Don’t Blame Hip-Hop
Don’t Blame Hip-Hop
By KELEFA SANNEH
Published : April 25, 2007 / The New York Times
Hip-hop has been making enemies for as long as it has been winning fans. It has been dismissed as noise, blamed for concert riots, accused of glorifying crime and sexism and greed and Ebonics. From Run-D.M.C. to Sister Souljah to Tupac Shakur to Young Jeezy, the story of hip-hop is partly the story of those who have been irritated, even horrified, by it.
Even so, the anti-hip-hop fervor of the last few weeks has been extraordinary, if not quite unprecedented. Somehow Don Imus’s ill-considered characterization of the Rutgers women’s basketball team — “some nappy-headed hos” — led not only to his firing but also to a discussion of the crude language some rappers use. Mr. Imus and the Rev. Al Sharpton traded words on Mr. Sharpton’s radio show and on “Today,” and soon the hip-hop industry had been pulled into the fray.
Unlike previous hip-hop controversies, this one doesn’t have a villain, or even a villainous song. The current state of hip-hop seems almost irrelevant to the current discussion. The genre has already acquired (and it’s fair to say earned) a reputation for bad language and bad behavior. Soon after Mr. Imus’s firing, The Daily News had Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton, Democrat of New York, splashed on its cover alongside the hip-hop producer Timbaland, whose oeuvre includes some Imusian language. He had helped arrange a fund-raiser for her and apparently was now a liability. Oprah Winfrey organized a two-show “town meeting” on what’s wrong with hip-hop — starting with the ubiquity of the word “ho” and its slipperier cousin, “bitch” — and how to fix it. The hip-hop impresario Russell Simmons, who appeared on the show, promised to take action, but last Thursday a planned press conference with hip-hop record label executives was canceled at the last minute, with scant explanation.
On Monday, Mr. Simmons and Ben Chavis, leaders of the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, released a statement that said, in part, “We recommend that the recording and broadcast industries voluntarily remove/bleep/delete the misogynistic words ‘bitch’ and ‘ho’ ” and a third term, a common racial epithet. (That already happens on the radio; it seemed the two were suggesting that all albums be censored too.) Mr. Simmons helped create the hip-hop industry, and he has always spoken as a rap insider. Monday’s statement was remarkable partly because he was speaking as a hip-hop outsider, unable (so far) to persuade the executives to go along with him.
A different sort of criticism was voiced in this Sunday’s episode of “60 Minutes”: Anderson Cooper was the host of a segment arguing that hip-hop culture had popularized an anti-snitching ethos that was undermining the police and allowing criminals to operate with relative impunity. The rapper Cam’ron, who was shot in 2005, cheerfully told Mr. Cooper that cooperating with police would hurt his professional reputation and run counter to “the way I was raised.” Asked what he would do if he were living next door to a serial killer, Cam’ron merely shrugged and said he would move. The segment said remarkably little about the fear and anger that might help create such an anti-police culture. Even if Cam’ron is just doing what sells, the question remains: Why is this what sells?
None of these complaints are new exactly. Few rappers have used the words “ho” and “bitch” as enthusiastically — or as effectively — as Snoop Dogg, who has spent 15 years transforming himself into cuddly pop star from a menacing rapper, while remaining as foul-mouthed as ever. And rappers’ hostility toward the police has been a flashpoint since the late 1980s, when the members of N.W.A. stated their position more pithily than this newspaper will allow.
Nowadays, as all but the most intemperate foes of hip-hop readily admit, this is not a debate about freedom of speech; most people agree that rappers have the right to say just about anything. This is, rather, a debate about hip-hop’s vexed position in the American mainstream. On “Oprah,” Diane Weathers, the former editor in chief of Essence magazine, said, “I think Snoop should lose his contract — I don’t think he should be on the Jay Leno show.”
On “60 Minutes,” Mr. Cooper kept reminding viewers that hip-hop was “promoted by major corporations,” and he mentioned anti-snitching imagery on album covers. What he showed, though, was a picture taken from a mixtape, not a major label release.
