Sunday, May 13, 2007

Melissa Harris-Lacewell on Hip Hop's Potential for Change

On May 11th Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University, appeared on the award-winning Bill Moyers Journal on PBS. She shared her thoughts on a host of issues involving race and society in America, which inevitably led to Hip Hop. In a brief series of questions and exchanges, she discussed her thoughts on the Don Imus affair, Hip Hop as a scapegoat, Hip Hop criticism and the culture's inherent potential for creating change.

Bill Moyers Journal

May 11 2007

Interview with Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell

Excerpts from Transcript

Backdrop: Moyers and Harris-Lacewell are discussing the lack of space given to diverse voices in the news media to speak on issues of politics, and the change that needs to come in order to bring progressives, people of color, women and others into the mainstream.

BILL MOYERS: So, how do you expect change to come?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Slowly and through pressure. So--

BILL MOYERS: But kids don't go out and protest the way they did in the '60s.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Oh, have you listened to hip-hop?

BILL MOYERS: Well, I've tried to, and I've had people try to explain it to me.


BILL MOYERS: But what do you mean? Why is hip-hop bringing this change?

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I think that hip-hop has the insurgent possibilities and capabilities. Now there's a little bit of a problem with hip-hop, and that is it's a commodity that's bought and sold. And any time you're a commodity that's bought and sold, you-- have at least one aspect of your culture that can sort of go in a profit motivation.

But I will say that hip-hop music like Gospel music, like Blues music, like jazz music is the voice of a generation. And it has within it the insurgent capacity, the capacity to say, "Look, I'm not happy here, this is not enough, I expect more, I'm worthy of more." And over and over again in hip-hop from the mid-1970's until today, there's a strain of it that is saying that.

BILL MOYERS: But why do so many people say-- accurately it seems to me, reading the lyrics, that-- that hip-hop puts down women-- puts down the race, in fact. That it's a venomous language.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, there is a clear misogynist and sort of-- I would say aspect that is just about, you know, making money and commodifying women. But I will say that that came at a very specific moment, and it came at a moment in hip-hop when hip-hop went from being kind of a street-based, musical art form of urban, young people to a corporate entity, purchased mostly by white suburban boys who were interested in generating and consuming a particular form of blackness. But even as hip-hop went in that direction, there's a whole 'nother, very well articulated and well loved element of hip-hop which black urban youth continue to not only produce, but consume.

BILL MOYERS: The popular perception was that Imus was quoting hip-hop.

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: No, he wasn't. No, seriously, he really wasn't. I mean--

BILL MOYERS: when he referred to the basketball…

MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, no, really, he wasn't. No. So there's a couple of reasons why Imus could not have been quoting hip-hop. First-- it wasn't as though hip-hop taught America how to degrade women or particularly how to degrade black women. America had figured that out long, long, long before hip-hop. Secondly, although hip-hop often uses the word "ho," it rarely ever calls someone a "nappy-headed ho." So we talked a lot about "ho." But we haven't talked much about "nappy-headed." And "nappy-headed" is a way of saying you, black woman, in your natural, physical state in, who you are -- are unacceptable, ugly, valueless. Now, that's not hip-hop.

Actually hip-hop tends to dress up black women in long, straight wigs, much more likely than it is to go to this place which is a very old place around, slavery, around Jim Crow that says, "Your physical self is an unacceptable, sort of orientation of blackness. I can see that you're black from across the room, and that's unacceptable to me."

Melissa Harris Lacewell is Associate Professor of Politics and African American Studies at Princeton University. She is the author of Barbershops, Bibles and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought and is currently working on an upcoming book titled For Colored Girls Who've Considered Politics When Being Strong Wasn't Enough.

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