Hip-Hop Fridays: Have You Heard "I’m Black" by Styles P., Yet?
The morning of Super Bowl Sunday I received an enthusiastic phone call from my closest friend in the world of Hip-Hop - E. from Queens. "Yo, I just heard something that is going to make you write again," he told me by phone as both of us - down with the Green-and-White (he’s a suffering New York Jets fan) - were driving, on our respective journeys to watch the Philadelphia Eagles play the New England Patriots. E. had just heard Hot 97, in New York City, play a new song by Styles P., one-third of Hip-Hop’s street legend group, The Lox.
"The song is called what?," I asked E. to repeat himself.
"I’m Black" he said again, laughing a bit and letting it all sink in for me. Then he reminded me of some of our humorous conversations, where I make light of the apparent unwillingness of many Black Hip-Hop artists, professionals and activists within the industry and community, to self-identify in terms of race, or at least acknowledge - when obviously appropriate - the dominating and leading role that Blacks play in Hip-Hop.
E. and I together went through the various preferred phrases, "the youth", "the culture", "the Hip-Hop nation/generation/community”; "the people". In a throwback to the usage of the prominent marketing term, "urban"; today it is often anything but "Black". If you follow the logic of the preferred language and labels, even the federal agents and local police departments that trail overwhelmingly Black Hip-Hop artists are not doing so because of any racial factors; rather they are supposedly under surveillance on the basis of their musical genre. Thus, these task force groups and individuals are known as the "Hip-Hop Cops". It is not racial profiling, just profiling.
I pointed this dynamic out to E. months ago and he never misses an opportunity to bring my attention to it, whenever he witnesses it, on radio, TV or public events and rallies. This race-neutral or race-averse language was at its highest when "we" were told that "we" just had to vote in the last presidential election. Not because of any race-oriented problems plaguing Hip-Hop artists, professionals or consumers but rather because if "we" didn’t "we" were going to ‘die’. At least that’s what the T-Shirts said.
Certainly Hip-Hop is more than Black and Brown people, and some phrases and labels come closer than others in pointing to race and natural identity, but I just think it is so unnecessary, at times ridiculous, and at the very least a stretch for leading Hip-Hop artists, opinion leaders and moguls to go out of their way to try and make others comfortable by downplaying race-centered realities about the music and culture and the history of the lives of those that gave birth to the music and culture. The compassion and inclusiveness in the tactic or reflex is touching but the deferential attitude to others it demonstrates is disrespectful of self. When Black Hip-Hop figures should be asserting themselves they would rather play a game of finesse. It is strange to me, to watch so many otherwise rebellious and confident 20 and 30-something year old rappers become so timid and 'conservative' when dealing with identity.
So when E. told me that Styles P. made a song called "I’m Black", and that he heard it on commercial radio, playing on one of the most influential stations in America, I couldn’t believe it, and yet I could. I couldn’t believe it because over the last 10 years I have grown accustomed to Hip-Hop format radio stations and video channels going to extremes in supposed political correctness, muting or ignoring virtually any type of race-centered issues facing the listeners. BlackElectorate.com even published an article last year, by Ashanti Alvarez about how Hip-Hop radio stations were editing out Kanye West’s use of the phrase ‘White Man’ from one of his songs. And then there is Ja Rule telling Minister Louis Farrakhan in the unedited portion of their near two hour conversation, that MTV had one set of rules for his video "Clap Back" while BET had another. Although both channels are owned by the same parent company, Viacom, Ja said that MTV, disproportionately watched by Whites, made him take out lines and images that dealt with gun violence while BET, disproportionately watched by Blacks, was allowed to leave them in.
Perhaps the impact of the return of Star and Buc Wild to radio and "I’m Black" by Styles P. heralds an era when the subject of race is not taboo on Hip-Hop format radio stations. But then again, maybe not, E. tells me he hasn’t heard "I’m Black" a single time since the morning of Super Bowl Sunday and one of my Brothers tells me that he has only heard the song played by Star, on his morning show, but no where else. Why isn't this song getting more radio spins, especially in February, of all months?
Have you heard it on your Hip-Hop format radio stations?
The reason why I wasn’t surprised to hear about "I’m Black" is because of my enormous respect for Styles P. In 2002 I wrote about how I believe that he, more genuinely than any other rapper, embodies the principle of duality. He exemplifies a spirit that conveys honest self-examination, and an even-handed picture of the heaven and hell that we all experience every day, but particularly that of many of us in Black America. His music is graphic, but always down-to-earth and balanced. He brags, he laughs, he prays, he drinks, he hustles, he cries, he enjoys life, but always in a manner that let’s you know he is always in struggle, and in the struggle.
Styles made clear how serious he is about this song and the direction it leads him and his listeners in saying, "In society, sometimes people forget about who they are and where they came from. Whatever happens, I'm black. I'm being conscious nowadays, being in the position I'm in to give consciousness to the kids."
And when one considers that it was Styles’ fellow Lox member, Jadakiss, who took the courageous lead in recording the social and political commentary anthem, "Why?" with Anthony Hamilton, it should come as no surprise that a rapper whose mother is from South Africa and father from Brooklyn would be the one to bring identity-first Hip-Hop back into clear focus. Featuring Marsha from Floetry, "I’m Black" is more than a record for Black History Month. It is music for a culture and generation that finds itself too often in a self-destructive and self-negating mode.