That’s a small quibble, perhaps, but a telling one. In the wake of Mr. Imus’s firing, some commentators talked about a double standard in the media, though “double” seemed like an understatement. Like MySpace users and politicians and reality-television stars and, yes, talk-radio hosts, rappers are trying to negotiate a culture in which the boundaries of public and private space keep changing, along with the multiplying standards that govern them. This means that mainstream culture is becoming less prim (or more crude, if you prefer), and it’s getting harder to keep the sordid stuff on the margins.
This also means that just about nothing flies under the radar: a tossed-off comment on the radio can get you fired, just as a fairly obscure mixtape can find its way onto “60 Minutes” as an exemplar of mainstream hip-hop culture.
You can scoff at Mr. Simmons’s modest proposal, but at the very least, he deserves credit for advancing a workable one, and for endorsing the kind of soft censorship that many of hip-hop’s detractors are too squeamish to mention. Consumers have learned to live with all sorts of semi-voluntary censorship, including the film rating system, the F.C.C.’s regulation of broadcast media and the self-regulation of basic cable networks. Hip-hop fans, in particular, have come to expect that many of their favorite songs will reach radio in expurgated form with curses, epithets, drug references and mentions of violence deleted. Those major corporations that Mr. Cooper mentioned aren’t very good at promoting so-called positivity or wholesome community-mindedness. But give them some words to snip and they’ll diligently (if grudgingly) snip away.
It’s not hard to figure out why some people are upset about the way Mr. Simmons’s three least-favorite words have edged into the mainstream. One of hip-hop’s many antecedents is the venerable African-American oral tradition known as toasting; those toasts are full of those three words. Hip-hop took those rhymes from the street corner to the radio, and those old-fashioned dirty jokes are surely meant to shock people like Ms. Winfrey. Once upon a time, such lyrics (if they had been disseminated) might have been denounced for their moral turpitude, but now they’re more likely to be denounced for their sexism. Both verdicts are probably correct, and each says something about mainstream society’s shifting priorities and taboos. Maybe dirty jokes never change, only the soap does.
Mr. Imus has one thing in common with rappers, after all. Like him, many rappers have negotiated an uneasy relationship with the mainstream: they are corporate entertainers who portray themselves as outspoken mavericks; they are paid to say private things (sometimes offensive things) in public. It’s an inherently volatile arrangement, bound to create blow-ups small and big. Mr. Simmons’s proposal could buy some rappers a few years’ reprieve. But it wouldn’t be surprising if the big record companies eventually decided that brash — and brilliant — rappers like Cam’ron were more trouble than they were worth. (Cam’ron’s last two albums haven’t sold well.) Why not spend that extra money on a clean-cut R&B singer, or a kid-friendly pop group?
The strangest thing about the last few weeks was the fact that hardly any current hip-hop artists were discussed. (All these years later, we’re still talking about Snoop Dogg?) Maybe that’s because hip-hop isn’t in an especially filthy mood right now. It sounds more light-hearted and clean-cut than it has in years. Hip-hop radio is full of cheerful dance tracks like Huey’s “Pop, Lock & Drop It,” Crime Mob’s “Rock Yo Hips,” Mims’s “This Is Why I’m Hot” and Swizz Beatz’s “It’s Me, Snitches.” (The title and song were censored to exclude one of the three inflammatory words — proof that this snipping business can be tricky.)
On BET’s “106 & Park,” one of hip-hop’s definitive television shows, you can watch a fresh-faced audience applaud these songs, cheered on by relentlessly positive hosts. For all the panicky talk about hip-hop lyrics, the current situation suggests a scarier possibility, both for hip-hop’s fans and its detractors. What if hip-hop’s lyrics shifted from tough talk and crude jokes to playful club exhortations — and it didn’t much matter? What if the controversial lyrics quieted down, but the problems didn’t? What if hip-hop didn’t matter that much, after all?