Thursday, April 26, 2007

Thoughts & Concerns Regarding a Fairness Doctrine 4 Hip Hop

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 tactics, why I think attempts to “ban” sex and violence in Hip Hop are limited in their approach, as well as some inherent dangers attempts at reform might present if wrongly applied. Further suggestions and criticisms are certainly welcome.


A FAIRNESS DOCTRINE 4 HIP HOP
Thoughts and Concerns Regarding an Imperfect Plan



Are You Saying We Should Ban Explicit or Violent Rap Music?
Don’t Artists and the Industry Just Give People What They Want?
Can’t We Just Stop Purchasing Hip Hop With Negative Lyrics?
Why Not Just Ask Artists to Change?
Is This Asking For More Socially Conscious Hip Hop?
What About Hip Hop That Portrays Flashy Materialism?
What About So-Called “Minstrel Rap”?
Will Fairness Stop Sexism and Violence in the Black Community?
Will Fairness Stop Negative and Stereotyped Depictions of Blacks in Media?
Will Fairness Stop Adult Themed Hip Hop From Reaching Younger Listeners and Viewers?
Is This Just Going After Artists You Don’t Like?
Will Hip Hop Still Be Street?
Doesn’t This Pose a Danger to Hip Hop?
What Could a Fairness Doctrine Do For Hip Hop?
How Fairness Can Help Fight Sexism in Hip Hop—By Empowering More Female Emcees.
Why Now?

Are You Saying We Should Ban Explicit or Violent Rap Music?


No. Fairness does not call for the banning of lyrics or videos with sexual or violent content. That would be hypocritical and unfair, as there are television shows, movies, books and more that all have adult content. Furthermore, there is obviously an audience for it—by most accounts, primarily white males—and no one has a right to stop anyone from engaging in this form of entertainment, or deny artists their right to perform this type of music. Besides, there’s powerful insight even in songs as profanity laced as 2Pac’s “F*ck the World” or Notorious BIG’s misogynist “Me and My B*tch.” Those songs should not be banned anymore than one would call for the banning of the late Richard Pryor’s raunchy comedy or HBO’s violent series ROME. What Fairness does ask for is that we define adult content as just that, and not make it representative of mainstream black culture. This is not a call for Hip Hop to receive special treatment; it is a call for Hip Hop to receive equal treatment. If The Sopranos or Deadwood is considered adult themed and best suited for prime time mature audiences, Hip Hop with similar content should be as well. Right now we have just the opposite rules in place that determine the mainstream face of black culture should be sexually explicit or graphically violent. Any other form of black cultural expression is deemed “alternative.” Ironically, in this way there is already censorship that operates in reverse—limiting the freedom of expression of black culture in all its diversity. This double standard needs to be challenged as forcefully as segregation, as it is similarly a form of unequal treatment whose source is directly tied to racial inequality.

Don’t Artists and the Industry Just Give People What They Want?

This was my personal stance for years, fully believing that Hip Hop would change when people demanded differently. Mos Def said as much on his first album, Black on Both Sides—“Hip Hop is goin’ where we goin.” However after all this time, nothing has changed. In fact, Hip Hop’s mainstream face has become more one-dimensional. What I came to realize, what had long been said by others, was that the appetite for sexual and violent Hip Hop was not merely the work of natural market forces. By limiting the choice of what is played on the radio or on the television, media distributors and broadcasters offer a narrowly circumscribed choice—where sex and violence wrapped in blackface dominate and there is little “alternative” to turn to. In this way Hip Hop may go where the people are going, but the people themselves are pushed and prodded where the industry wants them to go, or expects them to go, by simply limiting the options they are able to make. When these limited choices become normalized a demand is thus created for the industry to fill and make profit. Or as Mos Def cries out in warning on his second album, The New Danger, in a stark divergence from his earlier assertions—“Old white men is runnin’ this rap sh*t! Corporate forces runnin’ this rap sh*t!” In How the Media Manufacturers Consent, the attempt is made to illustrate how the corporate control of journalism is a fitting analogy. The same profit-driven dynamics that restrict and limit the scope of the news media do much the same in Hip Hop. Grassroots activism is pushing and challenging the news media for change and diversity. We should support activism that demands a similar push for change in Hip Hop, affording a wider range of entertainment and depictions from which to choose.

