Thursday, April 26, 2007

What Does It Take? (Pt. 1)

Peace and blessings,

By now, I'm sure most of us have heard about the comments Imus made a few weeks ago. The fact that civil rights leaders came at Imus for his remarks and that he got fired was not surprising. What was surprising, in my opinion, was the fall-back that mainstream hip hop has experienced as a result. Note: I use the term "mainstream" to refer only to the more popular and accessible forms of hip-hop as portrayed on radio stations and music videos. Although I did not expect mainstream hip-hop to be criticized, I believe that this criticism is warranted. In the words of Sam Cooke, "it's been a long time coming." In
  • an interview with representatives form the hip-hop sites and,

  • the SOHH representative mentioned that the issue is about personal accountability on behalf of the record companies, artists, and everyone else. She also said, in response to the AllHipHop representative's claim that rappers put out offensive language because that's what consumers want (e.g. the supply and demand argument), that it is not that people want this music as much as they have grown accustomed to it.

    If Imus would have made those comments a few years ago and mainstream hip-hop would have been under fire, I would have been in the camp of those like Russell Simmons and others who argue that people should point the finger at social inequities and not artists for the degrading lyrics within mainstream hip-hop. Although this position is a legitimate one, and in fact a true "solution" to the problem with artists' degrading lyrics does require that we correct social inequalities and opportunity structures, I no longer consider myself as solely a member of that camp. The more and more I listen to hip-hop and try to analyze their lyrics (both positive and negative), the more I realize that it is not just a social issue, but a moral issue. If society is entirely responsible for hip-hop artists' degrading lyrics, then the social and economic conditions through which these artists are (or were) apart of would shape ALL of their lyrics. However, this is is rarely the case. Most artists tend to show some awareness of the moral responsibility they have to uplift others, but this awareness is thwarted in two ways. One way is through the pursuit of money, such that an artists' album will have 90-95% of their album be about violence, materialism, and misogyny, and the other 5-10% be about something positve. While this may be influenced by social inequalities (e.g. using hip-hop as a way to get out of a severely impoversished condition), I don't think that it is the only factor. Another way that this awareness is thwarted is through distortion. Again, social inequalitities can play a signifcant role as growing up in severely harsh conditions can alter one's views on what is right and wrong. For instance, a person who did not grow up with their parents may feel that it is better to not trust anyone and only look out for oneself. Further, they may, through their music, encourage youth to do the same, and believe that by telling them to not trust others and thus to avoid serious, meaningful relationships, that they are "looking out" for the youth in a good way. Even in this case, I think that social inequalities are still only a part (although a significant part) of the problem.

    In light of the recent discussions on the role of (mainstream) hip-hop in the denigration of women, and after watching
  • part 1,

  • part 2,
  • and
  • part 3
  • of the Oprah show on this issue, I've gained a better understanding as to why I now belong in both the moral camp as well as the social camp. In my opinion, Russell Simmons, Kevin Liles, and even Common were quick to talk about the larger societal (social) issue, but danced around the issue of personal (moral) responsibility on behalf of the artists. No one will argue against the fact (at least I hope not) that the structural inequalitites that exists within our country and throughout the world play a significant role in the myriad of problems we face and will continue to face unless these inequalitites are addressed. However, I feel that while this is important, the greater issue WITH RESPECTS TO THE LYRICS THEMSELVES is what can artists do, and what are they willing to do, to put an end to these degrading lyrics. Talking about one's personal experience, and even the experiences of those in one's community is one thing. Portraying these experiences as absolute truths (e.g. "this is just how it is") to the point where the youth who are listening to this music are encouraged to seek out and glorify this experience is a different thing entirely. The solution to this problem does not lie in either the social or the moral realm, but in both. Society needs to change, but society can only change when the individuals within that society change. Society is made up of people, and because people change, then society can change as well. We determine what society should be, society does not determine who we are.

    A prime example of this point can be found in the history of people from African descent. If our actions and behavior are solely a result of our social conditions, then we would still be in slavery. In fact, we would have been complicit with the slavery system, such that we would seek out such a system if we had a choice, seeing that was all we knew. However, history clearly shows us that as a people, WE WERE NEVER defined solely by our social conditions. From the Nat Turners to the Mariah Stewarts, to the Nelson Mandela's to the Martin Luther King's, we have always acted (directly or indirectly) on our moral convictions despite society telling us to do otherwise. One of the main reasons I think that those mentioned (as well as countless others) always worked to change the social conditions that sought to confine them is because they recognized that, despite their own experiences, they had a moral obligation to make things better for those who looked up to and/or came after them. It became less about themselves and more about the welfare of others who would later inhabit this world. In King's famous "I have a dream" speech and also throughout his ministry (activism), much attention is often given to his goals for unity among the citizens of that time. Less attention is given, however, to his emphasis on the welfare and life chances of the children who would come after him. These are just a few exerpts of his 1963 speech to illustrate this point:

    "Now is thetime to lift our nation from the quicksands of racial injustice to the solid
    rock of brotherhood. Now is the time to make justice a reality for all of
    God's children."

