Monday, April 23rd, 2007

Don’t Scapegoat Hip-Hop :: LA Times Editorial with Dave Zirin

Dave Zirin and I teamed up to get this editorial into today’s Los Angeles Times:

No Scapegoats: The Other Side of Hip-hop
By Jeff Chang and Dave Zirin

April 23, 2007

MUCH OF THE criticism of commercial rap music – that it’s homophobic and sexist and celebrates violence – is well-founded. But most of the carping we’ve heard against hip-hop in the wake of the Don Imus affair is more scapegoating than serious.

Who is being challenged here? It’s not the media oligarchs, which twist an art form into an orgy of materialism, violence and misogyny by spending millions to sign a few artists willing to spout cartoon violence on
command. Rather, it’s a small number of black artists – Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and 50 Cent, to name some – who are paid large amounts to perpetuate some of America’s oldest racial and sexual stereotypes.

But none of the critics who accuse hip-hop of single-handedly coarsening the culture think to speak with members of the hip-hop generation, who are supposedly both targets and victims of the rap culture. They might be surprised at what this generation is saying.

In his recent PBS documentary “Beyond Beats and Rhymes,” filmmaker Byron Hurt made clear that rap music can be as sexist and homophobic as it can be positive and enlightening. Marginalized young women and men have found their voices in hip-hop arts, gathering to share culture at b-girl conventions around the world or reading for each other in after-school
poetry classes. Hurt’s film pointed the finger where it needs to be pointed – at American popular culture, which has trafficked in racist and sexist images and language for centuries and provides all sorts of incentives for young men of color to act out a hard-core masculinity.

If all the overnight anti-hip-hop crusaders really cared about the generation they want to save, they would support the growing Media Justice movement led by hip-hop pioneer Afrika Bambaataa and such outspoken women activists as Malkia Cyril and Rosa Clemente. The group contends that such media powers as Emmis Communications and Clear Channel have corrupted hip-hop radio.

The critics would engage young public intellectuals like Joan Morgan (“When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost”), Gwendolyn D. Pough (“Check It While I Wreck It”) and Mark Anthony Neal (“That’s the Joint!: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader”)*, who are defining what they call a new hip-hop feminism.

The gap between the programming on Viacom’s MTV and BET and young people’s interests seems never to have been bigger. According to the Black Youth Project, a University of Chicago study released in January, the overwhelming majority of young people, especially blacks, believe rap videos portray black women negatively. That’s one reason rap music sales declined 20% last year and remain down 16% this year.

Yet sales are a poor indicator of what is really happening in hip-hop.

Local hip-hop scenes are thriving. Great art is being made not just in music but in visual arts, film, theater, dance and poetry. It can be seen in the works of Sarah Jones, Nadine Robinson, Rennie Harris, Kehinde Wiley and Danny Hoch. Hip-hop studies is a rapidly growing and popular field at colleges and universities, with more than 300 classes offered. In hip-hop after-school programs, voter registration groups, feminist gatherings and public forums, the future of hip-hop is under discussion. These hip-hop thinkers want to take the culture that unites many young people and channel it toward political engagement. In 2004, voter registration campaigns using hip-hop to target youth produced more than 2 million new voters under the age of 30.**

To confuse commercial rap made by a few artists with how hip-hop is actually lived by millions is to miss the good that hip-hop does. If hip-hop’s critics paid attention to the hip-hop generation, they would learn that the discussion has already begun without them and that they might need to listen. Then a real intergenerational conversation could begin.

UPDATE :: Two additional notes I need to clarify:

* Mark’s book on hip-hop and masculinity was somehow missed in the Times edit, and is called New Black Man. It’s a very important book.

** There were more than 4 million new voters between the ages of 18 and 29, and more than half–the 2 million plus cited here–were Black and Latino, a demographic watershed that has gone completely ignored by mainstream media and most progressive media, for that matter. In any case, this fact somehow got mangled in the final edit. You can find more information on this here.

posted by @ 6:40 am | 7 Comments

7 Responses to “Don’t Scapegoat Hip-Hop :: LA Times Editorial with Dave Zirin”

  1. Manuel says:

    Abajo la basura de Viacom! Viva el hip hop!

  2. Zentronix says:

    que viva!