Can’t We Just Stop Purchasing Hip Hop With Negative Lyrics?

Yes of course. Many activists and campaigns advocate this position. But this tactic has its limits. For one, no one should have to search alternative online forums or literally “underground” locations to find Hip Hop that is not sexually or violently explicit. Hip Hop deserves the right to be provided for in just as diverse a fashion as Rock N’ Roll. In no other form of popular music other than Hip Hop is the pornographic or graphically violent pushed so heavily as the “singular” norm, while anything with an opposing theme is deemed “alternative.” The reasons for this are directly tied to racism and expectations of what mainstream black culture is “supposed” to entail. There has to be a time when we stop accepting this second-class treatment as normal. Second, with the power to manufacture consent simply through the limiting of options, it is difficult to get consumers to shift their buying habits when they accept what is marketed to them as the norm. Only by forcing a diversification of the options available to consumers—especially what is marketed as mainstream—will we bring a change in purchasing habits. And third, if statistics are anything to go on, the main consumers of Hip Hop today are white males—accounting for 60% or more of the sales that fuel the industry. If we are to wait for white males to decide they do not want to consume stereotyped images of blacks, chances are high we’ll be waiting for a long time.

Why Not Just Ask Artists to Change?

We can, we do and we should. It’s certainly possible to get some converts. Many artists after all—despite the personas they push in their music—are parents, have sisters, brothers and family. We expect they at the least all have mothers. Yet artists have pledged to change before, as has the industry, only to return to explicit lyrics. The reasons are near always a question of money. If their personal accounts are to be believed, some Hip Hop artists simply perform music they think will sell albums. In this sense they are little different from other black entertainers, dating back at least to Vaudeville, who did what they saw as necessary to turn a profit. Now, as then, the primary audience they catered to was white, and whites dominated the control of the entertainment world in which they existed. Now, as then, performing roles that were stereotypical and catered to their white audience was much more lucrative than not. It may not sound pretty, but people with limited options often play into their exploitation. Take pornography. In America it is a multi-billion industry consumed mostly by white males. The women in the film are mostly white and are degraded in ways that aren’t comparable to even the most sexist Hip Hop. That these women participate in their own exploitation may be disturbing, but hardly surprising as their reasons are primarily for financial gain, limited options, coerced participation and at times a history of hardship and abuse. Given America’s racial history, why is anyone surprised that black males would similarly engage in their own exploitation for profit? Asking artists to change without calling for the industry to diversify what will be marketed as financially viable music is unrealistic.

Is This Asking For More Socially Conscious Hip Hop?

That would be good. Politics will undoubtedly remain in Hip Hop, as it has been there—in one form or the other—since its earliest days. But this plan is not intended to turn every artist into a “revolutionary.” A space for that kind of Hip Hop to re-enter the popular mainstream would be made by a Fairness Doctrine, but it is not a requirement. Hip Hop can be diverse and mainstream without explicit lyricism. It can talk about life, it can brag, it can glorify the bad boy/bad girl, it can push capitalism or socialism. Even aspects of sexuality and violence can be talked about without taking it to graphic extremes. The idea of Fairness is not intended to create some “Pollyanna” type of Hip Hop divorced from reality. What Fairness asks for more than anything else, is balance.

What About Hip Hop That Portrays Flashy Materialism?

A Fairness Doctrine is not a manifesto on socialism or anti-globalization. If “pimped out” rides and iced out grills is what artists want to portray, let them. If they want to “make it rain” $20s, $50s or $100s and deck out their necks in enough jewelry to equal the GNP of a small nation, they have a right to do so. There will still be critics who tire of songs devoted to whips, chips and chains that hang low—for the record, I am one of them—and they should continue to voice their concerns. But crass materialism is not the same as adult themed graphic violence or the gratuitous use of women’s bodies for sexual imagery—not unless we’re talking about videos that show off “pimp cups” or, worse, real-live “pimps.” And there are some songs, like Kanye West’s “Diamonds from Sierra Leone,” which occupy an illuminating middle ground. Besides, this is where the Fairness Doctrine comes in. Dispersed between songs and imagery that glorify materialism, there need to be different and even countering viewpoints.

What About So-Called “Minstrel Rap”?

