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Many Thousand Gangstas Gone

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I hate mainstream hip-hop. I don’t hate all hip-hop, but I hate mainstream hip-hop with a passion. I know it is sacrilegious in America for a young black person to say it, but I do. The day I really began to develop a dislike for mainstream hip-hop was the Monday after Biggie was shot. I was a senior in high school and only had been in a stable home for about five years, after considerable drama and living in a nasty housing project. Feeling the sting of being made fun of for my lack of funds and my “blaccent,” I was desperate to forget and shed off everything “hood” in me, so at the time, and for a long time after words, Biggie wasn’t my cup of tea. But on that Sunday morning when I heard the news of his death, I felt a deep sadness, a certain familiar emotional pang that so many African Americans feel when we hear of a young life wasted over something insignificant.

The morning Biggie was on the topic of almost everyone’s minds in Curtis high school, located in University Place, a suburb of Tacoma. Almost to a person the expressions ranged from shock to astonishment to contempt. I didn’t pay much attention to them until one kid said “Oh, boy who do you think is gonna die next, snoop? Nas?” Just then the realization hit me so hard I nearly doubled over. Two talented young men had died over something painfully trivial, and to these privileged kids it was a game, an event, something you watch for pleasure, as if BET and MTV were the roman coliseum and both rappers were the Christians and the lions. The kid was salivating over a young man’s death as if it was a punt return for a touchdown.

For, in hindsight, has there been any two cultural figures in African American arts and letters so woefully miscast? Listen to Biggie’s narratives and lyrics and you will hear the same artistic sensibility as Richard Wright, a young man trying to transcend the nightmare of his existence by brutal, unrelenting honesty, serving his own life story as a warning to millions of kids. And if 2pac was born 20 to 30 years before he was, one can easily imagine him as a cultural theorist or firebrand righteous activist in the mode of Fred Hampton or Fred Shuttlesworth. But because Suge Knight, who belongs in a pit below sing sing, and Sean “P-diddy” combs, one of the 21st century’s greatest race hustlers, wanted to make themselves and the record executives they work for some money by starting a beef, that didn’t happen.

I went home with those conversations ringing nightmarishly in my head. I locked myself in my room and looked at all my old vibe and the source magazines and started to cry. Instead of practicing an old and strange craft called journalism, something even to this day all too foreign to hip hop magazines, I had read article after article egging both sides on, hyping rumors, blowing events out or proportion, almost helping to orchestrate the east coast/west coast beef like kids circling around the school fight. That night I burned each and every last one of those magazines. I felt like a hunted animal and the rich kids who were hip hop fans the game wardens.

For a long time because of it, I hated ALL hip hop and it wasn’t until I was introduced to Mos Def and Talib Kwelil in college where my hatred began to curb and I had perspective on hip hop in general. Over the past 10 years, they (and to a slightly lesser extent, Common) have established themselves leaders in an intellectual hip hop vanguard; sophisticated, complex, conscious yet in a human way to connect with a listener and understanding of hip hop relationship as both a continuum and a break from the African American musical tradition. Both’s greatest contribution has been the way they have linked spoken word and the muti-faceted narratives of the oral tradition to American music. Both’s style have a connection to their individual selves, adding layers of depth to their artistic work: Kweli, gifted in metaphor and word play, runs a bookstore in Harlem, Def, adept in the dramatis personae of the MC, has become a quite accomplished actor, earning a well deserved Emmy nomination in HBO’s something the lord made.

More than seeing Mos and Kweil it was seeing the multi-racial chorus of people who loved hip-hop and what it meant to their lives that softened my anger. Going to various shows with friends in Bellingham, Vancouver and Seattle showed me that there was a dynamic other than the abusive one I saw at both ends of the economic spectrum in Tacoma. These kids were younger than I was (I was a 24 year old freshman) but they had a humanity, sense of culture and worldview that was broad, and hip-hop meant something to them other than the racial nightmare it was to me.

I thought of that day last fall, when both men released their latest solo records. Mos and Talib have made some of the best records of the past decade regardless of genre, but any of the cash money millionaire clique will move more units in 6 weeks than each can do in an album. So the push has been made to make them accessible to the mainstream, to sell America’s most unsellable commodity, black male sophistication and intellect, to the TRL and 106th and park generation, who have never shown any interest for black culture or history but cant get enough of their Gangsta thugs. In a sense, it is understandable and admirable that both men want to get their message to the masses. There is a utopian essence to it: bring the good musical food to the people and they will want more. But what both men, especially Kweil, do is mess the recipe up in the process.

