The credits rolled and I felt two ways. One was “What have you done to my hip-hop?” and disgust at the enormous plagues of our society (violence, sexism, racism); and the other gratitude that the film Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes would soon be discussed by young men in the Portland community.
In the obligatory historical overview of the roots of the hip-hop movement we hear lots about reclamation of selves, energy, and expression that were part of the culture’s birth. I believe the art form is in a crisis, its future survival in question, and yet another reclaiming, re-visioning, and re-definition is needed. To me hip-hop has always been about power, protest, creativity, and communication. I think of the old Gang Starr song “Who’s Gonna Take the Weight?” And I wonder who? Who’s going to talk about anything other than money, sex, drugs, cars, violence? Who’s going to drop history lessons over beats? Who’s going to speak of power without first taking it from someone else? Who’s going to give young people an image of a strong person with respect for others?
Crickets and echoes at roll call.
Filmmaker Byron Hurt talks with Russell Simmons (co-founder of the Def Jam label) in one scene about his views on the portrayal of women in rap music videos. This is a man with major clout and influence, and while he says society, as a whole, must address sexism, he claims he must pick his battles and this isn’t one. In another scene, Hurt asks a BET executive about the depiction of women in videos on his network, and he too passes the buck, saying they just play what the artists give them. Later, in a room full of some of the most celebrated and monetarily compensated “conscious MCs” you find Talib, Mos Def, De La, and Busta Rhymes unconscious. These guys all have their careers made at this point, but when the topic of homophobia comes up, Busta not only won’t talk about it, but feels compelled to leave the room, mute and unwilling to even own his position as he says, “What I rep for culturally, they don’t accept that.”
Men and Womyn of all races and classes must be part of the conversation to understand and eliminate sexism, racism, homophobia, violence, but we must have the conversation. If we can’t speak with words, we can speak with the dollar. In the recent Don Imus dismissal, I tend to think it was not CBS’s values that pulled the plug, but the corporate sponsors’ pressure to remove their support. The music industry is run by the same lot, and the same strategy could be utilized.
Rapper Chuck D, however, is willing to talk. He points out that black death is the product being sold in bulk units to white America through hip-hop. I’ve heard a million wack MCs and I know there must be some cream-colored thugs rapping about busting caps in white asses, but it’s not commercially endorsed or pumped over the airwaves 24/7. He also wisely warns us not to blame hip-hop for introducing these ills to society, and reminds us that the music is just a mirror of the systematic oppression unleashed by capitalism, patriarchy, and supremacy.