There has been recent concern that some Hip Hop videos and songs are too reminiscent of old minstrel acts, where comical dances are the main point of the song. Admittedly, some of the similarities are disturbing, as an editorial in XXL examines. While these concerns deserve discussion, there is also the fact that dance is a key element of Hip Hop. Like Afrika Bambatta said, along with peace, love and unity, Hip Hop is supposed to be about having fun. If artists want to “walk it out” or “chicken noodle soup,” or “get hyphy,” I can’t give any concrete reasons why such things should be banned. After all, I grew up in an era of dances that made no more sense—the Smurf, the Prep, the Running Man and, during my time in the South, a host of dances made famous by the New Orleans DJ Jubilee. The influences on Hip Hop dance range from soul and funk to dancehall and salsa. And like the documentary Rize showed, these forms of physical movement in the black community are part of a long rooted cultural tradition that can have deeply important social meaning. Yes, there should be some line of demarcation between the sexually suggestive, which is a normal, healthy part of black dance, and the non-stop “stripper dancing” that has taken hold in some videos. And given the common stereotypes that plague images of black bodies and dance, the concerns are worthy of debate. But this is where the Fairness Doctrine once again comes in, allowing for alternative depictions that expose the breadth of black culture—including the many variations of black dance.

Will This Stop Sexism and Violence in the Black Community?

The short answer—No. The long answer is more complex. Sexism and violence are part of American culture, as pointed out in Why Hip Hop is All-American. Removing explicit sex and graphic violence from the mainstream of Hip Hop culture will not take it out of the black community any more than relegating Howard Stern and Al Pacino films to adult audiences has made America as a whole less so. The oft-discussed problems that plague the black community have their roots in a continued legacy of structural inequality tied to race, gender and class and involve a host of factors which lie far outside the realm, influence and power of Hip Hop. “Gangsta” or “thug” rap are symptoms and reflections of larger American problems, not the cause.

Will This Stop Negative and Stereotyped Depictions of Blacks in Media?

The short answer again, unfortunately, is no. Negative and stereotyped depictions of blacks have a long history in American media as key tools in racism. To justify oppressive and discriminatory behavior, blacks were recast as the “other”—people not altogether human and easily defined by expected behavior, most of it comical, taboo, dangerous or deviant. Such stereotypes were created through exaggeration or outright falsehood and then pushed as the norm, serving as justifications for discrimination. By painting black women as sexually rapacious Jezebels, white slave owners justified rape. By painting black men as dangerous brutes prone to rape, white mobs justified lynching. Minstrels, Sambo images, violent criminals and a host of stereotypes were—and are still—necessary to sustain the institution of white racism and privilege. Rappers did not create these stereotypes, even if some may seem to play into them—which is not surprising as black America has long attempted to resist white stereotypes by at times adopting them, an exercise that is both empowering and destructive. The very expectation that gratuitous sex and violence should be the face of mainstream black America is itself based on old stereotypes. And by presenting one-dimensional images rather than diversity, the industry creates a feedback cycle from which they can profit, and shock jocks like Don Imus can use to justify their own racism. Worse still, the victims of these stereotypes may find themselves conforming to and accepting them as the norm.

Will This Stop Adult Themed Hip Hop From Reaching Younger Listeners and Viewers?

Of course not. When I was younger, my adolescent male cohorts and I still got a hold of copies of Playboy or Penthouse—despite the fact that none of our parents owned it in their homes and we were forbidden from purchasing it. Going after what is taboo is a normal part of childhood—especially when the same taboos of extreme sexuality and violence pervade the society in more subtle ways. And, given the many varied ways one can access media today, it is inevitable that youth will find their way to sexually explicit and graphically violent music—much as they can find pornography online. However they should have to go through all the hoops I had to in order to get it. And by taking it out of popular culture, they should learn like I did the difference between mature entertainment and mainstream culture.

Isn't This Just Going After Artists You Don’t Like?

