Hip-Hop Fridays: The Socialized Consumer by Evan Rogers
"Again, it is not purposeful censorship. It is just that you don't make it to those positions. That includes the left (what is called the left), as well as the right. Unless you have been adequately socialized and trained so that there are some thoughts you just don't have, because if you did have them, you wouldn't be there."
- Noam Chomsky on "What Makes Media Mainstream"
A couple of weeks ago I read an op-ed piece at BlackElectorate.com called Hip Hop Goes to Ludacris Limits by Elisa Cramer. It was the typical rappers are the root of all evil in Black America-type of editorial that has become all too common in recent years. While I myself have been critical at times of the lyrical content and imagery of certain hip-hop "acts", I always try to avoid the perils of reducing the negativity that permeates my beloved culture to the actions of a few selfish and misguided individuals. On the contrary, the problems that pervade hip-hop music are the same problems that are currently endangering our democracy, particularly when concerning apathy toward the consolidation of voices across the media.
In the case of hip-hop, I find it rather ironic how the same people who observe the rap game from the sidelines are so quick to catapult themselves to the role of referee when in fact many of these Ivy League scholars and "cultural critics" are sharing nose bleed seats with Bill O'Reilly and little Megan from the suburbs. Consequentially, I would encourage the few public intellectuals with book contracts to resign from their academic posts and start flooding the mixtape circuit with their own material. I am sure they are capable of "stooping down" to hip-hop's level and dropping science on wax instead of pulp for our sake. Even further, I would urge each baby boomer out there who feels that hip-hop is dying to make every effort possible to save this music from the fates of jazz and rock and roll if they are truly committed to practicing what they preach. If our parents can't even stop Michael Powell and the FCC from pimpin the masses, however, I find it hard to believe that they will be able to save hip-hop from the cheap seats.
In previous columns and essays I have argued that the music industry itself is to blame for the current state of hip-hop. After all, any grassroots phenomenon that finds itself co-opted and comodified at the hands of multinational corporations should not expect its priorities to remain the same. Like the Civil Rights Movement which brought black votes to the Democratic Party, hip-hop music has exposed untapped markets to industry behemoths like Universal and Sony. I still stand by that assertion but I think it is important to expound upon the role of the socialized consumer because we, yes we, are ultimately responsible for the nature of this music be it good or bad.
Imagine if soccer moms in suburban America saw television advertisements of new Clorox products and thought to themselves, "Damn! That new version of Pine-Sol has a hot container. It's gonna sell madd units yo!" As weird as that sounds, it is precisely what happens with many hip-hop consumers today. I myself am not immune to it, and based on several observations and conversations with my peers, it is quite evident that I am not in short company. I'll admit that I probably see the marketing side of hip-hop from a different lens than most (not arrogance…just telling it how it is), but I think it is fair to assume that hip-hop consumers are probably more conscious of the "blow up potential" of a particular brand or product (in this case rappers) than any other group of consumers. We know who's going blow before they blow and if you ask, most of us can tell you why. In essence, the hip-hop consumer base (namely the mainstream consumer base) has been socialized to the point that we think rather similar to the way market research firms (who spend millions trying to understand us) want us to. If one had not heard any of 50 Cent's mixtape material, a few minutes of his breakout video "Wanksta" would have made it quite clear that 50 was headed for stardom and most of the reasons have nothing do with his actual mic skills.
Is that a problem? Well for label executives it's wonderful. Many critics have argued that rappers like 50 Cent are bad for Black America, but on the flip side, dude should probably be looked upon as mainstream hip-hop's savior given the prevalence of file-sharing and a sluggish economy. In an interview with BlackElectorate.com publisher Cedric Muhammad, Roc-a-Fella records CEO Damon Dash had this to say about record sales, "Hip-Hop right now is easy. I can go gold now, sort of with my eyes closed, ya know?" I can understand why Mr. Dash would feel the way that he does, but if one looks at the big picture, there is reason to believe that records sales are not "easy" right now but merely on life support.
As I said before, hip-hop music has benefited the music industry much how the Civil Rights Movement has helped the Democratic Party. Unfortunately, the black leadership establishment has been privy to the bad guy/worse guy dichotomy of party politics, but lacks the resources and/or willingness to contest it with any vigor. As a result, the black masses continue to be underserved by both parties. Similarly, label heads like Master P and P Diddy have their best days behind them and as time will prove, will ultimately find themselves irrelevant in the bigger scheme of things much like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton. I'm not hating on Percy Miller and Sean Combs as businessmen, but I would be the first to argue that their viability inside a racist white power structure is directly tied to record sales...nothing more...nothing less. They're in the business of making black music for white distributors and if they stop moving units, they will ultimately be replaced. That's why people like Elisa Cramer are so quick to name transient rappers and visible moguls but find difficulty when critiquing hip-hop's nameless consumer base and faceless high level executives like Jimmy Iovine (Interscope) and Tommy Mottola (formerly of Sony).
Like the "game" of politics (electoral votes), the game of hip-hop (album sales) will continue to under serve the masses so long as record sales are predicated upon the effectiveness of one's image and marketability instead of their ideas and talents. The truth, however, is that that particular burden falls upon the consumer. We are the ones that must change how we view this art form. No Harvard intellectual or baby boomer is going to galvanize our generation toward its own salvation. As Adisa Banjoko has already illustrated, the "Hip Hop Protest" has been a myth up to this point. Until we as a generation realize that there is a something very political about contesting standardized radio playlists, $19 CDs and cheap booty videos, we will continue to fail in our mission. A lot of people view politics as a white man's game that involves empty promises, corruption, and 15 second commercials and simply don't vote as a result. For us Reagan babies, what better way for us to exercise our political muscles than to develop strategies that would save our music from an industry that has pimped black culture for nearly a century?
The only way hip-hop is going to change though is if we start viewing the music as a radical arm of the black press instead of just a product for mass consumption. The big five wants us to believe that it's the music that is for sale, but truth be told, music is just a vehicle for ideas. When a song by 50 Cent, Jay-Z, or Nas is being played on the radio, that particular song is ultimately speaking on behalf of us all, whether we like it or not. In the eyes of outsiders like Bill O'Reilly, rappers like Ludacris are the spokespeople for traditionally voiceless African-American males like myself. I would never shy from defending Ludacris from the onslaught of outsiders but at the end of the day it would be foolish not to criticize my nigga behind closed doors. A lot of us young cats get profiled by the police BECAUSE of the images and antics put out by rappers and if those rappers are no longer willing or able to use their power to fight that injustice (see Public Enemy, NWA, etc.), then quite frankly, they can't do anything for me.
Like the NAACP and SCLC, however, they're not going to leave until they are ultimately replaced. Who got beats?
Evan Rogers is a regular contributor to AllHipHop.com and a weekly columnist with Technician, North Carolina State University (NCSU)'s student newspaper. To contact Mr. Rogers, email email@example.com.
Friday, June 13, 2003