"Back in the days our parents used to take care of us/Look at 'em now/They even f*****' scared of us." — Notorious B.I.G., "Things Done Changed"
Let it never be forgotten that, in the beginning, hip-hop documented the disintegration of the community that created it. It did not cause this disintegration.
The messy dissolution of the civil rights movement. The crack epidemic. Government disinvestment. White flight. These are the things that ravaged urban communities across the country. In the beginning, so-called gangsta rap merely reported from the rubble.
But, over the past decade or so, it's become impossible for even thoughtful fans of the music not to acknowledge how this relationship between culture and community has evolved. In recent years, too much hip-hop has at best exploited and at its too-frequent worst exacerbated the problems it once merely detailed.
Now topics such as gun violence, drug dealing, and the degradation of women have become rote accoutrements for many emerging rappers, akin to ripped jeans and frizzy hair for '80s metal bands, albeit with a real-world downside for artists, listeners, and innocent bystanders alike.
As Memphis celebrates the 50th anniversary of Stax, it's unbearably easy to see the juxtaposition between a music that served its community and one that largely preys on it. Things done changed.
"You scream obscenity/But it's publicity that you want." — Geto Boys, "We Can't Be Stopped"
This is an important topic, but the reason it's on the minds of Memphians is a little Don Imus and a lot Commercial Appeal columnist Wendi Thomas, who raised a familiar stink last month about local rappers Three 6 Mafia performing at the Beale Street Music Fest. This felt like a publicity ploy for the CA, one made worse by the ridiculous sidebar — a call to action against Memphis In May — that accompanied Thomas' April 22nd column.
If the paper itself, as opposed to Thomas as a columnist, wants to confront this topic, perhaps it could start by grappling with the cultural content of the music in its arts coverage, something the paper's music writers have long shied away from.
I find myself feeling very protective of hip-hop these days, but less in opposition to detractors such as Thomas — whose outrage I sympathize with but who, for my tastes, is too uninterested in aesthetics and too willing to conflate "lewd" with truly brutal — than to white defenders of the music whose arguments fit too neatly with what I suppose our president would call "the soft bigotry of low expectations." These defenses range from naive comparisons of the most heinous rap lyrics to old-time rock-and-roll transgressions to condescending dismissals that are usually a variation on "What do you expect? It's rap music."
"I started thinking, how many souls hip-hop has affected/How many dead folks this art resurrected/How many nations this culture connected." — Common, "The 6th Sense"
The notion that art merely reflects reality is a liberal truism. But it isn't always true. I think the culture that people consume — especially young people — has a significant impact on their attitudes and behaviors. It's an active, not just reactive, force. It matters. It's important.
I love hip-hop: At its peak, it was every bit the rival of the Harlem Renaissance or the soul explosion of the '60s as a cultural movement, and even now the cartoon idea of hip-hop that most non-fans (and too many alleged fans) carry around with them vastly understates the diversity and richness of the genre. But hip-hop has taken a damaging turn over the past decade, one whose negative impact on real lives is so momentous that it demands to be addressed.
So I'm glad this conversation is taking place regardless of how it got started. I just wish the debate would expand beyond the finger-wagging opponents, targeted artists, and profiteering apologists who dominate the discussion. The people who most need to engage in this dialogue are hip-hop fans themselves.
The largest audience for rap music now, according to most studies, is white — people who generally do not have their reality reflected by the music, if the music reflects any kind of reality at all. These listeners would be wise to investigate their own attraction to the music; their own investment in a cultural model — the black man as badass outlaw hero — that robs the subject of his humanity and feeds the submerged, in many cases unrecognized, battery of racial biases that white listeners bring to the music.
There's a parasitic relationship here that listeners need to think — and talk — more about. That's a start.
Chris Herrington is the Flyer's film and music editor.