Add racial healer to the list of Jay-Z’s many titles. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey’s new cable network, OWN, the multi-platinum rap performer, cultural icon, entrepreneur and, apparently, civil rights pioneer observed: “Hip-Hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons, save Martin Luther King, Jr.” That’s a bold claim. Does it have any merit?
Hip-hop, born in the South Bronx decades ago, is undoubtedly big—big business. The urban-inspired art forms and styles comprising the genre—rap, dance, even apparel—are part and parcel of a multi-billion dollar global industry. Turn on a TV just about anywhere on the planet and you’ll find youngsters, baseball caps akimbo and jeans sagging low, “dropping rhymes,” i.e., rapping, while striking the sort of macho poses anyone familiar with MTV would instantly recognize.
The enormous economic strength and cultural impact of hip-hop is beyond doubt, but does the predominately black genre facilitate racial reconciliation, as Jay-Z maintains? “It’s very difficult to teach racism when your kid looks up to Snoop Doggy Dog,” the rapper reasons, citing a fellow hip-hopper. Jay-Z would have a point if imitation (and seeming adoration) were indeed the highest form of flattery. But acceptance of blacks does not always flow from black achievement. Sometimes the opposite is the case. Take sport. Black athletic success has reinforced racist stereotypes going back centuries that conflate African-American physical prowess, cast in animalistic terms befitting beasts of burden, with intellectual feebleness.
It’s a similar story with hip-hop, only this time the damage done to blacks is self-inflicted. The genre is practically defined by rappers boasting of their inclination to violence and other antisocial behavior. As a matter of course, women are presented as sex objects. Sure, there are exceptions. And not all hip-hop performers are black or male or even American. But the generalization holds. That so many African-Americans promote images of their race that align with hateful stereotypes raises disturbing questions, as does the fact that so many whites “look up to” those propagating such images.
True black empowerment that calls out those who traffic in such self-loathing imagery requires black leadership. Unfortunately, little is on offer. Instead, notable African-Americans who should know better laud the worst of hip-hop. Oprah, for one, credits Jay-Z’s music for exposing uncomfortable truths about ghetto life, as if such portrayals are value-neutral. They’re not. Violence is glamorized. Misogyny is pervasive.
President Obama has also endorsed some of hip-hop’s biggest peddlers of depravity. His “rap palate,” he told Rolling Stone, had improved: “Jay-Z used to be sort of what predominated [on my iPod], but now I’ve got a little Nas and a little Lil Wayne and some other stuff.” To which of those musicians’ songs was the president referring, Jay-Z’s “99 Problems,” with its refrain, “I’ve got 99 problems but the bitch ain’t one?” Or was it “Lil Duffle Bag Boy” by Lil Wayne, which glamorizes the same drug dealing that has landed the heavily-tattooed rapper in Riker’s Island?
Author Thomas Chatterton Williams is a rare voice of dissent. In the Wall Street Journal, Chatterton Williams (who is black), takes to task Obama for his praising “thuggish” rappers: “The president is entitled to his friends and aesthetic tastes. But he undermines his own laudable message and example when he associates himself with a hip-hop culture that diminishes blacks.”
Which brings us back again to Jay-Z’s assertion about hip-hop’s impact on race relations. The achievements of the civil rights era turned on discrediting the notion that blacks were subhuman and therefore undeserving of equality under the law. It was, fundamentally, a fight for dignity. This is why blacks protesters against Jim Crow carried posters reading “I Am a Man,” and why “Black is Beautiful” became a popular catchphrase.
Much of hip-hop turns hard-earned progress on its head by proclaiming that blacks are not human, that they have no dignity. On the contrary: the genre’s ubiquitous message is that African-Americans are the thugs that white supremacists allege. It may be a distinction lost on the likes of Jay-Z, who has earned a king’s ransom by denigrating his race. But it shouldn’t be lost on those who have benefited from the achievements of real civil rights pioneers like Martin Luther King, Jr.: all of us, black, white and all colors in between.