  3. Zentronix says:

    Media Advisory *
    National Hip Hop Political Convention

    For Immediate Release

    Firing of Imus Has Allowed Political Opportunist to Use Issue Against Hip Hop

    Words of Don Imus – Pale Against the Actions of Institutional Racism
    Sexism & Misogny in Hip Hop – A Reflection of Dominant Society

    04/26/2007 – New York, NY. Recently the punishment of radio celebrity, Don Imus, has led the public to shift the blame onto Hip Hop culture and Rap music for the same behavior. The inclusion of Hip Hop into this issue is a distraction from the real issues that plague our community specifically and society in general. There is an inadequate educational system (one of the lowest ranked in the world) that leaves many urban youth vulnerable to placement on the front lines of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or in prison. Moreover, there is an illegal war being fought in our name where over 3000 U.S. troops and over 100,000 Iraqi’s have been killed. We have a criminal ‘in’justice system that has lead to over 2 million Americans in prison. With racist and un-fair sentencing laws that have resulted in the majority of imprisoned people coming from Black and Brown communities. As a result, there are more Black and Brown men caught up in the legal system than there are Black and Brown men in U.S. colleges. Low skilled jobs are disappearing in the nation leaving a majority of urban Americans without the means to support themselves and families. New York City, in particular, as well as other urban cities, has over 50% of its employable Black men – unemployed. We still have over 40 Million people in this country without adequate health care. A majority of them are women, children and the elderly. Finally, lets not forget the issue of the Gulf region where hundreds of thousands of “Americans” where displaced and continue to be left stranded by the U.S. Government.
    While we do understand the importance of the discussion around sexism and misogyny in popular culture, especially within Hip Hop culture, we do not view the solution to be a further erosion of people’s right to freedom of speech or censorship of music. We would rather pressure media outlets to create fair and balanced programming on the national radio airwaves so that the listeners could hear alternatives to negative Rap, which we believe has been purposely omitted by the corporate run radio. We must hold the recording industry (executives and artists) and the media industry responsible for the images and messages promoted on public airwaves. Therefore, we, the Hip Hop community, suggest that the balance sought also entail balancing what makes the news and the headlines. Furthermore, we demand that the news outlets stop emphasizing the issue of Rap lyrics and focus on other subjects that demand and require immediate attention from the American public.
    We abhor the despicable sexist and racists comments made by Don Imus, as well as similar comments expressed in some Rap music. Yet, we also despise the media and the world’s sexist and racists who are ignoring the hundreds of thousands of African women and children being murdered and displaced in the Dafar region of the Sudan. We, the Hip Hop community, demand that the media give this and other major issues the same attention it is giving the Imus/Rap music debate.

  4. Q says:

    You are the freakin’ man! I made this same argument (about the positivity of hip-hop being ignored) while i was on a discussion panel at a screening of Beyond Beats & Rhymes here in Denver. Everyone knows and have known for awhile the negative aspects of hip-hop… what needs to be done is to bring focus, support, uplift and bring more media attention to all the good things that hip-hop is doing. Thank you for getting this in the LA Times…

  5. ill selettore says:

    Hey Jeff,

    You bring up the media justice movement. I read your piece in the Guardian:

    Do you know of any key pieces of journalism that predate your piece?

    I’ve started an article on wikipedia:

    I want to outline the idea/movement’s history. Any help you want to share, especially with knowledge about preexisting key journalism texts, would be great!


  6. Sugarbread says:

    Somebody needed to say this. My brother in law (staunchly anti graffiti, anti hip hop) wrote a crazy letter to the NYTimes demanding that Imus be fired. Makes one wonder who one is cheering for.

  7. Cadre says:


    An essay by LUNATIC The Messiah (8-7-07)

    “Bitch”, “hoe” and “nigga”, three words that infiltrated the English language way before Hip-Hop culture created “rap music” in the late 70’s and early 80’s, are at the heart of a national debate regarding rap music and the use of these words in the music. Why this one form of art should receive the condemnation of the media and not others is questionable, however, being that so many genres of music, movies, paintings, books, television shows, etc., incorporate content with connotations just as negative or degrading if not more so.

    The purpose of this article is to discuss who is responsible for “mainstream” rap music, which began as a positive, political tool for impoverished and politically impotent urban youth, reaching the levels of degradation and indecency that we hear on the radio daily.