No. A Fairness Doctrine does not want to “go after anyone,” except a biased media industry. On a personal level, while a lot of “thug” and sex rap is admittedly not on my top 10, I listen to Hip Hop that contains adult themes. From Bootcamp to Wu Tang to Jean Grae, some of my favorite artists engage in lyrics with sexual content, a great deal of profanity, violent depictions, allusions to criminality and other adult themes. So do some of my favorite television shows and movies. I’m a product of American culture after all, like everyone else. Holding rap artists to a standard not required by directors and novelists or actors is to expect they are somehow super-human. No cultural critic can tell me that Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx is not art; if so, neither is Al Pacino's Scarface. But I also know this entertainment contains adult themes and should have its proper place. At the same time, not all adult-themed music is the same. Some of it is not gratuitous but is trying to make relevant social commentary, even if the topic is for mature audiences. Thus the Fairness Doctrine should apply equally even here, allowing a diversity of artists within the sphere of music with adult content. It should also be noted that individual artists themselves create music that spans the spectrum. Ludacris’ societal commentary “Runaway Love” or even his bombastic “Stand Up!” are far removed from the sex-filled “P*ssy Poppin.” There are artists that are no more one-dimensional in their music than actors may be in their roles. They should be afforded the right to explore and portray all those aspects, if they so choose. But not all of it deserves mainstream airplay.

Will Hip Hop Still Be Street?

Hip Hop was “street” long before “gangsta” or “thug” rap came about. While that is a form of lyricism that portrays the “street life,” it’s not the only way to do so. There are many topics—from crime to sex—that can be discussed without reverting to gratuity. That’s why they call it “art.” Furthermore, we buy into common stereotypes of the poor if we assume that everyone on the streets or is poverty-stricken lives a life of high crime and sex. There are stories of struggle, hard work, resistance, love, life and more to be found in those same streets. Allow them to be told as well.

Doesn’t This Pose a Danger to Hip Hop?

Admittedly, yes. And the risk revolves around censorship. There is the chance that any attempt to push for “decent” lyrics for the Hip Hop mainstream could be used to attack Hip Hop in the main. Music containing overtly political themes could be deemed as adult content or others promoting topics the mainstream finds uncomfortable (i.e., atheism, homosexuality, anti-Americanism, etc.) could be unfairly placed outside what is considered “acceptable.” That is a real danger. And we enter a slippery slope here. The only thing to counter it will be vigilance, so that good intentions are not exploited to push a particular political agenda. This plan after all is not an attempt to rid Hip Hop of its rebelliousness, of its ability to shock and push back against the mainstream culture—even while it is part of that culture. This was in part what “gangsta” rap was supposed to do. Today however, it has become more symbolic of subservience to media control than anything advocating real rebellion. Furthermore, as previously pointed out, censorship in Hip Hop music already exists—just in reverse.

What Could a Fairness Doctrine Do For Hip Hop?

For one, it can change the face of what is expected from Hip Hop. It is very annoying to hear detractors of Hip Hop speak of it in one-dimensional terms. They aren’t aware that artists like Mos Def can make environmental songs like New World Water or that Hip Hop has a radical Marxist perspective presented by Boots Riley of The Coup. Yes, Hip Hop is dance, crime dramas and sex—but it’s also a lot more. Once in a while this diversity reaches a mainstream audience, as when Outkast won big at the 2004 Grammy Awards or when Time magazine named The Roots Things Fall Apart as the 2nd best album of 1999. But too often Hip Hop’s diverse face is buried beneath a pile of bling and thug fantasy make-up. Don’t get me wrong. I do not think by displaying the diversity of Hip Hop we will immediately stop its negative portrayal. Many will zero in on thug rap for the simple sake of vilifying the whole culture, even if it is relegated to adult prime time or a separate adult channel. But at the least, our defense of our culture will be more sound, when sexually explicit or graphically violent lyricism is no longer presented as the singular mainstream image of Hip Hop—any more than pornography or mafioso films are portrayed as the singular mainstream face of white America. Furthermore, the very art of Hip Hop can receive a jolt of creativity. When I watched Byron Hurt interview aspiring rap artists at BET’s Spring Bling for his documentary Beyond Beats and Rhymes, I noticed two things. One, they all spit rhymes about the same thing—gunplay, animosity, drug dealing, killing, etc. From their young fresh faces that seemed plucked from middleclass America, I doubted any of them had ever done one ounce of the things they talked about. Otherwise, to quote Mr. Fantastik on MF Doom’s “Rapp Snitch Knishes,” they’d be the biggest—“Rap snitches/ Telling all their business/ Sit in the court and be their own star witness.” Rather it seemed none of them were told—or believed—they could rhyme about anything different. The second thing I noticed—most were incredibly WACK! I mean terrible. Biggie, Snoop, Ghostface—all can tell a crime drama on par with Martin Scorsese. These kids had none of that artistic quality. Instead of creative freestyle battles filled with similes and metaphors, there were simple physical threats and bombasts. If this is the bar to which emceeing has been lowered, an entire generation of creative lyricism might be lost. On the Buckshot and 9th Wonder collaboration, Chemistry, the title of the album is defined thusly: “Chemistry is like…a whole lot of different mixtures brought to the table…. can’t have all of the same ingredients going into that or you’ll have a big container of the same sh*t.” Nuff said. Diversity or Chemistry—call it what you want—Hip Hop can only be made the better for it.