To understand why both men will never have a wide consumer base one has to be honest about both hip hop’s fan base and the racial nightmare I just described. The primary audience for their work until now has been the socially conscious, sophisticated hip progressive students of all colors who have made a concentrated effort to understand the history of black culture and Mos and Talib’s interrelation to it. And god bless them for it. But they are a minority in comparison to the white teen suburban consumer, who statistically comprise 75 percent of hip hop’s consumer base, who continually buys degrading, destructive, disgusting images of black people and hasn’t really shown interest in buying much else. The brutal untold racial reality in the 21st century is that white conservatives get crushed, reared and rattled for even an inkling of racial impropriety, yet millions of white hip hop “liberals” gobble up images like 50 cent putting black women in chains, the most disgusting of auction block imagery, and get a free pass in the media. Mos and Talib might mean a tremendous amount to the third year student from a liberal arts college, but to average main stream hip hop fan he is invisible, or yet worse, a monster. Because to buy into the image of 50, Lil Jon, Lil Flip, Cash Money, The G Unit and other thug rappers is to buy into the fact that you think black men are beasts. And it’s easy to Idolize that beast on MTV and BET, because on television that beast is only an idea, a ruse to stir anger in ones parents and live vicariously through as a 21st century version of Norman Mailer’s white Negro. But when you see that monster in person, without that controlled variable of the television, in an environment where you have to interact human_being-to-human_being, he becomes something frightening.

This is not to let African Americans off the hook either, and you can see no greater example than Sean “p-diddy” combs. In Mt Vernon, Combs’ childhood was filled with as much drugs, sex and violence as Karl Rove’s. Like Amiri Baraka, my pick for the single most destructive black person in the history of this country, Combs was a failure in life (dropped out of Howard because he liked to party) who saw a way to exploit the pain of the inner city for his own personal profit. Unlike Baraka, whose aim was related to politics and academia, but who’s damage was far, far greater, Combs knew that his path, pop culture, was a bigger goldmine and one that would subject him to far less serious criticism.

But what in Puffy that bothers so many people are the actions and the demeanor he’s shown in getting that gold mine. 12 dead and countless injured in City College. Biggie, Tupac and several associates killed in the beef between east and west coast. A woman shot in the face in the Shyne incident. And Puffy shows no signs that these incidents, all of which he had a small to great responsibility in, affect him. Combs goes on, spending over a million dollars for single parties, showing no remorse, no pain, no compassion save a tepid tribute single and a tax write-off fund, nothing that would resemble what people in the real world call a soul. A sensibility that only a third world dictator could love. And the fruits of that sensibility? He’s amassed a third of a billion dollars, Performed as Walter lee younger in the raisin in the sun (forgive us, Lorraine Hansberry, we know not what we do), cited as a leader for rallying a faux voter drive and given compliments by Peggy Noonan, the conservative columnist who, although god bless her grace and wit, probably wouldn’t want to be caught dead with Jill Scott or Anthony Hamilton. (And why not? He’s of her, and the “appropriate” caste.)

His story is not as egregious as Jadakiss’, the gangsta rapper who grew up in the mean streets of the upper west side of Manhattan, with a doctor for a father and a CPA for a mother. Worse than that were Easy E and Ice Cube a suburbanite slacker and an Arizona state student, respectively. But the most egregious claim has to be of Suge Knight, long established as pop music most menacing gangster. Not many people know that he came from a two-parent home and was a graduate of the university of Nevada Los Vegas. Yeah that’s right, I said it, Suge knight is a poser. He isn’t the way he is because he came from a broken environment. He’s just evil.

My point about Combs is that there is a lot of people like him out there. Black children of privilege, who haven’t been poor, haven’t been in the struggle for civil rights and haven’t really felt all that much the lashes of racism, using America’s racial past for their own personal gain. To them the black poor are capital, a thing that is to be bartered and used as a club against whites and black people who don’t think like them. They have taken the race bating of Black nationalism and thought of it as their birthright, and they along with the parents that spawned them are a great deal of what’s wrong about race in America.

Everyday I worry about what this morally repugnant motley crew will make of this country. I worry about the students I see everyday, people of all colors who do love hip hop, and how they get along with each other in a world that desperately doesn’t want them to. I root for them, I hope they do make it, but to be a full human being is a hard road, and the bumps that life will bring them will make it harder still. Those young brothers and sisters of all colors will have to do as all human beings and artists do, make sense of their lives and incorporate the relevance of their own experiences to the world by expanding on the human truths of their life stories in relation to the truths of the life stories of their parents, their ancestors and their ancestors before.

