News & Politics

Growing a Rose in a Concrete Garden

It's annoying that whenever hip hop is criticized, the worst examples are held up for ridicule. Talking about pop gangsta rap as if it were synonymous with "black hip hop" is like talking about Kenny G as if he were representative of all jazz.
As an old school hip-hop head with kids of my own, I gotta keep it real: I'm conflicted over the whole Don-Imus/gangsta rap "debate."

Hip hop has grown from what critics were certain was simply a fad -- like disco -- to a global cultural phenomenon the world hasn't seen since rock n' roll, whose existence owes as much to the African-American blues tradition as does "rap music."

On the one hand, I'm not sure I agree that Imus should have been fired. That's the libertarian in me talking -- my primary reference point in assessing music, art and other elements of free expression.

On the other hand: how did hip hop become a part of the conversation?

A white political commentator utters a blanket racial put down in the political arena and, instead of talking about the persistence of anti-black scapegoating, pundits have quickly shifted their scorn to hip-hop entertainers?!

Columnist Kathleen Parker wrote recently that instead of analyzing white racism, it would be better if the no-'ho' language "were to reach the places where the word 'ho' ... is frequently used. Black hip-hop artists have been denigrating the women of their families and neighborhoods for years with terminology that reduces all women to receptacles for men's pleasure."

Well, I've never heard a "black hip-hop artist" use the phrase "nappy headed hos" and, just as there's a difference between heavy metal and soft rock, there's also a difference between hip hop and gangsta/pop rap.

Of course, some rappers refer to women as "hos." Two reasons: One, sex sells. Two, there are such things as "hos," many of whom hang out around celebrities. And they're not all "nappy-headed."

If we're going to talk about the commercialized off-shoot of hip hop known as pop gangsta rap, which began as social commentary on the underbelly of American society before it morphed into a modern-day minstrel show, shouldn't we also talk about the mostly white corporate executives who mass produce and sell it to mostly white kids?

I'm not trying to knock the hustle. I mean, if baby-boomer America thinks gangsta rap is scary, just imagine what all of those so-called gangstas would be doing without hip hop.

For all of its vulgarity and lasciviousness, hip hop, like Tupac said, is a rose that grew out of the concrete, created as a way for poor blacks in New York City who didn't have access to musical instruments to make their own music. Hip hop pioneers dug in their parents' record crates, sampled pieces and bits of old gems and created something new.

Sampling from long-forgotten musicians is not only a way to transmit the African-American blues tradition to a new generation but also a way to resurrect their careers and provide a pension of sorts to over-the-hill artists who never got paid by white corporate America the way hip hop artists do today. George Clinton or the ghost of Rick James and James Brown can tell you all about it.

Most importantly, hip hop has done more for improving race relations from Gen X on down -- by creating a shared egalitarian cultural space -- than all the Bill Bennetts, C. Dolores Tuckers, Jesse Jacksons and Al Sharptons of the world put together.

So, it's annoying that whenever hip hop is criticized, the worst examples are held up for ridicule. Ever heard of Rakim, Little Brother, the Roots, KRS-1, Dead Prez, Mos Def, Talib Kweli? Maybe it's because they're critical of what corporate America is putting out or because they have something interesting to say.

Talking about pop gangsta rap as if it were synonymous with "black hip hop" is like talking about Kenny G as if he were jazz, with no reference to Duke Ellington, Louis Armstrong, or Miles Davis. That's not a real conversation.

Rappers are not a special case but a reflection of the violent, super-macho, consumerist, gangsta culture on display that goes far beyond hip hop. Here we are telling the world that we're the only ones who can have WMD, that we can invade whatever country we damn well please if it is in our "interest" and we're talking about rap music?! Bush's whole philosophy is gangsta -- shut your enemies up, with violence if necessary. Now, that's gangsta!
Sean Gonsalves is a Cape Cod Times staff reporter and a syndicated columnist.