The following represents a hypothesis about the current state of Hip Hop.
- Hip Hop is BIG business. I read recently that three out of every four dollars spent on music is spent on Hip Hop. WOW!
- The vast majority of Hip Hop consumers are white.
- Although there are notable African American Hip Hop producers and record companies, the majority of Hip Hop music - at some point or another - goes through white companies - whether in manufacturing, marketing, or distribution etc. As with all other industries in this country, most of the money made in the Hip Hop business is made by white companies.
- Art chases money. If all of a sudden there were billions of dollars to be made from creating French impressionist landscapes - every Tom, Dick, and Harry with a paint brush would be painting French impressionist landscapes.
Here's my contention: while Hip Hop comes from African Americans and, at some levels, "celebrates" an aspect of African American culture, it has really devolved to be a music form that is driven by whites and that - without us even knowing it – has African Americans parodying white stereotypes of themselves. Hip Hop, largely, has become like black folks in ˜black face'!!!
Here's where I'm going with this:
I was in college in New York in the early 1980's when Hip Hop was born. While the music and lyrics grew out of the party scene, it quickly evolved into a vehicle for social criticism (e.g. "It's like a jungle sometimes, it makes me wonder how I keep from going under ."). Public Enemy had a huge influence on me. It was great hearing music with lyrics proclaiming the very things that I believed and wanted to hear about myself and my people!! At that point, Hip Hop was OUR music - "for us, by us".
That said, and I could be wrong, but it seems that white folks really started loving Hip Hop when (so called) ˜gangsta rap' took off. When NWA said things like:
Fuck that shit, cuz I ain't tha one
For a punk muthafucka with a badge and a gun
To be beatin on, and throwin in jail
We could go toe to toe in the middle of a cell
it gave white, male, middle class teenagers something to manufacture instant "street cred" for themselves. While hanging out in suburbia they could now wear Timbos, baggy pants, a Raiders jersey and cap, recite a few rhymes and all of a sudden they were transformed into "playas"! The ˜punk to playa' phenomenon is what continues to propel the phenomenal growth of Hip Hop throughout the world.
White companies control both American business generally, and the music business specifically. Therefore, it's not too much of a stretch to believe that even though young black males create Hip Hop, that like African American influence in the NBA – which is for the most part limited to the court, it's really the white folks behind the scenes in music also who are making the real money and ˜pulling the strings' in the industry. Therefore, I contend the following:
- The white companies behind Hip Hop actually drive the creative direction of the music as well as the economics of the industry.
Here's the critical point: I think most people can get their heads around the fact that white companies may have a greater influence on the business of Hip Hop than one might outwardly think. BUT - as with the earlier point about "art chasing money", these white companies know who their ultimate consumer is and they cater to him. They know that a white teenager could care less about (what to African Americans would be) uplifting, conscious music promoting black empowerment and liberation. So – where does corporate America put their dollars? Behind the images and lyrics that white America has always enjoyed seeing – African Americans clowning and generally acting in less than "socially redeeming" ways. In Hip Hop, as everyone knows, the images have centered on so called "thug life" - hustlin', violence, prurience, misogyny, and drugs. To be sure, those images are what make white teens feel cool; as well they confirm the broader biases and prejudices that whites have about African Americans.
So – while it is African American rap artists who create the music and write the lyrics – it is corporate America that establishes the incentives for what they want from Hip Hop. For all intents and purposes, they set the rules that black artists create within. As a result, black folks have effectively lost control of our own art form. Conceptually, there is little difference between rap and, say, smooth jazz. Both are bastardized forms of African American music that have been homogenized and processed (like the mystery meat Spam) to create ˜corporate music' for the masses. Sure, Hip Hop artists create from the heart. It's just that if ten years ago the money had been placed in another aspect of the culture and the music – that would be the part of their experience that they would be creating from. If R&B, for example, was where corporate America wanted youthful urban music to be, then that's what we would have.
White record companies are, effectively, the puppeteers of Hip Hop. Through the record contracts that enrich (and incent) the artists, to the songs that get played on the largely corporate radio stations, to the videos that are aired – all of these dollars create the "yellow brick road" of cash guiding black folks to continue to create in ways that entertain white folks, but that are counter to our development and uplift. Why this is so dangerous is self evident. It impacts how the world thinks about and interacts with us. More importantly, for far too many, these images become aspirational themes that our young people emulate – to the detriment of the kids, their families, and their communities. When "doing time" becomes aspirational behavior that enhances status and esteem in our community, then we really have to wonder what in the world is going on!!
At some point, as a community, we've got to recognize the game that's being played (on us) and choose another path. Sure it will be horribly difficult to ask young folks who dream of stardom and riches to restrain themselves, but our progress has no choice but to be retarded if we remain hostage to images and lyrics which are self-destructive and counter productive. Our challenge, then, is to create the social context – the inertia within the African American community - that balances against the current incentives to clown ourselves. In the same way that we currently think about those in our community who we deem "sell outs" for whatever reason, we've got to start questioning Hip Hop artists who, however much they think they are "keeping it real" are also doing damage to our community by executing white America's playbook for us.
To be clear, I have nothing against Hip Hop. As someone who came of age at the time of its genesis, I feel as attached to the culture as anything else. I just clearly see the exploitation that is occurring and hope we can shift the creative Hip Hop landscape back to themes that better serve us. As it is now, a generation of young people is being sacrificed under the guise of foolish behavior that can only harm them. America clearly has an interest in suppressing African American males. That we have become complicit in our own social suicide - while amazingly conveniently to some - is something that we must combat at every turn. Our future depends on it!