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Hip-Hop Fridays: Exclusive Q & A With Yvonne Bynoe Of Urban Think Tank, Inc.

Yvonne Bynoe is a Hip-Hop pioneer of a rare sort. She and her company Urban Think Tank, Inc. represents the Black community's most visible, and possibly only think tank dedicated to a critical analysis of Hip-Hop as well as the influencing of public policy. Her background in the Hip-Hop industry and Community as both a businesswoman and cultural commentator provide Yvonne with a unique perspective on the various implications of Hip Hop culture politics and economics. Fresh off the publication of her one-of-a-kind journal of rap music and Hip-Hop culture, Doula, she shares her views on a variety of subjects in an exclusive interview with

Cedric Muhammad: What is the objective of Urban Think Tank, Inc.?

Yvonne Bynoe: Urban Think Tank, Inc. is an institute that analyzes issues of concern to Black Americans from the perspective of the Hip Hop generation. There are many think tanks that work to influence public policy, however there are few that are specifically concerned with Black Americans, and none that are concerned with the Hip Hop Community--Urban Think Tank, Inc. is the first. Urban Think Tank, Inc. examines the political, cultural and economic influences on the Hip Hop community, particularly young adults of color though our publication, Doula: The Journal of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture, our web site and through forums and discussions that our organization sponsors. We are particularly proud of Doula because it is the first scholarly journal to deal exclusively with rap music and Hip Hop culture.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you believe that it is fair to expect Hip Hop artists to promote social change, community development or political consciousness?

Yvonne Bynoe: I believe in free speech and artistic expression, therefore artists have the right to say whatever they want. Artists have no greater responsibility than any other citizen to be socially responsible. That being said, because artists often have a public platform to espouse their views, their views are often given more validity and weight than the average citizen. Moreover mainstream media, consistently seeks out artists for their viewpoints, when a politician, academic, organizer or community leader would be a more appropriate choice. Therefore, it is the community who should decide what messages it deems good and beneficial, and what are not. Social change is not dependent on the will of artists, but will come about when Black communities around the nation, decide for themselves what artists best represent the values/ideas/messages that they want to see reflected in their children and communities.

Cedric Muhammad: Are Hip Hop artists receptive to your work?

Yvonne Bynoe: I have not had any conversations with artists lately about Urban Think Tank, Inc. so I can't adequately answer that question. I believe that it is respected, but is deemed somewhat peripheral to the culture. I am confident that as the work that we do becomes more well known, more artists will understand that Urban Think Tank, Inc.'s main goal is to "tell it like it is", in real time, just as they are doing with their music; we are all recording our histories, from our vantage points, rather than waiting for some urban explorer to do it.

Cedric Muhammad: What is your take on the evolution of rap music over the last 10-15 years.

Yvonne Bynoe: Rap music like everything else is cyclical. We must remember that before PE, X-Clan and Paris, we had Big Daddy Kane, who was basically wearing big gold and macking women. Back in the day, Biz Markie also had a video on a yacht, with his boys and a few chicks in bathing suits. You also gotta remember Slick Rick with his gold tooth. The point is that early on, there were room for various types of rap music messages, now the Hip Hop Industry has limited the range to one message every few years. The rise of Black Nationalist rap came during the Reagan-Bush years where Black folks were not doing well financially and politically, quite a few civil rights gains were rolled back. By 1992 when Clinton got into office Black people thought that a Democrat spelled relief from the draconian decisions of the prior administration and they were then ready to party again.... ushering in Bad Boy Entertainment. People also forget that everyone was not into kufis and dashikis, Uptown Entertainment had started ghetto fabulous in the late 1980s just as Black Nationalist rap was on the rise. For some folks the party and flossing never stopped and thongs and ice just took the party to the next level. I submit that if George W. is as bad on Black folks as his father, people will dust off the leather Africa medallions and start back singing "fight the power" again.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that activists, politicians and grassroots organizers approach Hip Hop artists properly in their efforts to win support for their various causes?

Yvonne Bynoe: Generally speaking I would say no. More often than not the organization is seeking out the artist because he or she has name recognition and/or they believe can facilitate a large turn-out for an event. There seems to be little interest in engaging the artist as a person or finding out their positions prior to extending them an invitation. This short-cut method of community organizing that is dependent on a "celebrity" is no substitute for real hands-on work.

Cedric Muhammad: What has it been like, for you, as a woman in an industry dominated by men?

