Doing the Work of Interrogation; or “Whatever, as Long as He’s Gettin’ Paid.”

I recently got into a little argument, no, let’s say “discussion” about so-called “gangsta rap. Basically, the guy I was having this “discussion” with made the argument that hip-hop isn’t about integrity and creativity anymore and judging it on those terms is unfair. People will make the kind of music that they believe will make them the most money. My argument was, essentially, that is fine but it doesn’t make the music good just because it will sell, or because it fits neatly into some “idea” of a sub-genre.

Black people have this odd tendency to make money the great equalizer. This means that if you have it, everything you do is better, easier, more valuable, etc. If you have it, then you aren’t subjected to the same rules and regulations as “regular” people, except when you screw up badly (rape or murder, etc) then the rule inverts (because you have money you are obviously guilty).

This is dangerous thinking. It can lead to lazy and reckless behavior. And it can lead to lazy consumers who no longer interrogate their choices when consuming.

One of the biggest oversights of the civil rights generation was misjudging the extent to which becoming upwardly mobile would gut black communities and how much the subsequent generations would assimilate white middle class values (mostly, the overvaluing of attaining status and money). Prior to the civil rights movement, black folks lived a lot of their home and private lives away from white society. In these spaces, black neighborhoods and whatnot, black people could do the work of resisting the racism of white society and affirm the worth of their children without interference. This is much harder to do now, living in predominantly white suburbs.

Moving into white suburbia meant we had to play by their rules. Get the cars they drive. The house they buy. The “language” they speak. Gone are the schools and neighborhoods that were created to insulate young blacks from harmful thinking that exists in white society. And the result is a generation growing up internalizing rampant consumeristic, capitalistic ways of thinking.

Hip-hop has become a billion dollar industry. In the past year, black music has dominated the Top 10 on the Billboard charts, dominated scoring in commericials, and Be Cool is a huge studio movie about hip-hop, “The Industry”, staring white boys John Travolta and Vince Vaughn alongside black cultural icons The Rock, Cedric the Entertainer, and Andre Benjamin.

Black culture is being appropriated yet again.

This is to be expected. It’s the nature of a society that is built on imperialism and immigration. All these different cultures vie for dominance (or, shit, just recognition) in mainstream America.

What is disturbing is that black people, in their nice middle class berths, no longer have organized dialogue about the political and social ramifications of this newest wave of white appropriation. We are always and only concerned with the bottom line. No matter what the social ramifications of this appropriation are. We don’t question why and to what degree and what aspects of black culture are consumed by non-blacks.

This is dangerous.

You risk being labeled a “hater” if you have any kind of thought-out critique of people making money. A little over two years ago, the Neptunes and Timbaland created Justin Timberlake’s debut album, Justified, and Justin, at least in the media, received a large (some would say disproportionate) amount of the credit for the album’s creative success. Take note that when the Neptunes created Kelis’ well-received debut album, Kaleidoscope, there was a significant number of articles and discussion around how much of her “image” and “style” was created by the Neptunes. And Aaliyah was adored but she was widely considered a Timbaland protégé, even though she hand-picked Timbaland out of obscurity to help create a handful of tracks on her sophomore album, One In A Million.

But when it’s the “heir-apparent” Justin Timberlake, suddenly the fact that he lied about having created the tracks with the producers (the Neptunes tracks were rejects from Michael Jackson’s Invincible project) was barely reported in the news. Not as much as the, “I was raised in Memphis, the cradle of blues, black music is in my soul” offensive platform that the album was promoted on.

I spent a lot of time critiquing not only Justin’s racist behavior, but the complicity of the Neptunes and Timbaland in that behavior. And I got called a “hater” too many times to count. My argument was simple though. And I believe it is independent of whether or not the music is any good.

For the record: Justified is derivative and corny, well-made, yes, but lacking in a unique sound and identity. Justin comes off like a giddy fan paying homage to his influences, not a full fledged artist like he is capable of becoming.

The integrity of the Neptunes’ and Timbaland’s art was compromised when they allowed it to be perceived as less a product of their talents than it really was. And sure they are huge celebrities and work with lots of “big” (read: white) artists, but at what cost? How many people really believe that Justin wrote those songs, how many people really believe Justin is “down”? No one seemed to bat an eye at the aping of Michael Jackson’s style in the video for Like I Love You.

