Rap's bum rap


AS a 35-year-old father of a 16-year-old son (yes, I was a teen-age father), and as a professor and ordained Baptist minister who grew up in Detroit's treacherous inner city, I am disturbed by some elements of gangster rap.

But I'm even more anguished by the way many black leaders have scapegoated its artists.

While gangster rap takes the heat for a range of social maladies from urban violence to sexual misconduct, the roots of our racial misery remain buried beneath moralizing discourse that is confused and sometimes dishonest.

There's no doubt that gangster rap is often sexist and that it reflects a vicious misogyny that has seized our nation with frightening intensity. How painful it must be for black women, many of whom have fought valiantly for black pride, to hear the dissonant chord of disdain carried in the angry epithet "bitch."

But gangster rap often reaches higher than its ugliest, lowest common denominator. At its best, this music draws attention to complex dimensions of ghetto life ignored by many Americans, black and white.

Of all the genres of hip-hop -- from socially conscious rap to black nationalist expressions, from pop to hard-core -- gangster rap has most aggressively narrated the pains and possibilities, the fantasies and fears, of poor black urban youth.

Gangster rap is largely an indictment of bourgeois black cultural and political institutions by young people who do not find conventional methods of addressing personal and social calamity useful.

When the leaders of those institutions, national and local alike, castigate the excessive and romanticized violence of this music without trying to understand what precipitated its rise in the first place, they drive a greater wedge between themselves and the youth they so desperately want to help.

If blacks really want to strike at the heart of sexism and misogyny in our communities, shouldn't we take a closer look at one crucial source of these blights?

The central institution of black culture, the black church, which has given hope and inspiration to millions of blacks, has also given us an embarrassing legacy of sexism and misogyny.

Despite the great good it has achieved through a heroic tradition of emancipatory leadership, the black church continues to practice and justify a kind of apartheid.

More than 70 percent of black church members are female, yet they are generally excluded from the church's central station of power, the pulpit. And rarely are the few ordained female ministers elected to be pastors. Yet black leaders, many of them ministers, excoriate rappers for their verbal sexual misconduct.

It is difficult indeed to listen to civil rights veterans deplore the hostile depiction of women in gangster rap without mentioning the sexism of the movements for racial liberation of the 1960s.

And of course the problem persists in many civil rights organizations today.

Sad, too, is the silence of most black leaders in the face of the vicious abuse of gay men and lesbians in gangster rap.

"Fags" and "dykes" are prominent in the genre's vocabulary of rage, and black leaders' failure to make this an issue only reinforces the inferior, invisible status of gay men and lesbians in black cultural institutions, including the church.

Gangster rap's greatest sin, in the eyes of many critics, is that it tells the truth about practices and beliefs that rappers hold in common with the black elite. This music has embarrassed black bourgeois culture and exposed its polite sexism and its disregard for gay men and lesbians.

We should not continue to blame it for ills that existed long before hip-hop uttered its first syllable.

Michael Eric Dyson, professor of American civilization and Afro-American studies at Brown University, is author of "Reflecting Black: African-American Cultural Criticism."

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