The Audacity of Hope in Hip Hop

I’m going to write some more on this topic in due course, and I have a Guardian piece coming out soon talking about Obama and the hip hop generation, but for now let me post this video of Senator Obama himself talking about his love of hip hop and how he thinks it needs to look forward and inspire as well as stay rooted in the realness of today…


The Global African-American influence

Prior to living in America, I had already visited the country a number of times. But that’s not how I am able to sing RnB songs, or how I’m able to rap full verses from artists like Common, Jay Z, Biggie and Tupac or even much older hip hop groups. It’s not how I understand African-American slang or can do certain dances in clubs. I know all of that because African-Amerian culture is broadcast into homes around the world. Despite growing up in the UK, I have been exposed to many aspects of African-American culture throughout my entire life, as have many other black people around the globe.

It can be hard for African-Americans to get a grasp of just how pervasive and global African-American culture is and has become. When I lived in Johannesburg in South Africa, for example, I was at times amused and at other times disturbed by the adoption of African-American language, fashion and music by young South Africans. I used to go a particular club that could have come from a Beyonce video. You would have thought you were in New York or Atlanta rather than Johannesburg.

People always ask me ‘how do you know these songs?’ and ‘how do you know about that, how do you know about this?’ and I tell them I know because I have been massively exposed to it all throughout my whole life. America, and by extension African-America, is constantly shown to the world on a huge scale.

Now, I wonder if African-Americans realized this, they would also feel more responsible about what they put out. I’m talking here about people like Nas and his new album, I’m talking about BET and the type of content they put out, I’m talking about all of those people who insist – through various media – in showing the worst aspects of African-American life. Not only is that stuff released to America, it is released to young impressionable black people around the world who look up to African-Americans as a beacon of success and progression.

I was reminded of this by a blog I came across in which the writer said he’d come across a shop in Malawi called ‘Nigger’ (see picture above) and how proud the owners were of their shop’s name, thinking that they were somehow in touch with African-Americans that they looked up to.

Nas is releasing his song Nigger not only to his homegrown community but to the global community. What will the effect be on the young kids in the townships of South Africa, for example, who don’t really understand the significance and nuances surrounding that word? What about the black kids in the inner cities in England who have only just, in the past 10 years or so, started calling each other ‘nigga’ – just because their favourite black hip hop artists have made the word seem cool – and who now believe that they are ‘niggas’?

The global influence of African-American culture is huge. It affects black people all over the world. This can of course be a great thing. It has unfortunately also been a negative thing. I just don’t think people get how far the reach of African America extends… If they did maybe people like Nas might really think hard about how they use that influence.


Do You Wanna Be A Nigger?!

 Nas has sparked controversy with his new track “Be A Nigger too” . Personally I don’t really understand what he’s trying to say or why he feels the need to use the word – other than for publicity’s sake.

I don’t think he’s made any insightful, enlightening or political points in the song, or said anything particularly meaningful or profound either – so it really does seem that he’s used the word for no good reason.

Since I’ve been living in America, one thing that has shocked me is the amount of racial terminology and general derogatory language that people use. ‘Nigga’, ‘bitch’, ‘cracker’, ‘muthaf***a’ – I hear them all… and often.

Until I came here, I thought that the N word was used mainly in music, until I realized that it really is an every day term in the black community. Its usage in hip hop may have called attention to it and made the word more public, but the fact is was already being used in common speech. Some people use it more than others, but in general ALOT of people use it. It’s not even a class thing – middle class and educated black people use it too.

I’ve had a number of discussions about the word and my opinion now, based on my experience here, is that trying to get rid of it is pointless because it really is a word that is deeply ingrained (whether or not people want to admit it) in African-American culture.

Saying that though, I think it’s extremely sad that black people choose to use the word at all. To my knowledge, no other ethnic community has taken a word that has been used to subjugate them, started using it themselves and then made themselves believe that they have turned the word into a positive. No – they have just consigned the derogatory word to the past where it belongs and moved on.

If African-Americans (or any other black people) want to use a term for endearment or to describe ourselves, why not choose something else? Why don’t we make up our own word – a word about which we don’t have to have countless debates and discussions regarding whether or not it is positive or negative? 

The argument that the meaning of the N word has now been made positive is a false one. African Americans often use the term to denigrate other black people, so I don’t buy that argument. As a black person, I could still offend another black person if I used the word in a certain way. Furthermore, most black people would also still be very offended if a non-black person called them a nigger (even as a term of endearment), so I don’t really see how the word’s meaning has changed at all.

I personally can’t understand why people can’t find another word to use if they do want to use it as a term of endearment (‘darling’, ‘love’, ‘dear’, ‘sweetie’, ‘honey’ are all quite good!) but I’ve come to accept that nigger is a word that has been used for years, in fact for centuries, and for whatever reason black people still continue to use it today and will continue in the future.

Having not grown up around the word (it has only started being used in England by young black people recently, as a result of hip hop), it has very little meaning or significance for me. It’s certainly not a word I use to define myself or to define others.

