The uncomfortable truth is that the days of independent labels, radio stations and hip hop shows, which gave the Black Power movement a soundtrack in the 60s and a diverse voice to Black urban youth through hip hop in the 80s, are long gone. Today, everything is a conglomerate and those holding the purse strings on the airwaves and in the music industry are largely White folks, who have little to no connection to the very community they take the genre from.
And since the name of the game is profit, especially at a time when record companies are struggling to stay afloat, the formula to ensure that the industry stays relevant and that those dollars keep rolling, is to appeal to their core record buying audience, who too are mostly white, with what they want to hear. Blacks rapping about guns, drugs and all the “Scarface” type stuff has much more appealing image than listening to them rap about Black consciousness. And unfortunately, to live comfortably and be successful, a lot of us buy into it too: whether we regularly consume it and start to believe that reality ourselves or if we go willingly to help produce these images for profit.
The whole thing reminds me of the old Dave Chapelle joke about the MTV coverage of the September 11tth terrorist attack and the cult of celebrities in which after any tragedy, we want to know what a celebrity thinks – even if it is Ja Rule. Said Chappelle: “Who give a F**k what Ja Rule thinks?! I don’t want to dance. I’m scared to death. I want some answers that Ja-Rule might not have right now. You think when bad Shyte happens I be the crib like, ‘Oh my God, this is terrible! Can somebody please, find Ja Rule, get hold of this Mfer so I can make sense of all this?” I swear that is my favorite joke of all time.
Anyway, the point is that when stuff like the Trayvon Martin murder happens, I don’t really care what an Lil Wayne or Rick Ross have to say. I mean what could they say of importance, which would offer any insight beyond what their music already says? In fact, I would prefer that many of them don’t say anything. Or else we might have Soulja Boy thanking slave masters or T-Pain campaigning for Fox News again.
On the flip side of that, I didn’t want to see Kanye West dragged through the mud because he rightly pointed out the George Bush didn’t care about Black People. Nor do I want to see Common being crucified as a militant Black terrorist because he dropped Assata Shakur’s name in a song. Because this too is what is likely to happen when a rapper breaks their silence and speaks openly and honestly about what we feel are the important issues right now.
What I find most ironic about this criticism on the rappers’ social responsibilities is how we readily miss, or ignore, obvious parallels to other ways in which our community remains silent. Like how our Black politicians will, on one hand, freely speak out about the degradation within the Black community and our responsibilities as people to fix it yet tread lightly – if not remain neutral – through discussions around race and racism and how that too has a hand in why our community is in the condition it is in today. Perhaps they are too opportunistic just like the rappers. Or maybe those same racial paradigms that hold rappers to fear of being marginalized in the industry are also the same conditions that hold politicians hostage to the fear of not being reelected. (Ahem Obama).
I think this is what irks me the most about O’Connor’s letter – more than how irked I am about Eric B new TV show, the shucking and jiving in hip hop and the virtual silence of our political leaders. It’s that once again, when folks, our folks in particular, are trying to exercise their voices to bang on the very system that is denying Martin, and others like him, justice, here comes someone, particularly someone with no real connection to the community, derailing the conversation to speak about what she feels we need to focus on. Ironically, nowhere in her letter was any sort of nod to all conscious rappers, who do speak up about the important issues in our community. Talib Kweli, Common, Wyclef Jean, Yasiin Bey, aka Mos Def and many others have been delivering their own brand of conscious music for years. A number of rappers have created music inspired by the teenager’s murder by George Zimmerman including Jasiri X and even unlikely social commentator, Plies, who released a “We are Trayvon” with proceeds going to the Martin family. These artists and those types of songs don’t get spins on the radio or get featured on video countdown shows, and they don’t get mentioned in O’Connor’s letter either.
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