    As a 20 year veteran “rapper”, I have personally witnessed the rise and “fall”, if you will, of rap music, and before I continue, I would like to correct a very common misuse of the words “Hip-Hop” and “rap”. Hip-Hop is a culture that sprang up around break dancing, rapping, scratching records and the art of graffiti. Rap is the musical art form that developed from the Hip-Hop culture. Some people interpret positive rap music as being “Hip-Hop music” and negative rap music as “rap music”, however, all music which incorporates “rapping lyrics to a beat” should, technically speaking, be considered rap music and not Hip-Hop music because Hip-Hop is a culture, not a genre. Now with that said, I’d like to move on to the heart of the matter.

    The Constitution of the United States of America states explicitly that every citizen of this greatest nation on Earth has the guaranteed right to vocalize or publish anything their whim desires, regardless of how negative or positive it may be. Hollywood has made BILLIONS of dollars distributing movies (art) which:

    ~incorporate every negative vice known to man
    ~incorporate every profane word in the English language (and others)
    ~display every body part exposed
    ~depict every moral and immoral sex act imaginable
    ~offend members of every religion/culture in the world
    ~ridicule our government
    ~demean genders
    ~demean races
    ~demean classes

    How are we as free citizens in a “fair and just” society able to hypocritically challenge the freedom of speech of one small minority group of individuals while totally ignoring the vast majority who are guilty of the same moral (not legal) infractions, but on a much larger scale and with much more propaganda and financial marketing power behind them?

    A campaign was launched against rap music which specifically names certain rap recording artists whose language is considered demeaning or offensive to women and/or Blacks. This campaign has been directed at the artists with the request that their record sales be boycotted and that they be removed from radio stations’ play lists, etc. Is this fair or biased?

    Those in the know understand where the financial root of this music lies. It’s not in the artists, but the corporations who spend millions upon millions of dollars attempting to financially exploit the popularization of the next big gangsta rapper or drug-dealer-turned-emcee. It’s gotten to the point where many rappers who were originally writing socially-conscious, political or positive music have had to alter their content to coincide more with what the major labels are spending ridiculous amounts of money to promote just so that they can remain competitive. Can a starving artist really receive 100% of the blame for his negative lyrics when a major label offers to write him a multi-million dollar check to keep the lyrics as negative and offensive as 50 Cent’s? Here’s a challenge to prove my point. Go and find out what the marketing budget was for 50 Cent’s or Lil Wayne’s latest album project. Then go and find out what the budget was for Mos Def’s or The Roots’ latest album projects and you will see why rappers today have such an incentive to record music which is more offensive and negative.

    Some say that because so many advertising dollars are spent on this type of music that Americans must just love violence, drugs, pre-marital sex and the “streets” lifestyle that is touted so much in the rap music that radio stations are highly (and illegally) paid to add to their playlists. My question is this: If you have a problem with the music, do you place the blame on the once-poor artists who are getting paid millions by White-owned corporations to release this music or do you blame the corporations who pay the advertising dollars and actually have more of a say in what music actually gets radio play?

    On the subject of what a rapper should or should not be allowed to say, my response will always revert back to the Constitution of the United States of America. Every United States citizen is guaranteed the unequivocal right to say or publish anything he or she wishes. Every United States citizen is also, however, guaranteed the unequivocal right to NOT listen to or view whatever media they do not wish to listen to or view. With that said, I’d like to propose the following argument: We should not be aiming the greater part of our protest at recording artists who are simply individual citizens exercising their right of free speech and freedom of press. We should be aiming our protest at the companies and individuals responsible for making undesirable (but legally created) and offensive content readily available to the malleable minds of America’s youth via radio/television, video games, internet websites, magazines, etc.

    The bottom line is this: If we do not allow these irresponsible corporations to capitalize from propagating such unworthy wares via various media which our youth have easy access to, then the negativity and degradation implicit in this content will cease to remain financially valuable to them and will eventually give way to whatever we DO allow them to broadcast. How can 50 Cent, Lil Wayne and other morally offensive recording artists be held responsible for the negativity and degradation in rap music and Hip-Hop culture, when no blame is attributed to Clearchannel, Viacom and the many other corporations who broadcast this music day in and day out on countless radio stations and TV stations all over the country (or world) every single day.