My biggest issue with the word is that it is still so negatively powerful and so destructively rich in meaning. Acting as if it means nothing and that it is a harmless term and continuing to use it over and over again actually gives it MORE power rather than reduces it.

If it truly was a harmless word, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion right now and nobody would give too hoots about Nas’ latest song. 

Yes We Can!

In an era when most music is disposable and carries meaningless messages, it’s great to see Black Eyed Peas’ and friends making the most of the power of music in this way. I didn’t realise how powerful Obama’s speech was until I saw this video.

Hip Hop & Life

lilkim.jpgFor years there has been an ongoing debate about how much of an impact hip hop music has on the lives of today’s young people. It has been blamed for a myriad of problems that affect black kids. The misogyny, violence and promiscuity (amongst other things) depicted in popular music videos have been said to continue down the foodchain into communities, negatively influencing those who are already at the bottom.

However, artists and record label execs  have refused to take responsibility for the effect their music might have on the young, saying that it’s up to parents to censure what their kids see and hear, and denying any correlation between listening to certain types of music and subsequent behaviours.

But in the light of new evidence, can hip hop makers continue to deny that their music has a negative impact upon young people? Can they continue to be blase and nonchalant about what they are releasing into the world, when it is clearly having damaging effects? A report published in October entitled “Images of Sexual Stereotypes in Rap Videos and the Health of African-American Female Adolescents” has shown that “African-American female adolescents who spend more time watching rap music videos are more likely to participate in high-risk behaviors such as binge drinking and sex with multiple partners, to test positive for marijuana, and to have a negative body image”. Please take some time to let that sink in.

When well-respected robust studies (this one came from the Emory University) are showing such links, there is patently a major problem that cannot be ignored. Black music role models can no longer disassociate themselves from the negative impact that their music is having on impressionable young black people. It is rather frightening to see scientific evidence that this is the case, although it is unsuprising considering the unparalleled media exposure that young people are subjected to these days.

I have always believed that leadership comes with responsibility. If you are a role model – which you are as soon as you are able to put your voice out in the public sphere – you must be aware of how your words and actions are perceived by those who look up to you. This goes not only for rappers but for corporations like Viacom and BET who have such a stronghold on what our young people see and hear.

It’s high time the mainstream music and entertainment industry start caring about the next generation. High time the industry starts caring about those who are being shaped and moulded by their environment, which includes not only their peers at school, but the people they listen to on their ipods. The media has to become much more conscious, much more responsible. There is something highly unethical and deeply unsettling about the idea that companies are not bothered by the knowledge that their products are leading to others’ demise.

What’s so wrong with showing healthy, happy relationships between black men and women? Why do rap videos need to show naked women dancing with dog chains around their necks? Who exactly benefits from that? What’s so cool about it? In the long run, not even those getting paid millions to make the music and videos gain from it, since it only makes society a worse place.

Some will say that hip hop is being unfairly demonised and made a scapegoat. Whilst I agree that parents need to monitor their kids, the truth is that to some people music is a parent! To many, music is a friend, a guide and a mentor. And it’s time the hip hop industry starts taking that responsibility very seriously.

Live Earth… A Load of Hot Air!

earth.jpgThe Live Earth concerts kick off today…9 concerts around the world, on 7 continents, in 24 hours. Live Earth is apparently going to raise awareness of climate change.

Excuse me for being a bit cynical, but the idea of flying hundreds of pop stars around the world, in gas-guzzling jets, to play in huge power-sucking, carbon-emitting venues is hardly environmentally friendly. Plus these are stars who already have massive carbon footprints due to their international travel and concerts. In fact, they are probably some of the biggest pollutors of the earth.

Over the next 24 hours entertainers like Madonna – who have monumental carbon footprints in comparison to the average person – are going to preach being green to the rest of the world? The same people who are in adverts which promote SUV’s, who boast about the number of high powered cars they have, and who will take a jet just to go to the end of the road….Mmm – the world ‘hypocrites’ comes to mind.

Apparently, the various performers will fly (and this is a low estimate) 222,623.63 miles between them for these concerts. That is 9 times the earth’s circumference! The total carbon footprint including travel, energy consumption from the venues, TV viewers and waste at the concerts is likely to be well over 100,000 tonnes. Compare that to the 10 tonnes per year that is generated by the average British household. Aren’t these concerts meant to be about saving the planet??

But don’t forget that Al Gore says this event is ‘carbon neutral’. Carbon neutral?! Even I’m savvy enough to know that there is no such thing as ‘carbon neutral’ and that carbon ‘offsetting’ (where you plant trees or give out energy-saving lightbulbs to balance or ‘offset’ the carbon produced by this type of activity) is a hugely controversial and much-debated area in environmental circles,  because is thought to be totally useless and ineffective.

I also find it very odd that the idea of any pop star singing their own songs can somehow make people go and start recycling or cycle instead of using a car, when this is something they already know about anyway.

Let’s face it – this is just a big fat publicity stunt for Al Gore. Like Live Aid and Live 8 have been for Bob Geldof.

Live Earth! What a bunch of hot air!!