was recently suspended for lying about "a terrible moment a dozen years back during the invasion of Iraq." He admonishes the public for judging Williams on this one embellishment (although there have been reports of many more) when he has had a stellar career as a journalist/reporter. Minutes later, he judges a generation of young people based on one single and flawed narrative about hip-hop. I argue that pants hanging down low and tattoos are not hip-hop, much in the same way that long hair and drug use did not represent the hippie movement -- or afros and berets do not represent the Young Lords. These associations, like Geraldo's critique of hip-hop and Brian Williams' story about his helicopter being shot down have one thing in common: they simply aren't true.

As a person who prides himself on being a reporter, Geraldo has failed miserably in his reporting/discussion of hip-hop. He describes a complex culture as a caricature with tattoos whose pants hang low as though multiple other iterations of hip-hop do not exist. He describes a "Puerto Rican from the South Bronx or a Black kid from Harlem" as if what that kid wears or looks like defines his/her intelligence or potential. Felipe Luciano -- the afro-wearing criminal from the Young Lords that Geraldo stood up for -- has advised police departments and has had a successful life. The statement Geraldo made about the inability of the kid from Harlem and the Bronx is loaded with racism and self-hatred and nothing (including his Puerto Rican heritage) absolves him of being tactless and offensive. As he insults hip-hop culture and then says "I love Russell Simmons -- he's a dear friend of mine," he is calling forth the overused statement "I have a lot of Black friends but..." That is part of the common discourse when one tries to hide their racism by their social affiliations. The reality is that a pair of pants that hang low can easily be pulled up (if one chooses to pull them up). Unfortunately for Geraldo, a belief that another human being is subhuman, and a mindset that hangs low, is much harder to lift.

As a Black man who was raised in, and still lives in the Bronx, I raised my hand proudly when Geraldo asked in his interview for "... a Puerto Rican from the South Bronx or a Black kid from Harlem who has succeeded in life other than being the one-tenth of one-tenth of one percent that make it in the music business." He went on to specify his search for one of these kids "that's been a success in life walking around with his pants around his ass." My response to Geraldo is that my pants hung a little low throughout high school and college. On occasion, they still sag a bit. However, by no means does that define my intellect, my ability, or my success. For the young people who are looking for a voice, who look to hip-hop as a form of expression, and who are looked down upon by the likes of Geraldo Rivera, it certainly does not define theirs either.

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