That Hip-Hop artists have bought into the use of self-denigrating language is a well-accepted fact. The practice receives and deserves criticism. But what about the use of language that, in more subtle fashion, marginalizes one’s identity or desensitizes others to the unique condition, even the existence of a people? While perhaps being successful in creating a big tent in Hip-Hop culture, the practice of watering down race, identity and nuances in ethnic reality by many in the Hip-Hop culture and industry might have significant costs and serve a cause that few truly recognize.
About two months ago I began to notice strikingly different responses to Nas’ new double album, “Streets Disciple”. Those that were roughly 25 and older seemed to thoroughly enjoy the album and shared with me what they liked about it and how mature they felt Nas has become as an artist. Those that I spoke to who were around 17 years of age to 22 were overwhelmingly disappointed with the album. I initially thought it was because of their lack of familiarity with Nas and their expectation that he would make an album like Stillmatic, but the more I talked to them the more I heard that they did not like or appreciate Nas’ overt efforts to deal with race on various tracks like ‘Coon Picnic’ and ‘The American Way’. Some indicated it was distracting. One young Brother told me, "He’s talking too much about that 'positive', Black sh--.., He ain’t talking enough about himself". Immediately, upon hearing this, my mind went back to search for what Hip-Hop music I listened to when I was 17 years old. The comparison I made in my mind, between today and those years was sobering for me.
The word ‘Black’ except for a few witty lines in brief commentary here and there by top-selling artists; and the work of a handful of prominent self-styled 'conscious' artists; has been virtually eliminated from today’s popular Hip-Hop music, certainly from that which dominates the radio airwaves, but more importantly, even in the hottest music that sets trends on the streets. "Black", a term of universal identity, cultural expression and political ideology, and which permeated Hip-Hop in my teenage years, affecting my thinking deeply, is now 'gone', unavailable for the young mind of today’s Hip-Hop fan.
Is it an accident?
Carefully consider this excerpted answer, from a recent interview of Minister Farrakhan conducted by Minister Jabril Muhammad, which appears in the current, February 15, 2005 Volume 24 Number 18 edition of The Final Call newspaper (bold emphasis is mine):
Minister Farrakhan: Yes. In New York City I took time with a friend, Gil Noble, with whom I spoke with privately and later with the leaders, to show them how language is used to change perceptions of our people and the realities of what we’re looking at.
I talked about how the word ‘Negro’ was used and how limited that term was and how the Honorable Elijah Muhammad used the term “Black” in such a way that it developed in us a body and the nervous system that connected us to our people all over the world.
So that when something was done in the Congo, years ago, in the killing of Patrice Lamumba, there was a demonstration by Black people at the U.N. When Martin Luther King was murdered a hundred cities were set on fire because we had developed a nervous system that allowed us to feel the pain of one another through the language that the Honorable Elijah Muhammad used.
So the enemy stepped up his studies of us. He wanted to know what was it and who was the leader that ignited us to burn up a hundred cities when all of the people that were burning the cities were not followers of Martin Luther King Jr.
They concluded that it wasn’t a specific person that was causing this as much as it was the way the media was used. It had given us as a people one shared attitude toward white people and toward what we called ‘the establishment.’
These attitudes hardened into a system of belief that all of us shared, no matter where we were in America---a belief about police; a belief about government; a belief about white people---that was very real. That attitude and belief grew into ideology—a common idea—that all of us shared and we had become a national community, even though we were in different groups; different churches and mosques, etc, there was something that bound us altogether.
When the enemy saw that television had served that purpose and the name "Black, Brother and Sister" had caused us to see ourselves as kin to people of color all over the world, they decided after the assassinations of Malcolm (X) and Martin (Luther King Jr.) and the departure of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, they had to change language.
They started that by again using the term ‘minority.’ Once we accepted the terminology, ‘minority’, a certain frame of mind came with accepting that language.
The fact that we are the ‘majority’ was destroyed. Then we became the ‘disadvantaged.’ Then we became ‘the largest minority in America.’ Then we became ‘African Americans’ and there we’ve stayed---‘minority, disadvantaged, African Americans.’
But what happened to us as a result of accepting that language? It killed the nervous system that the language of Blackness created. Then, every television show with Black as an adjective describing it, such as ‘Black News’ in New York; ‘Black Journal,’ ‘Black Star’ program in Baltimore, every city had something “Black” as a description of the main noun, and so ‘Black Journal’ became ‘Tony’s Journal;’ and ‘Black News’ was eventually taken off the air. "Black Star" was gone. Now you have no program anywhere on television with the name "Black" in front of it.
So the subtlety of the enemy, in deceiving us, was that he knew the value of language and that if you shift the language you shift perceptions. What he did was to create the death of our nervous system that connected us as a family. Then we could become tribes and kill one another and not feel the pain of our Brothers in the Caribbean, our Brothers in Brazil or our Brothers in Africa.
We began to be less and less global and more and more narrow in our focus, to be narrower right down to gang and tribes in terms of denomination and organization, and kill each other throughout America and not really feel the pain.”
So, listen to “I’m Black” by Styles P. for yourself and consider the possibility that it is not an accident that the vast majority of 35 to 40 million Black people haven’t heard it yet. And maybe never will.
Friday, February 18, 2005