MAXWELL: The cure of gangsta rap is in our hands

12/10/2000 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


A healthy but loud debate is taking place among African-Americans nationwide. The source of the debate is captured in a recent cover story of Jet, a magazine about black life in the United States: “Is Hip-Hop Culture Hurting Our Youth?”

Several years ago, I wrote a column arguing unequivocally that hip-hop _ rapping, breaking-dancing, deejaying and graffiti-writing _ is generally bad for black youth.

Since then, I have grown more tolerant of hip-hop, even though I watched helplessly as my son absorbed and emulated some of the worst aspects of gangsta rap. He stopped short of wearing hip-hop’s signature baggy, prison-styled attire because I would not spring one cent for any if it.

Most recently, I wrote arguing that some rap is beautiful, serious poetry. Trust me when I say that I heard from enough angry readers to last a lifetime. No matter how hard we old-timers rail against hip-hop, however, the culture is fixed in mainstream America. We see its influences even in spoken English, dancing and dress.

The harsh, vulgar lyrics, misogyny, violence and pornography in the recordings and videos are here to stay.

Back in the heyday of the group Run DMC, hip-hop was the sole property of urban blacks. Today, it has been embraced by suburban white youth, as well. Indeed, just a few years ago, you could stop at a traffic light and be assured that the driver of car next to you blasting gangsta rap was a black male.

Not any longer. Now, one time out of three, the driver could easily be a blond, blue-eyed Hyde Park girl in her shiny BMW.

Turn on your TV and you will see ads using hip-hop. Many shops specialize in hip-hop toys and video games. Jet reports that a highly popular exhibit of hip-hop culture is now at the Brooklyn Museum of Art.

The Jet article is timely and useful because the writer interviewed dozens of artists, supporters and critics alike. Two years ago, I attended a conference where C. DeLores Tucker, chairwoman of the National Political Congress of Black Women Inc., condemned hip-hop and challenged the rappers in attendance to clean up their acts. None seriously accepted her challenge.

Tucker’s contempt for the art form has deepened in two years. Like other hip-hop critics, she sees hardly anything positive in it.

“The glorification of pornography, wanton disregard for civil authority, misogynistic disrespect for women and a penchant for violence are the unintended impact of hip-hop culture on today’s youth,” she told Jet. “I say unintended because hip-hop . . . was intended to to celebrate the revival of the age-old rhymed recitations of life’s problems and aspirations set to music.

“Unfortunately, somewhere along the way, some unscrupulous elements hijacked this influential conduit to our youth and loaded it with the evil and debasing, hate-driven messages in the lyrics we now know as gangsta rap. Hence, the artistry of the rappers in the streets is used by the gangstas in the suites to spread cultural garbage among our youth.”

To the surprise of many people, the Rev. Al Sharpton, the Harlem-based civil rights activist whose pro-black philosophy infuriates white America, also disdains most of hip-hop.

“The hip-hop culture is just like electricity,” he said. “It can be used negatively or positively. The same electric current that lights up your house can also electrocute you. It is the misuse of hip-hop culture to attack our women and promote violence. We must encourage the proper use of hip-hop culture. We are all influenced by the hip-hop generation.”

As reported by Jet, Sharpton’s comments to participants during a recent conference on social responsibility in hip-hop hit the mark: “Don’t let some record executive tell you that cursing out your mama is in style. Any time you perpetuate a slave mentality that desecrates women and that desecrates our race in the name of a record . . . I consider you a well-paid slave.”

I agree.

But most hip-hop artists and recording executives argue that hip-hop has become a scapegoat for society’s larger problems that marginalize black youth, especially in the nation’s urban centers.

They claim that hip-hop is an accurate reflection of life on the street. And even if gangsta rap’s portrayals are negative, parents _ not rap artists _ are responsible for what their children are exposed to. However, some rappers, such as Joseph “Rev. Run” Simmons, a founding member of Run DMC, and the brilliant Mase, have left the industry. Simmons, now a minister, defected because he came to believe that he was doing harm.

Mase, who also became a minister, quit because he believes, as he told Jet, that he was leading souls to hell. “I learned that my gift wasn’t rapping,” he said. “My gift was that I have a way with words and I was using them for the wrong instructions. . . . People get behind all this negative stuff. Why not get behind something positive?”

Although no scholarly studies show that hip-hop affects African-American youth negatively, I believe that it does. That said, though, I am not ready to censor even the most potent, vulgar forms of gangsta rap. Because hip-hop culture is not going away, parents, schools, civic organizations and other reservoirs of positive values need to get more directly involved in children’s entertainment choices, that is, if such an involvement is possible at all.

At some point, I think that we need to realize that hip-hop, especially gangsta rap videos _ hip-hop’s most notorious component _ is an art form, albeit often a crude one.

Like its older counterpart, the hard-core rock that white youth celebrate at raves, gangsta rap is entertainment and self-expression. It is not an incurable disease. At least, I do not think it is.