Yvonne Bynoe: Before I answer I suppose that I should clarify what industry I am in. I started out in the entertainment industry as a lawyer and publisher, but now my work is more academic in nature, writing and lecturing. In general, men are in positions of power in most industries, so I have always tried to simply have my agenda and to respect myself while putting it forward. More often than not, if men know where a woman stands, they are less apt to try to take advantage of you. Additionally, if you know what you are talking about, whether they like you or not, they will listen. My reputation is for being real and for being straight forward. Men don't seem to have a problem with that, insofar as my mentors and chief supporters have always been men.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that the emphasis and premium placed on free speech in Hip- Hop at times makes those seeking social justice and political activism in the community embrace an agenda that is more in harmony with the interests of White liberals and progressives than that of the Black Community.

Yvonne Bynoe: Not necessarily. I am always careful to separate the "Hip Hop Community" from the "Hip Hop Industry." Often the Hip Hop Industry, uses free speech not because they adhere to liberal or progressive ideals, but because such a stance allows them to say/manufacture whatever visual or lyrical content that they want, for a presumed profit, without having to be concerned with whatever fall-out that it produces in Black communities. The Hip Hop Community in contrast often uses free speech as a legal protection that allows them to voice political and/or controversial content. Rap artists fall on both sides of the equation, in that some will put out any material to make money, while others are concerned with how their messages affect our communities. Ultimately the public has to be savvy enough to distinguish between the rap artists who are truly concerned about our welfare and which ones are simply exploiters.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that any of the major political parties agenda is in harmony with the Hip Hop Community?

Yvonne Bynoe: For the purposes of political action, a more refined definition of Hip Hop Community must be fleshed out. In order for one party to be deemed better than the others, the Hip Hop Community would have to set forth a political agenda by which the records of parties and/or candidates could be compared and contrasted with; currently there is no political agenda for the Hip Hop Community. Moreover, as it now stands, there are various and competing factions within the Hip Hop community. The factions are in different positions of socio-economic power and thus have vastly different interests and concerns; as such no one party, major or alternative, can satisfy the political needs of an amorphous "Hip Hop Community."

Cedric Muhammad: What, in your opinion, are the most pressing issues surrounding Hip Hop Culture and the Hip Hop Industry?

Yvonne Bynoe: As I indicated earlier, I see these as two separate and distinct areas. The most pressing issue of Hip Hop Culture is to make sure that the idiom's history is researched and chronicled correctly. Too often Black Americans create an idiom and then are systematically marginalized in the annals of its history. Rap music is an art form that is dependent on the contributions of Black Americans, as is the aesthetic that informs Hip Hop Culture. Despite incomplete statistics that report on who is buying rap CDs, there is no denying that its public face is still Black and will probably remain so for some time to come. While other groups are more than welcome to rap music, I am concerned with the perception that its mainstreaming means that Blacks are no longer integral to its further development, as artists or consumers. As for the Hip Hop Industry, Blacks within it should be more cognizant of the importance of being owners rather than hired talent. The person who can hire and fire ultimately has more power and longevity than any messenger on the mic.

Cedric Muhammad: Do you think that Hip Hop is race-conscious?

Yvonne Bynoe: Early on Hip Hop was race-conscious insofar as the artists were exclusively Black and Latino as were the communities that they served, so the impulse for rap artists was to talk about things they knew about and were concerned with As the Hip Hop Industry has sought to broaden rap music's audience, there is no benefit for Black rap artists to overtly discuss particular life experiences of people of color, whether the messages are deemed negative or positive. The hedonistic, champagne lifestyle espoused in much of today's rap music has more to do with American culture than with being of color----just look at the success of the HBO series, The Sopranos.

Cedric Muhammad: What do you make of the recent arrests of rap artists on gun charges?

Yvonne Bynoe: Really these things are par for the course. The Hip Hop Industry feeds on young men and women from the streets, these are the folks are considered "real" or "authentic", and it is those personas of the outlaw that are sold to the public. As such there is no incentive made on the part of their record companies or their handlers to conform their behavior whether that behavior involves their personal conduct or being involved with illegal activities, like gun possession.

Cedric Muhammad: How, specifically, if at all, would Urban Think Tank, Inc, like to impact the political process and elected officials. Will you be assuming the role similar to that of think tanks like the Brookings Institute, CATO...

Yvonne Bynoe: Urban Think Tank, Inc. is the first think tank to discuss Black issues from the perspective of the Hip Hop generation. We are a new and growing so currently our mandate is to provide information to our community so that they can make decisions about the issues that affect their lives; we do this through our web site, our public forums/lectures, and though our publication, Doula: The Journal of Rap Music and Hip Hop Culture. As we grow, we certainly will focus more on the traditional work of think tanks, which includes publishing position papers, publishing books and having fellows expert in areas where we would like to influence public policy.

Cedric Muhammad

Friday, May 11, 2001

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