Hip-Hop Fridays: Cash Flow by Veronica Njeri-Imani

In 2001, I hopped over to LA to a film festival sponsored by Magic Johnson, the basketball great who turned public humiliation of HIV into private dollars to empower Black neighborhoods. I was amazed at the lengths to which Johnson had gone in creating a media network including his own movie theater franchise and HBO. Intelligent films by African Americans showcased themes on Black male-female love, overcoming drug addiction, and tv glorification of gun violence. The films were free and open to the public, and children asked Magic and some of the actors questions afterwards. Clearly, it was a community event meant to invest in Black artists while inspiring new talent.

A more recent outing to hip hop performer Jay-Z's chic new sports bar & grill, 40/40, left me wondering about the true nature of cash flow in new millennium America. I ventured into Chelsea and behind the huge door manned by a big brother who bellowed whether or not my associate and I had reservations, not sure what to expect. After all, Jay-Z owns the joint. The dim, intimate interior impressed me as much as the generous size of my chilled glass of Coca Cola.

But how to explain the presence of one lone African American cocktail waitress on a visible staff of about eight in the latest rap star-owned establishment? And her blonde hair extensions? I am not hating on my sister's doing what she feels is necessary to pay the rent. How many Black waitresses do you know of in New York City? Perhaps I should just be grateful that, not only was she a good server, but also that she is employed by a brother who is thinking about the big picture.

Across the nation, low-paying gigs behind deli, fast food, and retail counters seem to be exclusively held by non-African Americans, even in neighborhoods where we make up at least half of the population. Are Black people so ignorant that we cannot be expected to serve up fries and shakes? Our loyalty to keep corporate businesses in our communities needs to be repaid with an equal investment in our youth. But what to think of mockery like the ad distorting the length of a young brother's arms to convey more convenient, "extended hours?" No doubt: we are definitely making it easier for doctors with suburban homes and luxury cars to anticipate retiring ten years early with our disproportionately clogged arteries and diabetic conditions from overconsuming fast food. The question is, since we literally built and nurtured this country to world economic prominence, who is making money and the benefits it can buy more accessible to us? Looking back on Denzel Washington's stellar silver screen performance as a mad dad refusing to allow his son to be martyed for a cruel health care system, I wonder what it is going to take.

If knowledge is power, then African Americans need to consider collectively how best to use what we know for our own benefit. As it stands, we have an enviable capacity for spending greenbacks to make other people filthy rich while failing to realize our potential for building real wealth.

Before the affirmative action laws of the 1970s, native-born African Americans were prevented by Southern apartheid from working in places like department stores. I cringe at my elders' stories of not being able to try on clothing in shops where they went to purchase their Sunday best. In 2003, I am still followed around by silly salespersons because of my melanin. Meanwhile, Grandpa Bill and Grandma Ethel make away with hundreds of dollars worth of goods because old white skin looks innocent. What's worse, the everpopular FUBU label stocked on the racks was created by a Black hip hop designer who, if seen on the street, would be treated suspiciously for looking like America's most wanted: the stereotypically dangerous young African American male out to ravage white women. Meanwhile, where is justice for a Black woman elder startled to death by the NYPD in her own home?

A trip to any shopping mall provides an ironic look at Black consumers using credit cards from banks that refuse to give us loans and department stores that rarely hire dark-skinned applicants. And yet, we chase the American Dream of more and more material things that symbolize equality with the white middle class. Like the sister at 40/40, every African American woman knows you do not get your foot in the reception area without "perfect" hair, makeup, and clothing. Black looks can cost you that job interview, especially when you are female. So we wear the mask of looking the part just to be eligible to make ends meet.

But then there's the flip side. Black women predominate in hip hop and the X-rated porn videos. Scantily clad, read "Jezebel-like" Black women. Alas, the values of the good ol' boys behind the proliferation of pornography has infiltrated hip hop using the familiar stereotype of the African female as sexually deviant whore. Why are so many of my brothers too busy flipping the channel for raunchier images to notice? For anyone doubting that the porn industry differentiates between Black and white skin, read Alice Walker's In Search of Our Mothers' Gardens where she argues that white women in the sex trade are objectified as women but Black women like dogs. It is easy to blame young Black women in hip hop for degrading themselves for a dollar as video hos, but it takes guts to challenge an entire economic system that uses Bell Curve-esque arguments on genetic inferiority to deny young Black people even minimum wage jobs. Last time I checked, despite the high court's recent ruling, the feds cut back funds making higher learning and, thus, a better lifestyle more accessible for African Americans. What, then, are young Black people in America to do to survive but play pimp 'n ho?

The Children's Defense Fund reports that African American youth are besieged by the worst jobless rate in nearly 60 years (visit www.childrensdefense.org). Why then are so many white young people earning moderate livings in the industry that urban Black youth created in answer to the draconian Reagan era? In addition to trying their hands at the mic, they are reselling old school tracks back to us at used music shops nationwide. A lone hip hop club or restaurant here or there will not make a dent in the food service industry anytime this side of Armaggedon. We must engage in ujamaa, cooperative economics.

If rap stars are indeed being looked up to as cultural vanguards from around the way, then the question must be asked: how deep are their pockets? Bling bling may be impressive to the little homies stuck in the ghetto being babysat by cable, but a failure to provide for one's children's children is the stuff that can make an entire people go down in history with infamy. In the words of Henry Highland Garnet, the 19th century Christian minister and abolitionist, "You had better all die - die immediately, than live slaves, and entail your wretchedness upon your posterity." We need to create more viable options.

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

Friday, August 1, 2003