But the people who worry me the most are the people who take mainstream hip hop’s message to heart, those broken and lost brothers and sisters who defiantly brag about their realness, yet do every single thing BET, MTV, Interscope, Def Jam and Bad Boy tell them to do, when they want them to do it and how they want it done. Those kids who worked themselves into frenzy over Biggie’s death see hip hop as a hobby, something they did on the weekends before they went back to the world of studying for college and social climbing in upper class society. But to all too many young black folks, bling bling is their religion. And that might work now, but what happens when those rich kids who grew up listening to the gangsta sh!t go into the corporate world, when they become those poor kid’s potential employers? Do you think he’s gonna give him a job because he likes the poor kids gold teeth? Because he admires his rims? Do you think anyone in the free market sector gives a sh!t about somebody’s whips and hoes? And what is going to happen when that hip hop head who considers Jay Z a “god” gets a wife, kids and a mortgage? Do you think he&#146s gonna be going to the church of big pimpin?

If you want to see a precursor to what might happen, look at the relationship between the Black Nationalist movement, the real spiritual fathers of mainstream hip hop, and the White radicals of the 60’s. Black militants emotionally, physically and spiritually brutalized black women and rich white liberal men got off on it for the same reason white mainstream heads get off on hip hop now, because they like the primitive male fantasy and subconsciously prefer black men to do their dirty work. The result? Because brothers mistook their manhood for their humanity, 3 out of 10 fatherless homes in black community in 1964 became 7 out of 10 fatherless homes in 2004. It is those mothers who are raising our children, and not hip-hop heads, their critics, intellectuals or politicians, who are carrying the race on their back. It is those mothers who can afford the least to be damaged by anyone, much less their own brothers, sisters, sons, daughters or husbands. It is those mothers who are being emotionally, psychologically and physically damaged by the bulk of the hip-hop nation every day. They are sowing the seeds of a cultural nuclear winter, and if we don’t do anything about it, a hard rain, as bob Dylan once said, is gonna fall.

Editors note: This has been syndicated to Advance.net, a place affiliated with about 10 newspapers around the country.

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About Robert Lashley

  • Eric Olsen

    what an outstanding essay Robert! You are very thoughtful, knowledgable and articulate. Art is both representative and influential – this dichotomy/conflict has been argued since at least Aristotle

  • Hip hip’s influence spreads far and wide, right down to the bottom of Africa. There are a lot of people who need to read this, I am glad I have.

  • Indeed I’m a person, maybe about five years older (use to live in Gig Harbor and Kent) and – as a musical trip – my experience of and journey through hip-hop is very similar to yours (though Tupac was my thing and my appreciation for Biggie (who I’d barely heard of) grew after he died.

    Both extremely sad as I still think Tupac was gifted far behind music and would have grown to be a very positive influence. And was to a certain extent already as he proved you could comercially portray yourself as a sensitive / smart black man without repercussions and still be successful. The Wu did that as well to a certain extent.

    Mos Def is an inspiration and luckily a lot of people are tuned into that – just not “mainstream.”

    A lot of mainstream from Jay-Z to 50 Cent to Big Boi to the entire “G Unit” is one dimensional. That doesn’t mean they can’t occasionally pop out the great sounding tracks, but the SOP behind them is sadly the same.

    With Jay-Z, I had a special affinity for Annie (don’t ask) so I was drawn in there. But the rest of that album was posturing, as if people really wanted to kill him 9or cared one way or the other) and he was setting himself up as a martyr.

    Anyway – fantastic write up.

  • Bennett

    Thanks for this Robert. Though not my style of music, your essay was well worth reading, and I learned quite a bit.


  • Your comments on Hip Hop and the current state it is in are though provoking. I am a great fan of Mos Def and Talib Kweli, but sadly even their music has lost a bit of its edge in recent years.

    Being in college and “academia”, it made me think of the various classes which I have attended where a discussion of race was always paired with a discussion of Hip Hop. The constant need by mostly White students to talk about 50 Cent as a current figure of Black culture was, to a degree, sickening.

    I wish some of the students in those classes could read what you wrote. Maybe then they’d actually learn something.

  • Robert,
    This was very thought provoking. Thank you for sharing your thoughts on this subject.

  • Thank you. You’ve articulated a lot of things that have always been unstated, and therefore unknown. Unfortunately, the people who need to read this article the most are most likely the people who’ll never see it.