Hip-Hop Fridays: Old School vs. New School by Veronica Njeri-Imani

One of the wisest, most necessary dialogues that Africans and Americans must have has begun, but only time will reveal whether we have anything insightful to say about where we are headed. "Old School vs. New School" was the topic on a recent America's Black Forum, and I was fortunate enough to tune in just before heading to the neighborhood laundromat.

Kool Moe Dee, chocolate brown word warrior from back in da day that he is, caught my attention first and was joined by Li'l Mo, Ronald Isley of the Isley Brothers, Nelson George, Deborah Mathis, and the host of the show. Mathis's initial charge that "[capitalism] has distorted our values" as African Americans was complicated by Kool Moe Dee's assertion that "we inherited it." What exactly have Africans in America inherited?, I wondered, reminiscing on the situation of our people in the aftermath of the American Civil War - aka Radical Reconstruction. Black folks who had endured being the epitome of humanity commodified, in about a generation, joined hands in nationhood with the very same white folk who had previously, according to the most unnatural of manmade laws, owned them as chattel slaves. Despite Republican disavowals of race hatred and Democratic apologies, in a few short years, Booker T. Washington argued the possibility of southern Blacks and whites operating peaceably as separately as the fingers on the hand. In 1903, W.E.B. DuBois recorded our sorrowful journey behind the color line in The Souls of Black Folks. One hundred years later, the difference in generational perspectives on the sanctity of Black life and net worth played out in a nationally televised conversation between veteran and ingenue players in the pop culture industry. Talk of Black hip hop "moguls" and "CEOS" pointed out the absurd relationship between Black people in the U.S.A. and the free market system that is, as Haki Madhubti tells us in his poetry collection, HeartLove, is really a family - read "white" - affair.

While Kool Moe Dee made it plain that curent emcees "saw what happened to" his posse of hip hop artists - namely, "not being able to maintain a [playboy] lifestyle," Li'l Mo, in classic sista style, scoffed at the suggestion that even the biggest bling-bling African American male hip hop performers have real power relative to the American money machine. She asked a rather common sense question: "if your business ain't generating finances, what are you CEO of?" As any hip hop lady from back in the day can testify, yes, men do rule the world of the music industry. Lauryn Hill, Queen Latifah, and MC Lyte all bear battles scars. The sexual politics in the entertainment world being as they are, every one of them went glam in the face of persistent challenges to their femininity. Not one of them was featured in the opening of Brown Sugar, a movie about a a brotha and a sista who grew up with hip hop. And look for the once very fierce Eve with straight blonde hair on UPN in a sitcom this upcoming season. Lauryn Hill's last acoustic album contains a compelling confession on the spiritual toll of selling out because of sexist pressure. However, the connection between race, class, and sex was never articulated by any of the speakers on America's Black Forum.

Cultural guru and novelist Nelson George insisted that class, not race is the real issue, to which Mathis, a seasoned journalist, hastily agreed that the latter is involved by default. Does anyone want to acknowledge the fact that the great race war is also an engendered one? Black folks boast of how many bell hoooks books they are collecting on their shelves but fail to miss her critical rejection of the notion that human rights for women is a white girl's thing. There is an intricate link between contemporary class and racial struggle in America: the Black woman's womb. While George attempted to minimalize the impact of color on the wage slavery economy that rules the world by citing the blue collar woes of Eninem and Hispanic young men, a short view of history shows that, at least in the colonial Africa and the New World, African women's bodies were and continue to be under institutional control for the express purpose of producing and reproducing a free labor supply. For an easy headcount, take a look at how many young African American men and women are doing hard labor in the nation's prisons - an estimated half a million. It began on the auction block, this open sale of young Black energy and talent, and the low capital of Black hip hop stars and large overhead of the media conglomerates who control them attest to the effectiveness of the commodification game. Sojourner Truth and Harriet Jacobs both left narratives of the woes of motherhood for the enslaved African woman. Angelina Grimke's NAACP award-winning, fictitious heroine, Rachel, could not fathom bearing a child in a white supremacist society. Emmit Till's mother saw the nightmare that Rachel feared in real life as does every Black mother who loses her child to racist madmen and police brutality. Ask Amadou Diallo's mama.

In most major U.S. cities, young Americans of African descent wade at the bottom of the economic ladder flipping burgers, cleaning chickens, and selling retail goods. They enjoy few benefits and are shunted out of the educational system by slick standardized tests and state governments doing their best to eradicate HBCUs. The slender, degreed Black middle class experiences unemployment rates that make the gap between us and our white peers beg the question whether even the little that is left over from white privilege after white women get done benefitting from affirmative action has made a real dent in poverty in our communities.

As much as we may prefer to wallow in Black macho and superwoman myths, as 21st century Black folks in America, turning a blind eye to the gender line when women make up at least half of our population is foolish. Until African American men collectively acknowledge that they have internalized the worst of Anglo racism and sexism - and until African American women stop pandering to political pressure that wants us silent about the ways in which we have swapped masters over the centuries, the half will never be told about just how effective the "divide and conquer" strategy has really been in making us apeople dispossessed. Pretending that our history is exclusively masculine, offending our ancestors Nzingha, Harriet Tubman, Ida B. Wells-Barnett, Dr. Mary McLeod Bethune, and Queen Mother Moore - deceiving ourselves by assuming that our collective oppression is only a question of assaults from without rather than also from within, will make us just that - history.

Old school vs. new school hip hop dialogue that fails to center Black gender politics in the global economy is like all one-way conversations: extremely boring and fruitless.

Veronica Njeri-Imania is a writerpoetplaywrightanti-violenceactivist and doctoral student in English literature and can be contacted with comments or questions at: veronica371@yahoo.com

Friday, July 18, 2003