I wish my uncle would stop screaming about hip hop
A few months ago I pulled into my uncle’s driveway blasting the new Nas album. My uncle — a 52-year-old white man who, shall we say, does not care for hip hop — heard the music and started screaming. I wasn’t all that surprised. He’s Italian, and I’ve found that Italians tend to be passionate people. Also, that side of my family has a streak of crazy running through it.
So my uncle screamed about how rap music is garbage that degrades women and promotes violence and I resigned myself to having the same conversation we always have, with the same fake resolution that ultimately leads us back to the same place. I tell him that the rapper he’s screaming about is actually a poet. That there’s much more to rap than what’s on radio and TV. That hip hop culture was founded on positive ideals that much of underground rap continues to promote. He grumbles, then nods and relents, and then a few weeks or a few months later, we have the same conversation. I doubt he’ll ever realize there’s more to rap than what’s floating face down in the mainstream. And he’s not alone.
I had a jazz professor in college whose lecture on the struggle between swing and bebop artists reminded me of the tug of war between mainstream and underground rappers. So I asked her if she saw any similarities between jazz and hip hop, hoping to spark what could have been a fascinating discussion. She snapped that no, she did not see any similarities, because “hip hop is all about aggression.” It took me by surprise, and I again had to explain to her that the aggression so often featured in commercial rap was a small, overemphasized slice of an extremely diverse genre. I spoke with her after class to let her know about artists such as Gang Starr, The Roots and A Tribe Called Quest who were heavily influenced by jazz.
And then there’s the older black gentleman I know who dismisses hip hop as ignorant thuggery. Like my uncle and my jazz professor, he hasn’t listened to much rap music, but he’s drawn that conclusion based on what he’s seen and heard. And while these kind of uninformed generalizations frustrate me, I understand them. Because commercial hip hop is, by and large, ignorant thuggery. Black men are typically painted as violent criminals, buffoons or both, and black women are treated as sex objects. Rappers glorify destructive lifestyles that include drug use, drug dealing, promiscuity and the pursuit of material gain at the expense of others. None of this is news to anyone who’s been paying attention.
But those of us plugged in to hip hop know that there is much more to the culture than the minstrelsy that takes place in the mainstream. We know that hip hop originated as a vehicle for black self-expression and empowerment that fell into the hands of corporations with no concern for the community.
We know that record labels happily exploit black culture for profit, often highlighting gimmicks over real artists. Trinidad James, anyone? We know that Clear Channel owns virtually every radio station in existence, and Viacom owns both BET and MTV, not to mention National Amusements and a host of other entertainment properties. And we know that these virtual media monopolies mean that a few people are deciding what most people will see and hear.
We know that white executives now control this black art form, deciding who gets signed, who gets broadcast on the airwaves and who has the best chance to sell. We know that by controlling these things, white executives also control the messages sent to youth and the perception of blacks via the mainstream media — perceptions such as rap being all about aggression and all rappers being ignorant thugs.
We know that black organizations with the potential to advance black causes have long been subject to infiltration and destruction by outside forces, and the corporate takeover of hip hop is just the latest example.
We know this because we’ve lived hip hop for so long it’s become a part of us. We fight for hip hop the same way we’d fight for a beloved family member whose worst moments are captured on camera and broadcast around the world. We want the world to see its best moments. But corporate gatekeepers ensure that the world won’t. And commercial rappers — either unaware they are pawns in a game that ends in their own destruction, or too desperate for wealth to care — continue to play the messenger of anti-black propaganda so long as the corporate masters are willing to cut the checks.
So we have pointless conversations with our uncles and jazz professors and we don’t even bother talking to the elderly gentleman because some battles simply aren’t worth fighting. And we hope that someday, somehow, things will change.
So yes, I wish my uncle would stop screaming about hip hop. But more than anything, I wish hip hop would stop giving him something to scream about.