How Fairness Can Help Fight Sexism in Hip Hop—By Empowering More Female Emcees.

With all the cries against sexism in Hip Hop, one of the glaring yet overlooked aspects of sexual discrimination is the mere lack of female emcees that get mainstream airplay. Most of those that are heard fit a “type” that is heavily restricted to pushing some element of sexuality. And while there may be something to the argument that these female emcees use sexuality as a type of feminist empowerment—or so goes the mantra in critic-speak—the fact that many are not given the choice to do otherwise, and that we rarely hear from them, says a great deal on the inherent bias against women in the industry. Worse still, this lack of diversity may be destroying the very existence of women in Hip Hop lyricism. Essence Magazine’s Take Back the Music Campaign reported that in 2006 there were so few female emcees consistently putting out music that the Grammy Awards discontinued the Female Rap Artist category. The female rap duo or group has all but disappeared from radio or videos. The reasons for this may have much to do with an industry that overlooks female talent, and a one-dimensional market whose penchant for misogynist lyricism turns off would-be female artists. Ashlee West-Nesbitt documents some of this in her online editorial, Death of the Female Rapper. Yet Hip Hop is sold and marketed to women en masse. Women occupy powerful positions behind the scenes in Hip Hop—from marketing to journalism. That this same constituency finds itself underrepresented in numbers and diversity is both tragic and embarrassing. Writer Jason Fleurant wrote that what Hip Hop needs is a “FeMC Messiah,” to bring some balance to the rampant sexism that dominates the mainstream culture. Fact is there are already female emcees that could fit this description—Jean Grae comes easiest to mind. But ignored by the industry and relegated to the underground they remain woefully under-exposed. A Fairness Doctrine that sheds light on these artists—those lesser known, not yet discovered or even not yet inspired—might go a long way in giving Hip Hop the balance it needs.

Why Now?

There are several reasons. One is simply momentum. Despite the misinformation spread by media pundits, the call for reform in Hip Hop existed before Don Imus. Activists, conferences, summits, articles, documentaries, campaigns, grassroots organizations and artists have long pushed for substantial change. Late last year one of the culture’s reigning elites declared "Hip Hop is Dead" and sparked furious debate all throughout the culture. So the issue is nothing new. However, with the Don Imus controversy using Hip Hop as a scapegoat, the long simmering discussion exploded once again. To not seize on this momentum, despite how it was initiated, would be a missed opportunity. Second, from the moment the Imus controversy erupted many of us knew instinctively that Hip Hop would take the blame—unfairly or not. Detractors exploited the incident to attack Hip Hop, and numerous groups outside of the culture now feel the pressure to do something. What will emerge from this is hard to say at the moment. But if the voices of those within Hip Hop are drowned out in the rush to solutions, we may find ourselves in the Orwellian nightmare Nas prophesied, or something close. If it’s not with this controversy, it will be another. Even racist army training videos from Germany—the country that gave the world Nazism—are allowed to conveniently use Hip Hop as a foil. We need to be out in front because despite all its faults, no one understands or loves our culture more than us. Lastly, the Don Imus controversy was monumental in a way that most have ignored. As pointed out in a previous article, racist comments from the Don Imus show were common; this was not a new event. What was new was the reaction by advertisers and broadcasters. For reasons not altogether clear, they blinked. In an unprecedented move corporate backers pulled out of the Imus show, and his media backers were forced to drop him. If the Imus controversy has done anything, it has shown us that the industry forces that have long stood in the way of reform in Hip Hop are not immovable. When bad publicity threatens their long-term profits, they can be forced to change. But as the week and a half drive against Don Imus showed, it takes determined action.





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