Thursday, April 26, 2007

A Fairness Doctrine for Hip Hop

Hip Hop. Today there's a definite feel that the culture is under seige. In wake of the Don Imus controversy, Hip Hop has been left holding the proverbial bag. But long before the racist rants of former alcohlic shock jocks, Hip Hop has been debating within itself. The call for reform in both content, art and image has been made by activists inside the culture, who challenge not only artists but the powerful corporate industry that manipulates, controls, promotes and profit from them. The idea of "Fairness" often permeates these discussions, and so is the theme of this blog, and this post.

A Fairness Doctrine for Hip Hop
A Modest Plan to Save Our Culture

There is an on-going discussion on the state of Hip Hop throughout America, and perhaps beyond. From large broadcast media to print journalism to online message boards, it is a hot topic. There are closed-door sessions with “rap moguls” being held; and civil rights groups are set to announce planned movements. Everyone seems to have an opinion on the issue. A few even go further, and offer solutions. As a member of the loosely defined “Hip Hop Generation,” who was not there for its earliest days but lived through many of the formative years, including the now nostalgic “Golden Age,” I suppose like everyone else I have a right—perhaps a responsibility—to offer my own thoughts.

The problem with past “outsider” attempts at addressing issues of sex and violence in Hip Hop is that they were often carried out as “scorched Earth” policies. “Wars on gangsta rap” usually came across as “Wars on Hip Hop.” Little attempt was made to differentiate between the many sub-genres of the culture, which span the ideological and artistic spectrum. Emcees were “culturally profiled” under one disparaging umbrella. And elements of Hip Hop that are almost divorced from emceeing, much less “gangsta rap,”—scratch DJs, breakdancers, graffiti artists—found themselves having to make explanations for artists and lyrics to which they bear no direct responsibility. Scant attention is paid to the fact that activists within the culture have long sought reform and perhaps should be consulted before these larger “movements” begin. There is a natural suspicion among the Hip Hop community about such "movements" when the only time the media—including the black afrostocracy and punditocracy—places a spotlight on the culture, is to connect it with crime, deviant behavior or the wayward racist rants of former alcoholic shock jocks. After all, this criticism of Hip Hop isn’t new. When “gangsta rap” wasn’t the culprit, it was political rap—that was “too black” or “too threatening.” Before that it was the clothing—“too baggy, too colorful, too flamboyant.” Or it’s the hairstyles. Or it’s the dancing. Or it lacks intellectualism. Or the beats are too simple. Or the music isn’t “really” music. The list can go on, most of it trivial, much of it distorted or one-dimensional and some of it outright false. Since its inception Hip Hop has existed somewhere between the excitedly exotic (a world of entertaining blacks and Latins) and dangerously ominous for mainstream cultural and social critics. It exists under a near continuous state of “siege,” with a never-ending and never-satisfied corps of detractors. I think perhaps, there is another way.

What follows is a modest idea. I call it modest with a touch of sarcasm, because while it is simple in its general layout, it is ambitious in scale. The idea cannot be called new or unique or groundbreaking. To paraphrase Chuck D, “it’s a thought that’s been thought before.” In fact, it is gleaned from long established movements, writings on topics relating to Hip Hop, documentaries and more, including the following: ESSENCE Magazine’s Take Back the Music Campaign; the youth movement Black Girls Rock; the activist film Turn Off Channel Zero Campaign; Byron Hurt’s documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes; the well-established activist e-zine and valued online Hip Hop source, the powerful musings of Chuck D and many more. I only restate these thoughts because there seems to be momentum at present. And I think those within Hip Hop should be out in front leading, not being told where to go and what to do. The idea is not without its imperfections, some of which I explore. Neither is the idea thoroughly written out in detail on the scale of a social manifesto, a social movement or legally binding contract. Nor is it some stroke of genius. Rather it’s a pragmatic suggestion for a way to move forward, beyond the “blame Hip Hop first” crowd, and the “we have to defend our culture” siege-mentality these ceaseless attacks induce. The idea itself consists of three basic elements under one heading:

A Fairness Doctrine for Hip Hop

Element 1: Fairness and equity regarding adult entertainment. A rule should be implemented requiring that sexually explicit, graphically violent or other adult-themed Hip Hop not be marketed as the mainstream face of the culture. Hip Hop that engages in gratuitous imagery, excessive profanity and contains adult content intended for a mature audience should either (a) be limited to prime time or after hours radio and television or (b) be restricted to select cable channels that do not cater to mainstream entertainment. This is nothing different than what is already in place for other genres of music, television shows or movies. On MTV, so-called “Death Metal” was long relegated mostly to late night. On television, more adult-themed crime dramas appear during prime time; the more explicit or graphic (i.e., The Sopranos or Deadwood) exist on premium cable channels and are shown primarily at night. Movies receive ratings that are directly tied to their level of adult content. Imagine if the media industry pushed violent shows like HBOs ROME, and sexually explicit movies that now appear on late night Cinemax, as the everyday face of morning, daytime and early evening mainstream television. This would distort the image of mainstream programming. Yet this is precisely what happens with Hip Hop, as the corporate industry pushes one face—filled with sex and violence—as the mainstream norm of the music. By not requiring the same rules be followed with regards to Hip Hop, the media industry is allowed to distort the image of the entire culture, pushing black sex and violence for profit.

