Taking on Hip-Hop

In the not too distant past, when we were still labeled black -- and the notion of a U.S. President, Barack Obama, was as likely as a unicorn sighting -- African Americans dare not question the role or relevancy of the black church. The very institution was above reproach. And its biblical interpretations were as much the lay of the land as any ratified government doctrine. When you needed deliverance, direction, motivation and even entertainment, you took up the Good Book, sat in the front pew and took direction from your pastor. The black church was so twined with the "the black experience" that too question its authority was to betray not only your God but also your race.

Now, in the tumultuous 21st century, with the advent of prosperity preachers and mega churches with their ATM machines, gift shops and the clergy's Bentley's parked out front, questioning the church, its influence and mores, has become a discipline within itself. It's a way to hold our leaders accountable. To make sure they are living up to their Christian ideals, especially those that guarantee you'll gain enlightenment and levity. Ensuring the church's success requires us to exam and reexamine it's role and practices. In fact, many disciplines, organizations and genres seek a "checks and balances" approach. So, it's surprising that the same thing is not holding true for those who question the seemingly unassailable world of hip-hop.

Allow me to digress.

While I'm certainly not a rap or hip-hop aficionado, I can attest that vintage hip-hop was once ripe with relevant poetry, not bubblegum lyrics that make a bright splash only to then burn out like a comet. Visionaries such as Queen Latifah, Tupac Shakur and A Tribe Called Quest were urban narrators, who educated the majority about the forgotten plights of minorities. Esteem, power and money were heaped upon them for their troubles. From women's rights, the power behind collective protest and reversing societal inequities, these old school rappers served as modern day "Robin Rodney/Rasheeda "Hoods," popularizing and thus monetizing their struggle.

So, it's rather alarming to see how far the art form has plummeted. But this isn't simply an essay on hip-hop's hijacking by greedy, louche, fame-seekers who sell buffoonery instead of hope. These modern day minstrels feed into every conceivable black stereotype and manufacture faux art, wrapped in ignorant tirades with foolish calls for non-sensical boycotts. (If you want to use your "so-called" influence why don't you call for American's to boycott Florida businesses until Marissa Alexander is give a fair trial?) Is it because such altruism isn't lucrative and it certainly won't help you class up libidinous reality stars attempting to go chic? I'll admit I've taken a few much-needed swipes, but this essay is an examination of why hip-hop has become untouchable, just as the black church once was. As a result, hip-hop hasn't advanced into a better, more enlightened version of its former self.

An undergrad professor once told me that African Americans forever lag at the bottom of society because they'll buy into any dream instead of deciding to create a reality better than the myth. And if we're being honest, I'm not the only social commentator/journalist whose issues with modern day rap and hip-hop are a mountain wide and a soul deep. And while I could protest gauche lyrics and sell-out "rappers" I hope to reiterate that the real problem is that the genre and those who manipulate it, consider it beyond reprimand. Foolishly, many blacks have happily co-signed this ridiculousness. Aside from God, no one, or no thing is above improvement.

True artists seek feedback and constructive criticisms because it forces them to evolve. And since fans bankroll their choice rappers, they should also have the right to make sure they're being sold authentic art and not merely three or four minutes of egotism set to sampled music because the artist (and I use this term as loosely as I can without tossing it aside altogether) wasn't creative enough to create his/her own score.

Sadly, for the most part, American music has gone the way of American cuisine. That is to say quality and originality have been replaced with fast food-type mediocrity with an undesirable side of childish hooping and hollering. The lasting, soulful likes of a Sam Cooke, a John Coltrane, a Marvin Gaye, a Nina Simone, a Charlie Wilson, The Gap Band, SOS, a Tina Marie and a Rick James, are missing in today's music. Perhaps, this wouldn't be the case if hip-hop weren't above constructive criticism. Where's the missing visceral rhythm and blues in hip-hop? If you can find it, will you please send it westward?

If an outsider questions the rational behind rappers who dare to compare themselves to Jesus, or those who hold themselves up as the consummate aesthete when they still have one foot in the ghetto, or those who wax poetic about European fashion houses, who cater to America's top 1 percent, they're accused of coming after the entire art form with disheartening prejudice. No matter that the very act of challenging a subject forces its advancement. No. If you're actually appalled that the term bootilicious is now forever associated with blacks -- as if we don't have enough negative stereotypes to live down -- or you're embarrassed by rappers who swipe credit cards through a woman's backside, you're a sellout, out of touch, or, the most laughable defense of them all: envious.

For a great deal many educated African Americans, success is, contrary to what 106th and Park insists it is. Success isn't measured by the size of your "dookie" gold chain or how many scantily clad women you can get to straddle your Maybach. And whether these so-called prosperity rappers purposely send this message or not, it has infiltrated the younger black generation who are thirsty for African Americans they can emulate. Yes, some will say rappers aren't supposed to be role models. But to actually believe it, is a trifle naïve.

If you don't provide role models, your children will find their own. And news flash, they are. To wit: just look at the net worth of some of today's hip-hop artists. Perhaps if more people demanded quality from artists who preferred to create art in the studio and not peddle liquor, cheap jeans and tacky perfume, authentic hip-hop might be restored. But sadly, it's become so commonplace to financially support those who flaunt their wealth to the most disadvantaged among us, that when opponents speak out about the absurdity of such a notion, their blackness is called into question.

Lest mine is called into questioned, let me put the key in this ignition: yes, my French Creole features speak to a long history of miscegenation: green eyes; skin the color of a white peach and a sharp Puritan nose to match my thinly drawn Vermillion lips, but I often champion causes I hope will better African Americans. Sure, I could wax and wane about topics only I care about but that would only serve to advance my ego. Classic hip-hop was about originality. There was frivolity interspersed with great depth.

So, what is hip-hop's future? And what's wrong with examining its past and questioning its present state? When Christian's examined the black church in hopes of strengthening it, both their blackness and spirituality were called into question. My sincere hope, as an artist, journalist, writer, is that examining the current state of hip-hop will improve the genre and the impact it has on our youth without demeaning those who offer productive critiques. Perish the thought of censorship or regulation. I'm merely calling for a healthy dialogue that would better a category of music that's here to stay. Hopefully, artists like Lupe Fiasco, Common, Kendrick Lamar and Childish Gambino will lead this charge, otherwise it might be time for some to drop the mic and exit left.