The social Matrix

The social Matrix

Monday, July 29, 2013

Hip Hop Journalism and Black Stereotypes

In lieu of the outcome of the Trayvon Martin trial, and the tangential discussions on the state of young black males that followed, Including Jay-z's and other rappers responses.  I decided it would be a good idea to revisit a paper I wrote in   about the hip hop media's culpability in perpetuating racial stereotypes. I was especially motivated after conservative pundit, Bill O'Reilly pontificated on Lil Wayne's negative influence on young black men. 

I apologize in advance for the awkward formatting. 

  Spoken Word artist and hip-hop journalist Raquel Cepede once called hip-hop journalism a “sixth element of the culture.” Currently there are approximately five hip-hop magazines on newsstands; (Vibe, XXL, URB, Source, and Scratch) that cover hip-hop culture. Each magazine has its own personality. Scratch magazine for instance emphasizes hip-hop music production and djing and studio equipment. Unfortunately the majority of hip-hop magazines aren’t as culturally aware.

  The problem starts when opening any hip-hop magazine. While perusing through the first 30 pages I noticed that they are filled with nothing but advertisement and it becomes increasingly prima facie that the staff of these magazines are more concerned with keeping their advertisers satisfied than with reporting a comprehensive analysis of the urban culture it supposedly represents. 

These magazines appear to enjoy caricaturing rappers as misogynistic thugs who only rap to pay off their new Bentley.  This would be understandable if there wasn’t a cornucopia of other rappers to choose from. In addition, hip hop magazines like the general media itself, only focuses on the rap artists who dominate the Billboard charts while leaving graffiti artists, break-dancers, and others out of the picture.

Since its inception it was inevitable for hip-hop to choose magazines for its media vehicle. They both share a similar goal and history. The rapid growth of magazines became financially prosperous and abundant as an effect of urbanization and industrialization. 

Hip Hop, in a similar way, became a product of urban culture and used technologically advanced musical devices like synthesizers and samplers, to produce the soundtrack for the inner city. It’s also imperative to note how early magazines such as “The Liberator” an abolitionist magazine, had became a tool for political as well as social change (Playsted 1971) just as hip-hop magazines.

 For example there was an ad featured in XXL about Hip Hop Summit Action Network which listed things such as the elimination of poverty, equality in public education, adequate healthcare etc. as what changes the organization wanted to see happen. Also, in Vibe magazine there was an article written about the lack of nutritional resources in urban areas compared to suburban neighborhoods and how because of this type of institutional discrimination African Americans were more susceptible to Type-Two diabetes. (Meadows-Ingram,  Machinelike, 2003.) 

Unfortunately articles like these are few and far between. Still, overall you are most likely to find an article in Vibe about fashion or cosmetology than hip-hop sociology.                                                                                                 
One hypothesis as to why hip-hop magazines focus their collective attention on the excessive commercialism that is shaping hip-hop culture could be because of the celebrity- centric journalism that has engulfed mainstream media. Cedric Muhammad criticizes journalists for acting like eager sycophants who feel cool being in the presence of their favorite famous rappers rather than using a critic’s eye to be more analytical about their subject matter. 

 Howard Kurtz (1994) author of the Media Circus wrote “All of the media from the prestige press to the sensationalist rags, have been infected by a tabloid culture.” Kurtz sharply chronicles how in the early 90’s the media’s trivial stories about, multi-billion dollar cosmopolite  Donald Trump and his infatuation with younger women. Kurtz notes how Donald Trump overshadowed issues such as African political leader Nelson Mandela’s 27-year imprisonment ending as well as both S&L and HUD scandals.

 Consequently, as a result of the media focusing on issues of minimal importance such as Donald Trumps divorce they have ignored unscrupulous public figures such as Debbie Dean. Who funneled millions of dollars from HUD in the form of grants and handed them out to those who wined and dined her.  Trumptified spending habits ($400 million for a few Manhattan hotels, $675 million for a Taj Mahal styled casino, $29 million to buy his buddy Adnan Khashogi’s yacht) had kept the Donald in print. Likewise the the celebration of avarice, is also a common theme in hip-hop magazines.

 Donald Trump’s extravagant expenditures have little to do with the news as does rapper Havoc’s BMW 745I or black Escalade have to do with hip-hop. Other articles such as “Top Billin” and “Hot Wheels” (Anslem 2005) give descriptions of cars with astronomically high price tags attached to them. The Raison d’être for this is because the existential automobile has always been a token of American capitalism--ever since the advent of Coup De Vile Americans have used cars as a sign of class status (Turney 2005).

 As a result of this, sooner or later the magazines started to become more of a tool for marketing rather than cultural preservation. Journalists are aware of this problem. In fact one journalist told Raquel Cepede that writing about rap music was akin to writing “insipid advertorials for the Versace brand, jewelry, and guns.”  (Cepede 2004) Serene Kim argues that commerce is as important to hip-hop as art and that fans should not be so critical of artist making money even if they are exploiting the culture (Kim Serene 2003). It’s understandable that rappers should be able to make a living even via product placement. The problem, however, as reiterated prior is the fact that there is a paucity of articles exploring rap as a lyrical art form.

