Why Black People Must Take Commercialized Hip Hop to Task

by Dr. Boyce Watkins


“I’ll rape a pregnant b*tch and tell my friends I had a threesome.”

These words came from Tyler the Creator, leader of the “musical” collective, Odd Future Wolf Gang Kill Them All, just one of the many Hip-Hop artists who’ve taken the power of free speech and used it to mangle their own community.  Disrespect for women has become par for the course in the language Hip-Hop, not to mention messages about excessive drug/alcohol abuse, sexual irresponsibility, the murdering of one Black man by another and financial irresponsibility.

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As I headed to Brown University this week to debate the issue with the always outstanding Michael Eric Dyson, I suddenly found myself at odds with my role model and predecessor — like a 10-year old boy forced to fight his 19-year old brother.  It’s awkward for me to disagree with Professor Dyson, because I respect him so much.   It is also tough for me to disagree with commercialized Hip-Hop, since I love the music as much as I love Professor Dyson.

In light of my respect for Dyson, I must first admit that I appreciate the fact that he knows how to express disagreement without being demeaning or confrontational.  Every counter-point is preceded by a compliment and his style of communication inspires me to reconsider the manner in which I’ve challenged some of my own colleagues (yes, that was for you, Melissa Harris-Perry, but please leave Dr. Cornel West alone – people often forget that you attacked him first).

During our heated and productive public dialogue, Professor Dyson made the point that Hip-Hop, even the stuff we hear on the radio, is one of the most creative and imaginative art forms in history.  The lyrical genius being shown by Hip-Hop artists should be studied in the same manner as Shakespeare, Chaucer and all the other people who bored me to tears in high school.  It is nothing less than racist to presume that Hip-Hop artists can’t be just as brilliant as those with lighter shades of skin.

Dyson also made the interesting point that the same creative freedoms being given to individuals who make violent films should be given to Hip-Hop artists who make violent music.   One could hardly imagine Martin Scorsese being taken to task for the cultural influence of “The Godfather.”

I don’t disagree with Professor Dyson entirely.   We do live in a country where the actions of Black men are viewed with a more critical and negative eye than the actions of our white brothers and sisters.   Also, the oppression that poor Black men experience doesn’t disappear when you are educated and middle class (no different from the racism I’ve dealt with at Syracuse University).

The problem, however, is that commercialized Hip-Hop is not like a harmless film, where those who absorb the messages clearly understand that the artist is creating an illusion that is entirely distinct from reality.  Commercialized Hip-Hop is the mass marketing and glamorization of a lifestyle that ends up being emulated by millions of Black kids across America.

When Lil’ Wayne says, “My flag’s red,” implying that he is a member of the LA Bloods street gang, he isn’t making this up (he would be killed for making a false affiliation).  There is an expectation in Hip-Hop that the lives of the artists are relatively authentic, that they are “keeping it real.”  When an artist tells a story about his time in prison, he usually has a criminal record.  If he talks about his days of “slangin” dope and never actually dealt drugs, he is ridiculed.

Hip-Hop artists on the radio are not just fictional characters in a dramatic story.  Instead, they are more like political figures, marketing a set of ideas to young people.  They are pastors in a media mega-church, bragging about how they live, what they do, and who they do it with.  To somehow presume that impressionable young minds are not being adversely affected by the negative mantras they recite on a daily basis is nothing short of writing off every Psychology research study in the history of all mankind; the same brainwashing that creates a generation of Lil’ Wayne clones is also used by Nike to get poor Black kids to spend $200 on shoes that cost $10 to make.

Artists have the right to free speech.  But we as citizens also have the right to tell the artists, their corporate plantation owners and media outlets that are distributing this poison that we will not tolerate artists sharing messages that make our kids proud of being ignorant, unproductive, self-destructive and harmful to their own communities.  Anyone who wants to see the impact of these messages need only be around young people as rappers overwhelm even the best parents when it comes to telling their children how to make choices.

Sure, some kids can look past the music and not absorb the messages.  But as a Black man, I see my brothers being impacted by the actions of rappers, who validate and encourage the very worst in them.  I see the men who try to rise out of the cycles of self-destruction that plague so many of us, only to find that the spiritual momentum is in the other direction.  Did Hip-Hop cause all of the problems for the Black male in America?  Certainly not.  But one thing we know, without question, is that the music on the radio isn’t helping.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Professor at Syracuse University and author of the book, “Black American Money: How Black Power Can Thrive in a Capitalist Society.” To have Dr. Boyce commentary delivered to your email, please click here.