    Many ignorant people feel that 50 Cent and Jay-Z have so much control of the music industry because they’ve made more money from it as artists than most other artists, but neither of them profit from their negative and degrading music anywhere near as much as Clearchannel and these other major corporations who reap billions from investing in negative rap music and should bear the bulk of the responsibility of what Hip-Hop as a culure and rap music as an art form have become.

    Taken further, this looks to some as a conspiracy against Black youth, to others as another dumbing-down distraction which keeps the media and the American public’s eye away from more important matters such as our President’s illegal war in Iraq and how many of his friends will profit from the war machine he created if only they can find new ways to perpetuate the “war on terror” for as long as possible, as they did in Vietnam. Some believe that “winning” the war is not the goal here, but to keep it going as long as possible so that ridiculously huge profits can be made by the small group of international bankers who loan (with interest) the money to us to pay for the war (More info at ). However, most of America (and the world) will never take the time to notice this because we’re so caught up with the goings-on of a few rap artists who are doing nothing other than what Hollywood producers, such as Steven Spielberg, have been doing for the last century, which is creating controversial art…..or as Chris Rock would say: “…profiting from pain…..and only the white man can profit from pain.” (Excerpt from “Never Scared”, Chris Rock HBO Special)

    So what if 50 Cent got shot nine times and wants to write a song about how gangster he thinks he is….SO WHAT! We don’t have to allow it on our public airwaves!! WE THE PEOPLE used to mean something in America. If your Congressman doesn’t want to help clean up our airwaves, then fire his ass and get someone who will!

    So what if a rapper wants to rap about killing his brethren, pimping prostitutes or selling drugs to kids….SO WHAT!

    Does he/she not have the constitutionally guaranteed right to do so? Damned right!

    Does a pedophile have the constitutionally guaranteed right to write and publish a song describing the illegal acts he’s forced on his victims? Damned right!

    Can a racist write a song about hating and killing members of another race? Damned right!

    The Constitution of our great country guarantees these rights to each and every citizen of this wonderful nation.

    Felix Frankfurter once said, “We have enjoyed so much freedom for so long that we are perhaps in danger of forgetting how much blood it cost to establish the Bill of Rights.” Personally, I’d rather not let it go in the first place than die fighting to get it back.

    On the flip side, though, isn’t it the responsibility of the public-at-large to determine what our public services, such as TV and radio, are allowed to broadcast via airwaves that almost any child could gain access to? If we concentrated more on what we, as a body of informed citizens, can do legally to curb profits of negative or degrading media content providers, then our children would hear less garbage on the radio and we would have more time and resources to spend on getting all those young soldiers back home and out of the grasps of a death trap that should never have been allowed to develop. (Aren’t their lives at least supposed to be as important as a few profane words on the radio?)

    If you’re going to stand up and protest, at least be informed and know where your efforts should be concentrated. Sure I think 50 Cent’s musical content is 100% pure garbage that offers our culture and communities nothing of value whatsoever, however, I do defend his right to record that nonsensical BS if his heart so desires. If we allow our freedom of speech to become regulated or even removed, where will the encroachment of our civil liberties end? Or is that the design?
    ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~ ~
    (©2007 LUNATIC The Messiah)

    Signing off with a few quotes as always:

    “Liberty is the possibility of doubting, of making a mistake,… of searching and experimenting,… of saying NO to any authority – literary, artistic, philosophical, religious, social, and even political.” ~Ignazio Silone, The God That Failed, 1950

    “Here is my advice as we begin the century that will lead to 2081. First, guard the freedom of ideas at all costs. Be alert that dictators have always played on the natural human tendency to blame others and to oversimplify. And don’t regard yourself as a guardian of freedom unless you respect and preserve the rights of people you disagree with to free, public, unhampered expression.” ~Gerard K. O’Neill, 2081

    “Men fight for liberty and win it with hard knocks. Their children, brought up easy, let it slip away again, poor fools. And their grandchildren are once more slaves.” ~D.H. Lawrence, Classical American Literature, 1922

    “My priority as a U.S. senator is dealing with poverty and educational opportunity and adequate health care. If I’m ignoring those issues and spending all my time worrying about rap lyrics, then I’m wasting my time.” ~Senator Barack Obama

    LUNATIC The Messiah ~ writer, poet, recording artist, songwriter, political activist


    Websites: (Chicago, IL) (main blog, videos, free music downloads) (Vote for LUNATIC!) (Everyone has a Myspace page, right? LOL)

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