Hip-Hop Fridays: Hip-Hop Goes To Ludacris Limits by Elisa Cramer
I surprised my husband and my sisters last year when I bought a used copy of Outkast's Stankonia CD. I'd heard a particular cut, Ms. Jackson, on the radio, and I liked the rhythm of the rap but especially appreciated the lyrics, which poignantly described the tensions between an unwed father and his baby's grandmother.
I scanned a few more of the two dozen tracks but failed to find another that bucked hip-hop's image of rump-shaking, scantily clad "hoochies" or wannabe gangsters bragging about some ill-gotten "bling-bling." I couldn't pretend to just listen to the beat. Nor could I dismiss such titles as We Luv Deez Hoez simply because I don't consider myself one.
Failing all dares to be a little more cool and perhaps a little less prudish, I also refuse to listen to R. Kelly, 50 Cent, Goodie Mob and many other "artists" who profit from promoting raunchy images of sex, crude violence and acceptable abuse. In the name of hip-hop, kids and adults of all ethnicities and economic backgrounds have launched their own shock and awe campaign -- a more vulgar, more sexist, more violent existence than most of them know. Whose reality is it?
Spike Lee challenged that absurdity last Saturday, speaking at a Black Expo in Columbia, S.C. The filmmaker lamented that young, studious blacks sometimes are ridiculed as "acting white." "But if you're on the corner, holding a 40, smoking a blunt and holding your privates, then you're real."
Why must music videos reflect such a distorted and degrading "success"? How many of the young men and women supporting this $5 billion-a-year industry actually drive around the inner city in a Cadillac Escalade or an S-class Mercedes with "deuce-zeros" or larger wheel rims? How many teen girls ever have seen real women oiled in string bikinis sprawled across men draped in "ice" (diamonds) and counting their "paper" (money)?
The music's broad appeal is evident by what cultural critic Cornel West calls "the Afro-Americanization of white youth." "This process results in white youth -- male and female -- imitating and emulating black male styles of walking, talking, dressing and gesticulating in relations to others," Dr. West wrote in Race Matters. "The irony in our present moment is that just as young black men are murdered, maimed and imprisoned in record numbers, their styles have become disproportionately influential in shaping popular culture."
Even as fellow members of the 18- to 35-year-old so-called "hip-hop generation" claim that the message isn't as important as the music, hip-hop has played an undeniably significant role in molding our generation's view of marriage, sex, love, dating and friendship. Our conversational language and song lyrics -- with common references to women as "hoes," "chickenheads," "pigeons" and "hoodrats" -- reflect a destructive resentment and disregard.
Male rappers aren't the only ones spewing such disrespect. Adina Howard thought she should teach young girls to be a Freak Like Me. Missy Elliott helped Jay-Z ask Is That Yo Bitch? Charli Baltimore urged women to Pimp Da One U Love.
It's easy to condemn hip-hop for demanding that artists disavow family, dishonor women, celebrate drugs and stoke greed. "The much more difficult task," Dr. Michael Eric Dyson wrote in Between God and Gangsta Rap, "is to find out what conditions cause their anger and hostility."
I'm not yet old enough nor so narrow-minded that I accuse all hip-hop or young people of promoting a misogynistic, greedy and hate-filled lifestyle. I remember when this genre simply was an expressive battle of the beats and not a blasphemy of black culture and true prosperity. "What was the price of this remarkable breakthrough in the visibility of young blacks in the mainstream culture?" Bakari Kitwana asked in The Hip Hop Generation. "Had young rappers simply transferred images of young black men as criminals from news reports to entertainment?"
For every Queen Latifah or Lauryn Hill, there's now a Li'l Kim and a Ludacris. For each Salt-n-Pepa, there's a Trina and a Trick Daddy. For every Fresh Prince, there's a Foxy Brown, Juvenile and Eminem.
"I simply want to know," writer Stephanie Mwandishi Gadlin said describing Hip Hop's (Unspoken) Ten Commandments, "how long will we make excuses for entertainers of any kind who work hand-and-foot with compounded social ills to emasculate a group of people?"
In just a little more than 20 years, hip-hop has demonstrated tremendous power to direct thought and dictate social values. Pretending we're untouched by the lyrics hardly limits their reach. Our generation no longer can afford to get lost in the beat.
Elisa Cramer is an editorial writer for the Palm Beach Post where this article first appeared. Elisa Cramer can be reached via e-mail at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Friday, May 23, 2003