Black History Month: Another side of Hip-Hop

14 Feb

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Negative stereotypes of Blacks are a staple of Black music videos that glorify gangsterism. In Rap music and videos, the minstrel-show plantation has been born again as the “hood.” While the setting has changed from an idyllic plantation to the mean streets of urban America, the process is the same: a black culture is being marketed for profit, with black performers portraying negative stereotypes. Performers claim that they represent authentic black America, while critics decry the glorification of ugly caricatures and its effects on Black youth.

Black-face.com

I’ve had some things on my mind lately, Black History Month (BHM), and a lecture I attended a few weeks ago, by masculinities author and sociologist, Michael Kimmel. By fortunate chance, I recently came across  The Black Man Can, an initiative to actively promote a positive black male image by Brandon Frame, who has helped immensely with this year’s BHM articles.

I read a couple of posts on Brandon’s site that really grabbed my interest: Is Commercial Hip-Hop the New Blackface? by Sharif Rasheed, who suggests Hip-Hop culture as a caricature of African-American youth, and the fabrication and absorption of the Hip-Hop stereotype in black youth culture in When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life. 

Now, as a white, Canadian woman of European descent with a love for Sam Cooke, but no understanding of Soulja Boy let alone Jay-Z, I was gobsmacked at what I read in Rasheed’s article: “Commercial Hip-Hop has become the blueprint for the streets for many of today’s youth. The lyrics tell them what to wear, how to talk, what to like and dislike. These ignorant lyricists are the slave masters that abuse young minds by whipping the oppression into them and hanging the glorification right on them.”

Glen Palmer, of The Gentlemen’s Standard, a site for distinctive men of colour, does not believe that the younger generation understands blackface, let alone black American history.

“The blackface concept still remains,” he says,“artists play to the lowest, stereotypical denominator and project an imagery that mainstream, white America believes people of color to be. The stereotypes have changed a little, as “bling” has been introduced into the equation, but the foundation is still there. Ignorant. Hyper-sexualized. Violent.”

It is alarming that young black men allow themselves to be molded into an antiquated stereotype via Hip-Hop, as is their frenzy to prove their manhood – the brand of masculinity devised by white, Judeo-Christian men.

Masculinity

In Michael Kimmel’s lecture, he explains the traditional pillars of manhood that originated in the mid-20th century that has left millions of men unable to feel, positively express themselves, and be genuine.

  1. “No sissy stuff.” In western patriarchal culture, anything associated with the feminine is a sign of weakness (an apparent cardinal sin). In Hip-Hop, rap artists often call each other out and accuse each other of weakness in their rhymes, using offensive language like “bitch nigga”,  keeping rivalries and feuds alive, and feeding the aggression that hip hop demands.
  2. “Be a big wheel.” Wealth, power, and status equals money, ice (bling), and sex in Hip-Hop culture – the spoils of white patriarchy.
  3. “Be a sturdy oak. Be reliable in a crisis/become an unfeeling inanimate object”. Glen suggested I watch Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, an excellent documentary by Byron Hurt. Hurt discusses the projected hardness in Hip-Hop that is ego-driven and encourages men to assert themselves. This  hardness “denies men their own frailty”, and exposes their masculine insecurities, camouflaged by violence, dominance, misogyny, and homophobia.
  4. “Give ‘em hell.”  Be daring, be aggressive, be violent. The projected Hip-Hop image encourages men to threaten and kill each other, abuse women, and endanger and intimidate those around them.

The way Hip-Hop has nestled into these dated (and very unnatural) masculine expectations is startling, but as Brandon says, young black men “lack positive self-identity or  positive identity development, and look for it in other forms like commercial Hip-Hop music. The images created by these artists is merely for entertainment but Black Boys do not see it that way. They see these images as reality…a reality they want to live and embody.”

Little white lies

The scariest concept around all of this stuff is that the Hip-Hop image is false.

The caricature of the rough, tough, dangerous gangsta rapper is projected by profit-generating record labels, run by white men in suits who decide who gets signed, and who they can peddle the blackface image to (largely young white men – 70% of Hip-Hop is consumed by this group).

In When Posing Goes Wrong: Ricky Rozay is not about that life, the author outs rap artist, Rick Ross, about the lies he’s been living. Black youth hears music about drug dealing, though many of them “have never even sold candy”, toting guns and murdering, though “a good number of us have never even fired a gun and for sure never killed anyone.

“Our youth listen to these lyrics from these beloved entertainers and take it as gospel. Many take the glorified side of street life as reality and they do not see the dangerous reality until it is too late.”

A new code of masculinity

In researching and writing for this post,  I’ve processed a lot of information and believe I have witnessed the ultimate in insult – the diminishing of human potential. We desperately need a new, healthy, positive definition of masculinity for young men and boys that promotes among other things, self-respect and respect for others.

What is and was needed is a vision of masculinity where self-esteem and self-love of one’s unique being forms the basis of identity. Cultures of domination attack self-esteem, replacing it with a notion that we derive our sense of being from dominion over another. Patriarchal masculinity teaches men that their sense of self and identity, their reason for being, resides in their capacity to dominate others.

– bell hooks, African-American feminist

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2 Responses to “Black History Month: Another side of Hip-Hop”

  1. Tim Barton February 15, 2013 at 12:09 am #

    The great irony of much of this is that there are black members of bands such as TV On The Radio and Block Party, as there were in Big Country and Simple Minds, among others. These groups are also known to appeal to a largely white audience, although certainly by default and not in any negative sense. They are talented and have created some great music that can and should appeal to both black and white audiences. Furthermore, rap need not be focused on the stereotype. Grandmaster Flash or Run DMC come to mind as quite positive in terms of their musical message. Prince did it, much of disco was created by blacks, and 70s radio had plenty of great black music. That should be the inspiration for young blacks in search of a lifestyle that is positive.

  2. Leah Morrigan February 15, 2013 at 11:04 am #

    Thanks for your thoughts, Tim. Unfortunately, this is a bigger issue than musical taste – it’s a cultural and social problem. As Glen said, “It just so happens that the hip hop artist/rapper is the predominant caricature of the day. Factor in other variables such as poverty, crime, illiteracy, single-parent households and the situation doesn’t look like it will improve.”

    This is a huge and complex problem and after all of the research I did for this post, I see the solution in education, but getting these kids into school is a problem unto itself. It will take a long time and a lot of resources to remedy this social problem.

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