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Hip-Hop Fridays: E-Letter To The Wall St. Journal And Shelby Steele Re: Notes From The Hip-Hop Underground

Your op-ed "Notes From The Hip-Hop Underground" is impressive. In all honesty what you have outlined is a thesis for an entire book. Hopefully you will consider writing such. I was especially impressed with how you were able to connect the mentality of some in the Hip-Hop community with the institutions of slavery. And while I don't think you properly connect the institution of slavery with the socioeconomic conditions it produced, which helped to produce Hip-Hop, I do think that your slave mentality analogy is useful in probing the depths of the pathologies that exist and which are promoted in the Hip-Hop industry and culture.

I also think that you hit on an important paradox in Hip-Hop today that few in the Black community seem willing to discuss. That paradox being that a group of young Black men, primarily, are becoming increasingly wealthy by selling the worst aspects of the Black experience to an increasingly dissatisfied young audience, that is overwhelmingly White.

You elucidated this phenomenon when you wrote of Puffy and others:

The success of people like Mr. Combs is built on this sense of the simpatico. By some estimates, 80% of rap music is bought by white youth. And this makes for another irony. The blooming of white alienation has brought us the first generation of black entrepreneurs with wide-open access to the American mainstream. Russell Simmons, known as the "Godfather" of rap entrepreneurs, as well as Mr. Combs, Master P and others, have launched clothing lines, restaurant chains, record labels, and production companies--possibilities seeded, in a sense, by this strong new sympathy between black and white alienation.

However, I think you are too generous in connecting Black and White alienation and a bit too dramatic in considering that this is the first time that Black entrepreneurs have gained "wide-open access to the American mainstream". On the former, sure, many White youth are increasingly sympathetic to the Black experience because of their fondness for Hip-Hop. But many, many Whites that are listening to Blacks because of Hip-Hop are certainly not identifying with their supposed Black brethren. To some, the interest in Hip-Hop is almost pure voyeurism. In an interesting way, these violent and graphic portrayals of the harshest of Black realities, far from being educational, are becoming sheer entertainment for Whites who would never imitate the art that they are listening to.

In fact, I am pleased that you mentioned conservatives in your commentary because they help to prove my point. There are several members of the US Congress - white conservatives- whose children are fans of Hip-Hop. These youth are allowed to listen to Hip-Hop by their parents but have been raised in a way that sets up boundaries and a moral compass in their lives that would never allow them to rush to sample the nefarious aspects of Hip-Hop's portrayal of inner city life. These White "conservative" teens know better and act better than their supposed fascination with Hip-Hop may lead an unsuspecting observer to believe. Certainly, these Whites are not "alienated". I think that word is too strong to describe their state of mind. To me, many, but not all of them are just tired of living at home and listening to their parents preach to them. I don't think that is anything unusual and certainly nothing on par with what Black youth are experiencing across this country.

So, it is hard for me to swallow an argument that makes a direct connection between the alienation, pain and suffering of Black youth with the 80% White Hip-Hop consuming audience. While there are some Whites who really come close to identifying with Black youth, the vast majority, from my experience, look at a Hip-Hop album like they do a movie - they get a rush from consuming the material but are very clear where art, imagery and their own personal life experience intersect with each other.

I think you went too far when you wrote:

But the Puffys of the world cannot market to an indifferent youth. The important question is how the BN archetype--the slave's projection of lawless power and revenge--has become the MTV generation's metaphor for rebellion. And are conservatives right to see all this as yet more evidence of America's decline? I think the answer to these questions begins in one fact: that what many of today's youth ironically share with yesterday's slave is a need for myths and images that compensate for a sense of alienation and ineffectuality.

I think you must distinguish between Black and White youth in your above reference to the slave mentality. There is a difference in the root of both group's alienation and ineffectuality that I hope you recognize a fascination with Hip-Hop, masks, to a degree. And certainly, the legacy of slavery has left a different imprint on the minds of Blacks and Whites - regardless to age. But again, there is a difference in the two groups' attraction and support of Hip-Hop music.

I first noticed this in 1989 with all of the Whites who liked N.W.A. and the song "F--- the Police". There is no way that the 80% White Hip-Hop audience knows what it is like for Blacks teens and adults who endure racial profiling and police brutality on a daily basis. Regardless to how much Hip-Hop they listen to, they will never know what it is like to be harassed, insulted and beaten just because of the color of your skin.

Many Whites bought NWA because of what they were saying and because it allowed them to hear cursing like never before. It was as simple as that. Many Blacks bought it because they knew why NWA was saying what they were...and they agreed with them. Whites bought the record and embraced the subject matter, in general, for its entertainment value. Blacks, in general, bought the album not just for some entertainment value but deeper, because of its relevance to an aspect of their personal and family experience.

Very few Whites, including young White males, who may be Hip-Hop fans, are willing to admit this.

And even superstar Hip-Hop artists are not willing to admit it. These multi-platinum artists who represent Black people are often at a loss to explain and reveal that as much as 50 to 80% of their records are being bought by Whites. So, in order to explain this reality and justify it to themselves and their Black fans, they craft a cover story that reads that somehow all "youth" White and Black are in a struggle together -that Hip-Hop does what Jesus Christ, to a degree, is prophesied to do - end racism and unite the human family.

These artists don't really believe what they are saying. They know that life is different, even for them, and that in society, Hip-Hop has yet to ensure equal opportunity among the races - even among youth. They exaggerate the truth that White youth are more educated about Blacks than their parents were, and turn it into a creed that is palatable to White and Black audiences who like Black Hip-Hop artists, quite often for different reasons. In that sense, many Hip-Hop artists are like politicians - trying to satisfy different interest groups that support them.

To his credit, a conservative, Vice-President Dick Cheney, wisely admitted that he could not even imagine what it would be like to be racially profiled and harassed. He knows that he can possibly sympathize but never empathize with Congressman J.C. Watts, a black conservative, who has admitted to being a victim of racial profiling.

Having said that, I want to reiterate that you have written an important piece that many in the Hip-Hop community will have to admit contains some powerful and too seldom told truths. I only advise that the picture you paint between White and Black alienation be a little more nuanced. The two groups, although Hip-Hop fans, much more often than not, have two distinct experiences that produce their respective dissatisfactions and alienations, and which contribute to a different nature in their attraction to Hip-Hop music.


Cedric Muhammad

Friday, April 6, 2001

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