    "I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia the sons of
    former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down
    together at the table of brotherhood."

    "I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation
    where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content
    of their character."

    In closing, I think that despite the complexity of the problem with and solution regarding the degrading lyrics in mainstream hip-hop, a step in the right direction requires a fundamnetal understanding: Just as those who have come before us have never been defined by their social conditions and have worked to improve the life chances of those who look up to and/or would come after them, we must also realize that societies change because people change, and that we have a personal (moral) responsibilty to work to change things for the better. Not just for us, but for those who may look up to and/or are coming up after us. Not only are hip-hop artists targeted in this understanding, but due to their influence on the youth and their visibility, they are in the optimal position to take a stand and eliminate degrading lyrics. We can point the finger at society all we want, but until we as individuals take resonsibility for what we say to people and how we treat them, we will constanly revisit this issue to little or no avail.

    What do you think? To what extent are the artists responsible for what they say? Do you think that individuals must change before society changes, or vice versa? Weigh in and speekonit...


    Anonymous said...

    I agree with everything that you have to say Big Bro. To answer your question, “Do you think that individuals must change before society changes, or vice versa?” This is a very tricky question and I don’t know how I can answer it. The ideal answer would be that an individual and a society should change both at the same time. A little bit of this was done during the civil rights movement through desegregation, whites changing their attitude towards Black people and Black people standing up and fighting for their rights.

    I feel as though if an individual changes first, eventually, the society will catch up to the change. However, it might take years before the society catches up, but it eventually does. An example of this is African Americans, who were oppressed for many years after slavery. Though they proved themselves (through the New Negro Movement, the Harlem Renaissance, Arts and Music – Jazz, blues and education) to be equal just to their white counterparts, it took a lot of years, before the mainstream society finally accepted them as equals or people who were capable of doing something great and dynamic.

    If hip-hop artists change their demeaning lyrics about black women and turn it into something positive, eventually the mainstream society will begin to respect Black people as a whole. It might take a while though, because there will be those who are not blacks, who will still see black women as the jezebel stereotype. However, we should not blame hip-hop artists as a whole. There are other venues in which black people perpetuate the negative stereotypes that the society already has. These other venues are through movies, TV shows, etc. There are great black actors and actresses, who for some reason don’t make/pick the right movies. If you want to know what I am talking about, just watch Monster’s Ball and Norbit.

    In your personal life, there’s a society who already has a preconceived notion about you. They judge you, put you in a category and expect you to act accordingly. It is understandable that the way society views you might distort the way in which you view yourself, your people and your surroundings. If you notice these distortions and you know it is not benefiting you in anyway, then it is up to you to make up your mind to view yourself in the way in which you know is right. At first, the society might not agree with you and may even want to prove you wrong, but if you stand your ground, the society will eventually begin to view you in the right way.

    This is what we black people as a whole need to do, because there’s a society who thinks badly about us. And sometimes, these thoughts might hold some truths in it, because we as black people act accordingly to those thoughts or do things that perpetuate those bad thoughts. But if we black people began to change our ways and uplift ourselves, then the society will begin to see you in a different light. And I know, that this is easier said than done. However, if the civil rights movement generation did it so that our generation of black people can have more freedom than they ever did, then it is possible that we can do it as well. We just need the help of Jesus Christ, that’s all. I hope this makes sense.

    -Young Tem

    Unknown said...

    Yeah, it makes complete sense. I agree that we should blame hip hop artists only. In fact, I would say that we shouldn't even point the figure at them. However, not blaming hip hop artists does not mean that we cannot hold them personally accountable. Truth is, we all play some kind of role, whether it be direct or indirect.

    Anonymous said...

    Web Site Clearinghouse for Grassroots Efforts to Combat Misogyny in Music

    I think there plenty of us that are equally outraged about the portrayal of African American women in popular culture . Following the Oprah Town Hall meeting I decided to create a website to serve as a clearing house of all of the grassroots effort out there to combat misogyny in music. I think that it is time to DEFUND THE WAR ON BLACK WOMEN! Period. End of discussion. This isn’t about artistic expression. This is about capitalism. People have a right to basically say whatever they want to, but I don’t have to subsidize it in any way. Hence the term “starving artist.”

    We started an online call-in talk show as well called “the Black Women’s Roundtable” Saturdays at Noon CST. Our topic this week is “Does Hip Hop Really Hate Black Women?” If you can’t listen live, you can always catch the archived show at

    Anonymous said...

    I personally do not listen to music with derogatory content by choice, however if I happen to be in an environment where said music is played it does not affect me in an offensive way. Because I know who I am in Christ I refuse to identify myself any other way. I do however have a deep concern for those that are lost in this world and allow society to be their guide. with that said, and to answer your question, Do you think that individuals must change b4 society changes? Society is made up of individuals so I would have to say yes. I know that I can only control my own actions so it is imperative that i teach young girls and boys what I know that makes me immune to the negative stereo types that exist in our world. Answering your question has given me a revelation about this whole issue. thank you and GOD BLESS!