I’m no expert about rap or hip-hop–far from it. Loved Public Enemy as a young man, still have Missy Elliott’s "The Rain" on the iPod. But aside from the purchase of Kanye West’s "The College Dropout" a couple of years ago–on a friend’s recommendation that it was great (not for me)–my musical tastes run much more toward the propulsive piano stylings of Robert Glasper, the timeless sophistication of Johnny Hodges, the limpid insights of Maria Joao Pires. And, of course, Cheap Trick.
So I’m a fogey. But I live in our common American culture, and thus breathe the atmosphere of young America’s delights, distractions and obsessions. You can’t avoid them. We worship youth in this country; there is a kind of hidden message coded in all our media that one must know and at least pretend to enjoy that which the young create and enjoy. "Thou shalt be hip," is the first commandment of the culture. But I’m hopeless in that regard–and glad of it. I miss "The Waltons."
I have a 10-year-old daughter, though, and so I simply can’t ignore what goes on in popular culture. And that brings me to the debate about Don Imus, his despicable slur against the Rutgers University women’s basketball team, and hip-hop music.
A lot of bloggers and others have noted that what Imus said on the air is no different from what many rappers and hip-hoppers have said in their songs. It’s true. Go to any popular lyrics site (like this one), type in the terms Imus used or other racist and misogynist slurs, and see for yourself. Look at rap and hip-hop music videos–but make sure your ten-year-old is out of the room. Much of what you will find in this music is a puerile fantasy of male power, frenzied irresponsibility, and the degradation of women. What’s so depressing–as columnist Bob Herbert of The New York Times, educator and actor Bill Cosby, the Rev. Eugene Rivers of The Baker House in Boston, and so many others have pointed out for so long–is that this repugnant fantasy has become an ideal of manhood for far too many young Americans–black and white.
So why is Imus fired for what he said, while so many rappers are idolized for using precisely the same language? Is there a double-standard?
Of course there is. And there is no longer any excuse for it.
There are those who tell us that somehow when a young black man says "bitch" or "ho" or uses the "n-word," it’s OK. It’s all about the context. It’s culturally specific. It’s art. It’s a black thing–I can’t understand.
This attitude was captured in a fine story my ABC News colleague Deborah Roberts filed last night for "World News with Charles Gibson." Deborah interviewed Danyel Smith, who tracks hip-hop for Vibe magazine, and who believes, as Deborah put it, that "the gritty world being described in popular rap lyrics is artistic expression, not to be confused with mainstream name-calling."
"I think there’s a difference in a black person saying something about another black person," Smith said. "I think the way those words started out, white people were using them against black people in a way that kept them down."
The rapper Snoop Dogg put it a little more pungently:
“It’s a completely different scenario,” he said. "[Rappers] are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We’re talking about ho’s that’s in the ‘hood that ain’t doing sh–, that’s trying to get a n—a for his money. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain’t no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls. We are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them mutha—-as say we in the same league as him."
All this is pernicious nonsense. "Horsefeathers," as Grandpa Walton might put it.
Most Americans seem to believe–rightly, in my judgment–that you don’t get a pass on civility in this country because you’re a black man who raps; that you aren’t entitled to call women "ho" or "bitch"–whether they’re in "the hood" (an exegesis I simply do not buy from Mr. Dogg) or in my family; that just because you claim that a repugnant slur comes from your "mind and soul" does not give you a license to hurl it at people.
And many Americans ask: How is it that so many parents are supposed to tolerate the bombardment of our daughters with the most degrading imagery and language? Because it’s promulgated by black artists? Huh? A white man says stuff like that, and he must be fired–but a black man can degrade women and himself, and it’s "art"? Where’s the real racism there? Which man is being treated as beneath our shared values and standards?
All of the claims for a "culturally specific" exception to civility seem to me to rest on a myth–the myth that somehow hip-hop culture is the pure self-expression of urban black America. But the facts are otherwise. Ask yourself: Who sells this stuff? Who buys it? If it did not sell, would it get made? An honest appraisal of the hip-hop music and fashion market would see it for what it is–the exploitation of a part of black American culture by mega-billion, white-owned and white-controlled corporations who sell the stuff to millions of suburban teen-age white boys. This isn’t folk art. It’s business–big business. A few black people get rich from it. The rest, one can argue, get degraded.
Perhaps the most salutary thing that could come out of the Imus story is a revolution–a revolution by girls and women, black and white, by their dads and brothers and husbands and friends–a revolution against the utter misogyny that permeates so much of our mass-market, money-driven popular culture. It wouldn’t be hip. But it would be hope.