Similarly, where was the outcry when companies started marketing ringtones like “Where My Hoochies At?” And where was the outcry at 50 Cent’s marketing of himself as a man who was shot 9 times? Where is the outcry at Puffy, who continues to act as if his part in the media war of the East Coast/West Coast feud (and remember, it was mostly a war in print, instigated and perpetuated by media, white and black alike) wasn’t just as disgusting and manipulative as Suge’s? Where is the outcry at the changing appearance of Lil’ Kim into a living black Barbie doll?

It is not about saying that what people are doing is wrong or bad; it’s about interrogating the impact that such moves are having on other black folks. Questions like, is it a fair trade that Puffy might inspire lil’ Rasheed in Cabrini Green to be a media mogul when people have died or been injured in major events he has put together? Is it a fair trade that lil’ Tennisha in Flatbush will be a fully sexual being because she listens to Lil’ Kim if it will be undermined by her insistence in ridding herself of black “signifiers” like a wide nose and dark skin? Is it a fair trade that Will Smith is a huge movie star when he has said in interview that Jada needs to not “limit” her work to films that only “interest” black viewers, like Menace II Society? What is the message being sent to young black women? That they can’t make their own decisions? What is the message being sent to black children? That a career of your own cultural expression that caters to your people isn’t truly viable, isn’t worthwhile, isn’t as “good” as courting mainstream love and attention?

These are the kind of questions black people aren’t asking anymore. There is no critical engagement with how and to what extent our culture is being marketed. Everyone talks about BET and how all they play is booty shaking music 24/7. A more useful critique would be to interrogate why the over-sexualization (or the perception) of black women and the hyper-violence (or the perception) of black men is what middle class whites love to consume. Or, are white folks running out in droves to purchase Common records at the same rate they are purchasing 50 Cent records? Why aren’t they? I mean, there is a reason that those are the videos chosen. Would we make the same outcry if all you saw were Pharoahe Monche, Q-tip and Common videos? Is the question really about balance?

This is important work, people.

We need to understand the way in which we are perceived. It is more than just negative versus positive. It’s about balance. So-called “gangsta” rap has its place. But the only way so-called “conscious” rap will have its place as well is if we interrogate why one is favored over the other. We need to be honest about all facets of black culture. We need to drop essentialist ideas about black men as violent and “reality” as the ghetto. We need to drop essentialist dichotomies like black women are either earthy mammies (Oprah and Jill Scott) or foul temptresses (Lil’ Kim and Ciara).

It has to become about so much more than, “Well, they makin’ their money.” That statement is a copout. It means you don’t have to think about what your doing, what your consuming, what you believe in. It means you aren’t doing the work of interrogation. At what cost are a few black people becoming millionaires and (in a few instances) billionaires? What was the price paid in the socialization of a new generation of black children when Bob Johnson sold BET to Viacom and now the station is essentially MTV? So what if Bob Johnson is the only black billionaire. What was the cost?

We don’t ask these questions.

If after asking these questions, a person comes to the conclusion that all these things are okay, it’s okay that people died around Puffy (whether or not it is his fault is irrelevant, we’re discussing a climate surrounding his dealings…why are we so willing to demonize Suge and not even critique Puffy?) for instance, then that’s valid.

Because that person did the work of interrogation.

We all need to create a climate where someone can say something as simple as “Ashanti can’t really sing and that’s something she should work on,” without someone else saying “you’re a “hater. We need to remember that so-called “hateration” is not when someone has a valid and accurate critique–Ashanti isn’t the strongest singer, that is an accurate statement–but when people blindly dislike and disparage someone for no apparent reason.

It’s just as dangerous to like someone for no reason or for flimsy reasons like “they makin’ dat money” as it is to not like them. Hating Ashanti because she’s beautiful and successful is just as useless as liking 50 and Puffy because they are rich.

The Civil Rights Movement, The Black Power Movement…they had shortcomings. We know that now. They made mistakes, they took risks. We know that now. But there is a plethora of documentation of the leaders’ thought processes and rationales for why they made the choices and decisions they did.

Where is Puffy’s? Where is 50’s? Where is Oprah’s? Where is Will’s? And where is the general public’s response? Why is the only reason people give for their behavior, or the main reason, that it will make them money? At what point do we truly own our culture and our cultural icons and subject them to serious critique and standards of morality we hold ourselves to?

About tlewisisdope

I write. I live in DC.
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