Hip-hop goes to town (hall) for a lively music debate

The Baltimore Sun

To spruce up its fall lineup and undoubtedly appease those who have long criticized the network's history of vapid programming, BET is airing Hip-Hop vs. America, a town-hall style meeting addressing the negative impact of hip-hop music.

It's a three-part special starting tonight and ending tomorrow. Parts 1 and 2 air tonight and tomorrow, respectively, at 8 p.m. on BET; Part 3 airs tomorrow online at BET.com. Moderated by camera-friendly BET personalities Jeff Johnson and Toure, the series features different panels of cultural critics (Stanley Crouch, Nelson George, Michael Eric Dyson) and hip-hop stars past and present (MC Lyte, Master P, T.I. and Nelly). Among the topics discussed before a live studio audience: hip-hop's relationship with criminality, the culture's misogynistic images of black women and how blacks feel about hip-hop's public airing of the community's "dirty laundry."

These issues are debated tonight. The discussion is indeed lively, good points are made, a few speakers (namely Dyson) impress the house with showy, rhythmic commentary that reeks of self-aggrandizement. After watching it, though, I'm still left wondering: What is the point of this debate?

In the wake of the Don Imus controversy and with the steep decline in sales of rap CDs, mainstream media for the past six months or so have been questioning the integrity of hip-hop. Is it art or poison? Is it dead or alive?

But the discussion is nothing new. It has been going on in the black community for at least a decade. Long before Imus insulted Rutgers' women's basketball team, activists such as the late C. Delores Tucker and hip-hop intellectuals (writers Joan Morgan, Kevin Powell and Farai Chideya) were debating the genre's degrading imagery and lyrics. At the time, such concerns were largely ignored by mainstream media. And all the while, BET gladly served as an accomplice to black musical oppression by offering little counterbalance to the inanity and straight-up buffoonery glorified in mainstream rap.

But now that the music isn't selling in huge numbers and the media have questioned the possible negative impact of its lyrics and images, here comes BET with a tepid special, acting all concerned about the state of hip-hop.

"The issues may ring familiar - sexism, violent lyrics, degrading words and images - but this time the debate is different given hip-hop's complicated relationship with corporate America," says Selwyn Seyfu Hinds, executive producer of BET News. "This is why it was so important for BET to provide a forum for each voice to shed light on every angle of this issue."

But the "issue" is actually much bigger than hip-hop. The pathologies glorified in mainstream rap - violence, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, juvenile views of sex and sexuality - are all rooted in American standards. As author Ernest Hardy writes in BloodBeats, his brilliant 2006 collection of essays, "Hip-hop is America. Its only real crime is being so much so. It boils 'mainstream' standards and practices down to their essences, then turns up the flame."

And it's frustrating that Hip-Hop vs. America (at least the first part) doesn't really address that the genre's negative impact isn't just a black problem.

"The most devastating words ever created out of hip-hop was 'keep it real,' because it's a concept that actually cannot be sustained by the mechanism that hip-hop has become," says Nelson George, one of the more rational, plain-spoken speakers on tonight's panel.

To break it down further: Hip-hop more or less has become a "grand hustle," which happens to be the name of T.I.'s Atlantic-distributed record label. It has been years since mainstream rap was the "black CNN." With today's popular hip-hop figures (Jay-Z, 50 Cent, Kanye West, Nelly) mostly celebrating the bling life over a beat, how could hip-hop possibly "keep it real" and speak for everyday people with real concerns such as unemployment and the rising cost of health care?

Mainstream hip-hop long ago sold its soul, and now its biggest supporters are wondering what will become of it.

"Corporate America's interest is to separate people, turn people into product, consumers," says Chuck D, the figurehead of Public Enemy, one of rap's fiercest political voices. "You got to remember as black folks ... we were all sold just like product, too."

After years of selling itself, mainstream hip-hop is in search of its humanity. And although the intention behind Hip-Hop vs. America may be good, I'm still wondering what will be done to change things after all the talk is over.


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