I think the time has come to bid a farewell to the last black arts movement. It’s had a good run but it no longer serves the community that spawned it. Innovation has been replaced with mediocrity and originality replaced with recycled nostalgia for the ghost of hip hop past, leaving nothing to look forward to. Honestly when was the last time you heard something (mainstream) that made you want to run around in circles and write down every word. When was the last time you didn’t feel guilty nodding your head to a song that had a ‘hot beat’ after realizing the lyrical content made you cringe.
When I heard Jam Master Jay had been murdered, it was the icing on the cake. A friend and I spoke for hours after he’d turned on the radio looking for solace and instead heard a member of the label Murder, Inc. about to give testimony about the slain DJ’s legacy. My friend found the irony too great to even hear what the rapper had to say.
After we got off the phone, I dug through my crates and played the single “Self Destruction.” The needle fell on the lyrics:
call us animals
The only thing that kept me from crying was my anger trying to imagine today’s top hip hop artists getting together to do a song that urged disarmament in African American communities, or promoted literacy, or involved anything bigger than themselves for that matter. I couldn’t picture it.
All I could picture were the myriad of hip hop conferences where the moguls and figureheads go through the motions and say the things that people want to hear but at the end of the day nothing changes. No new innovative artists are hired to balance out a roster of the pornographic genocide MC’s.
In their place, we’re presented with yet more examples of arrested development – the portrayal of grown men and women acting and dressing like 15 year olds. Balding insecure men in their mid 30’s making entire songs about their sexual prowess and what shiny toys they have and you don’t. The only hate I see is self-hate. The only love I see is self-love
All one needs to do is watch cribs and notice none of these people showing off their heated indoor pools or the PlayStation Two consoles installed in all twelve of their luxury cars have a library in their home. Or display a bookshelf, for that matter. No rapper on cribs has ever been quoted saying: “Yeah, this is the room where I do all my reading, nahmean?”
To quote Puffy in Vogue magazine Nov, 2002: “Diamonds are a great investment… They’re not only a girl’s best friend, they are my best friend. I like the way diamonds make me feel. I can’t really explain it, its like: that’s a rock, something sent to me from nature, from God, it makes me feel good… It’s almost like my security cape.”
If rappers read, they might know about the decades of near-slavery endured by South African diamond miners. Or the rebels in Sierra Leone whose bloody diamond-fueled anti-voting rampages leave thousands of innocent men, women and children with amputated limbs.
Often, hip hop’s blatant excess is rationalized with, “We came from nothing.” That statement rings hollow given even a little bit of context. African Americans have been “coming from nothing” for 400 years. That didn’t stop previous generations of artists, activists, and ancestors from working toward a better situation for the whole, not just themselves. It’s grotesque to see such selfish materialism celebrated by a generation who are literally the children of apartheid.
The time has come to re-define the street and what it means to come from the street. Yes, criminals & violence come from the streets, but so do men and women who live their lives with kindness, and within the realm of the law. The problem with making ‘street’ or ‘realness’ synonymous with criminality is that poor black children are demonized. You never see the image of middle class white children killing each other promoted as entertainment.
I respect the ability of an artist to explore the darker side or extremities of their personality but when that’s all there is, there is no balance. In previous years, NWA existed simultaneously with Native Tongues, Cypress Hill and Digable Planets, Gangstar and 2 Live Crew.
There’s room for thugz, playaz, gangstas, and what have you. My issue (aside from the fact that rappers spell everything phonetically) is that they have no heart. Rappers reflect what has become a new image of success where money is its own validation and caring is soft unless you’re dropping a single about your dead homie.
Question: Why haven’t these so-called “ballers” gotten together and bought a farm, a prison, a super market chain, or chartered a school? But they all have clothing lines. Smells like a sucker to me. The lack of social responsibility from people who claim to ‘rep the streets’ is stunning.
Yet we still have had the hearts and minds of most of the world. We negate this power if we don’t step up to the plate. Our perspective needs to change; our whole idea of power needs to globalize. Gangsta shouldn’t be shooting someone you grew up with in the face. “Gangsta” is calling the United States to task for not attending the World Summit on Racism in South Africa. “Balling” shouldn’t be renting a mansion; it should be owning your own distribution company or starting a union. Bill Cosby’s bid to buy NBC was more threatening than any screwface jewelry clad MC in a video could ever be.
As a DJ, it’s hard: I pick up the instrumental version of records that people nod their head to… and mix it with the a cappella version of artists with something to say. It is expensive and frustrating. But I feel like the alternative is the musical equivalent to selling crack: spinning hits because it’s easy, ignoring the fact that it’s got us dancing to genocide.
There are plenty of alternatives today but you’d never know it through the mass media. Hip hop has become Steven Seagal in a do-rag. Meanwhile, media radar rarely registers artists like Cannibal Ox, Madlib and the whole Stones Throw crew, Bless, Saul Williams, Bus Driver, Del, Gorillaz, anything from Def Jux, Freestyle Fellowship, Anti Pop Consortium, Kool Keith, Prince Paul, shit Public Enemy… the list goes on for ever. I get some solace from knowing and supporting these artists, and from the fact that around the world from Germany to Cuba to Brazil to South Africa, hip hop’s accessibility and capacity for genius is still vital, thriving, and relevant.
And yes even amongst the bleak landscape in this country, wonderful things do happen. Like Camp Cool J and various artists donating money to research AIDS and even lend their faces to voting campaigns. Russell Simmons, among other socially conscious endeavors, led a rally to stop NYC’s mayor from cutting the school budget and donates part of the proceeds from his sneaker sales to the reparations movement. The lack of coverage of efforts like this is as much to blame as any wack MC with a platinum record.
I’m not dissing the innovators of the art form, or those of us who got it where it is today. I will always play and support what I feel is good work. I guess this rant came more out of what Chuck D said at the end of Self Destruction: “We’ve got to keep ourselves in check,” and no one has checked hip hop for some time.
I’ve entertained the idea that I might just be getting old. But if it’s a function of my age that I remember hip hop as the people’s champ, so be it. I was raised on a vital art form that has now become a computer-generated character doing the cabbage patch in a commercial, or a comedian ‘raising the roof.’ That’s not influence to me, that’s mockery.
Hip hop my friend, it’s been a great 30 years filled with great memories, and it’s been fun to watch you grow. We’ve got dozens of broke innovators and plenty of mediocre millionaires out of the deal, but I really need my space now and we’ve got to go our separate ways. I will always love you, but it’s time for me to move on.
Yo, what happened to peace?
Pierre Bennu is an award-winning filmmaker, poet, artist and performer. He is, along with wife Jamyla, a founder of exittheapple, a creativity collective focusing on film and digital media, visual arts, literature, dance, and music. He is the author of Bullshit or Fertilizer?: Tough Love for Artists on the Fence.
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