Element 2: Fairness and equity that displays Hip Hop’s diversity. A rule should be implemented requiring that the full diversity of Hip Hop—in topics, styles and gender—be given equal radio and television airplay. Driven by profit rather than art, the media industry pushes financially viable themes of sex and violence that conform to widely held stereotypes. This creates the impression that Hip Hop has no other face other than the one that is marketed. There is undoubtedly different music out there. A glance at online sites for “Underground” Hip Hop or Indie Hip Hop, or even cable channels like VH1-Soul, offer another world of black cultural expression. Yet much of this is put under the heading of “alternative,” while “thug” rap is marketed near singly as the universal black norm. We need to demand that broadcasters and the music industry allow for a diversity of voices and imagery on a level of fairness and equity given to other genres of entertainment.

Element 3: Fairness and equity in media depictions and coverage of Hip Hop. More voices need to demand that the mainstream media portray a more encompassing image of Hip Hop. In mainstream journalism Hip Hop is portrayed overwhelmingly as negative, usually covered during an incidence of crime or altercation with law enforcement. In television shows or movies, this association of Hip Hop with criminal activity is near constant, along with themes of gang-relatedness, anti-intellectualism and other socially "deviant" depictions. By focusing on one image of Hip Hop, notably lyrics which indulge in graphic violence and gratuitous sex, the various media outlets defame a global culture and contribute to misconceptions of Hip Hop. Furthermore, this allows for Hip Hop to be used unfairly as a scapegoat for numerous incidents, and perpetuates racial and cultural bias. Hip Hop should be afforded balanced coverage, highlighting everything from charity events to activism, as is received by other genres of entertainment.

There. That’s it. That’s the idea. It’s that simple. Of course it needs more than this. Because regardless of how simple it looks on the surface, it has far-reaching implications. But all those by-laws and contracts are things for lawyers, and activists and people who think like lawyers to hash out. I’m just making a suggestion. If you like the idea as is, that’s great. Pass it on. Most of all visit the links below and Get Involved! If you hate the plan or think it’s nonsensical, please share why in a constructive format. If you like the plan, want to know why I came up with it, have concerns or issues regarding its plausibility or the like, see the following related essays where I try to explain matters more in depth. I especially suggest Thoughts and Concerns Regarding an Imperfect Plan before you make up your mind either way.

The Essays, in any particular order, are:

Sex, Guns & Violence: Why Hip Hop is All-American
Sex and violence are often cited in rap lyrics. But while these are themes in Hip Hop, they don’t speak for the totality of the culture. Furthermore, to single out sex and violence in rap lyrics is hypocritical—when sex and violence pervade much of American culture. From old blues lyrics to rock and roll, from movies to militarism, America is a society where guns, masculinity and sexuality are glorified. This essay posits that graphic sex and violence in rap lyrics might be hyper-normal, for mainstream culture, but it’s not abnormal.

Their Eyes Were Watching Smut: Turning Pornography into Black Culture
When I was younger I watched the sitcom Sanford and Son. I had no idea that its start, Red Foxx, had an entirely different persona—one in which he performed raunchy and explicit comedy. What he was doing in nightclubs after all was adult humor for a mature audience, not the sort of thing you’d hear on daytime and mainstream television. Today we have the inverse. So why is pornography being marketed as black culture? And who’s ultimately responsible?

Thug Life, Right-Wing News and the Iraq War: How Big Media Manufactures Consent
With the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine in 1987 under the Reagan administration, the way for media consolidation was opened up for broadcasters to control both the airwaves and the content on them. This resulted in an explosion of right-wing radio and the birth of conservative propaganda television like FOX News, changing the landscape of journalism and manufacturing consent in the American public. The same dynamics that left a crisis in the state of the news media have done much the same to Hip Hop, with an eerily striking similarity.

Thoughts and Concerns Regarding an Imperfect Plan
What follows are issues and questions that may arise in trying to implement anything approaching a Fairness Doctrine in Hip Hop. It’s meant to answer some immediate misconceptions or concerns about such a plan, why I think attempts to “ban” sex and violence in Hip Hop are ultimately limited, as well as some inherent dangers any attempts at reform might present if wrongly applied. Further suggestions and criticisms are certainly welcome.

The Martyrdom of Don Imus
The most recent controversy over Hip Hop erupted when shock jock Don Imus made derogatory comments towards the nearly all-black Rutgers basketball team. But did Don Imus really die for our black sins? Or is this alleged “martyrdom” nothing more than another white apologist stance for sexism and racism in America?

Get Involved!
Long before I added my two cents to this issue, there were artists and activists—from politicians to organizations to filmmakers and more—who have long waged a battle for both the soul of Hip Hop and against negative depictions of blacks in media. If you care about Hip Hop, Get Involved!

Black Girls Rock!

Blackout Arts Collective

Essence Take Back the Music Campaign

H2Ed- Hip Hop 2 Education

Hip Hop Violence- Summit 07

Kick G.A.M.E.

Save Internet Radio!


Urban Word NYC

World Up- The Global Hip-Hop Project

If you could care less about the plan, or this page, and this has been a colossal waste of your time, my bad. There’s nothing I can do to monetarily compensate you for your loss, but perhaps these irreverent but funny video clips might help: Wrong Sounding Muppets and Let the Bodies Hit the Floor.


D5H said...

Consider yourself linked biotch...

Souvenir said...

excellent overview of the current tate of affairs with Hip Hop. i agree whole-heartedly. One