Alongside commercialism both sexism and violence are other stereotypical trends that proliferates hip-hop magazines, while marginalizing participants of hip hop culture who do not exhibit these features. Scantily clad women such as a picture in Vibe featuring a R&B group called XSO Drive photo shot by Carlos Dallas Chiesa (Terrel 2003) has one of the three ladies holding her breast.

Moreover one of the three from the group talks about how she is writing a song for her “man” whom is on “lock” (prison.) This message conveys to young men  that beautiful women are attracted to harden criminals.

Another example of hip-hop magazine’s obsession with feminine vanity and sexuality is an article in Vibe magazine about butt augmentation. In the article the reporter discusses why the typical ideal “model” white, skinny is out of style while the minority females (Jennifer Lopez and Beyonce) with their curvaceous physiques, are in style. (Stukin 2004).

 It’s interesting to note that even though cosmic surgery has nothing to do with hip hop culture, when juxtaposed with an article in the same magazine written about graffiti. The former article featured a good five pages worth of coverage while the graffiti article was only half a page and was featured at the end of the magazine. 

   The hedonistic voyeurism that saturates all hip-hop magazines takes on a coy and lascivious form. From the “Sex Candy” photo-ops in XXL, to the ads in the back pages such as “Hip Honeys” and similar ads.
   Although the role of woman in hip-hop magazines is often presented misogynistic and is something that should be scrutinized and criticized the portrayal of men is equally if not more important. It almost seams painfully obvious that the goal of a hip-hop magazine should be to dismantle the stereotypes that the mainstream media has established not reinforce them.

   Unlike in the early 90’s when black men from the ghetto did not exist in the media unless he was a criminal. “What gets missed in all this is the vast number of blacks who live lives like everyone else,” recalls Newsweek columnist Joe Klein, “Its news to learn there are black men…who go to work.” Joseph Bates, a black youth, who had read an article about young black men and gun violence, retorted “They wrote what they wanted to write…they portrayed us as hard core gang member ready to incite violence.” (Kurtz 1994)

   The effects of such perceptions in the media are disastrous.

  In 2002 the source wrote an informative article about the prison industrial complex. In it, they discovered that 50 percent of the prisoner population was due to thievery or drug trafficking. More troublesome is the fact that the number of prisoners incarcerated has increased three times since 2002. In addition both Latino and black men account for 2/3 of the prison population. (Cooper 2000) Although institutional discrimination plays a major role in how young Latino and African men perceive themselves in the mainstream, hip hop magazines also have to assume some responsibility and not be naïve and sophomoric. 

  Columns like vibes “for the record” are filled with rappers run in with the law. Moreover rappers like Murphy Lee who used to skip school during his freshman year in high school, and is a self proclaimed “player pimp” only make my point more valid. (Sharp 2003.) This is just one of many rap cliches that finds its way in rap magazines. This is the chagrin that plagues hip-hop journalism.

  Hip Hop journalism’s love for sensationalism in the form of violence reached its pinnacle when Ray “Benzino” Scott and David Mays (2003) “co-founders” of The Source wrote a scathing diatribe about their dissatisfaction with the “current state of hip hop.” They wrote, “large products and images are being marketed…. under the title of “hip hop.” They continue by writing about how through the process of globalization hip hop is becoming increasingly diverse all while indicting rec. execs, journalist, radio companies for not playing an active role in the urban communities by not living there. 

   True, the media should be more responsive to the communities they represent but there are other factors involved besides regionalism. Besides Ray “Benzino” Scott had done more harm than good to hip-hop’s image. They go on to write that if people were more concerned about hip-hop then organizations should hire more David Mays and Ray Scotts rather than rely on “nerds with college degrees.” Ironically Mays himself is a graduate from one of the most prestigious school in the country, Harvard University

  They non-bashfully claim that the Source (their magazine) is hip-hop’s savior and that it represents “real” hip-hop. 
Since its beginning in the late 80’s The Source magazine has reached a readership well over nine million. In 1991 the magazine made a total of $3,000 on ads per page with a circulation of 40,000. Much to their own criticism the Source became largely commodified into a website, TV show, and a Hollywood style award show. They even out sold the Rolling Stones. Suddenly major companies such as Nike, Adidas, and others grew increasingly aware of the untapped market of urban youths. Soon other media outlets like MTV started incorporating hip hop into their music programming more often.

   It started to become less about the music and more about the “hip-hop lifestyle.” As a result millions of dollars of products were sold using hip-hop the “lifestyle” as a marketing device. The Source welcomed these multi-billion dollar companies to advertise with open arms.  Although the Source’s profits soared at an exponential rate, there were still internal problems that needed to be addressed.  One of the problems was separating business from writing. In other words some rappers were becoming irritated because they felt that if they had ads in the magazine they should have had more coverage and should be given higher album ratings. 

   A similar conflict of interest arose between both aforementioned David Mays and Raymond “Benzino” Scott, and other writers on the staff known as the “Mind Squad.” The problem was simple. In the beginning, in addition to launching the Source magazine Mays was also responsible for a rap group called the RSO--which included Ray “Benzino” Scott. David Schetuer, a fellow writer, was ostensibly keenly aware of Scott’s negative reputation, which included police investigations, murders, and other things about Scott and his group RSO. (Chang 2005.)

   The tension between Scott and Source journalists escalated to the point where Scott was bluntly threatening other Source writers for lack of coverage. Scott threatened that if he didn’t receive a four (out of five) for his album at least there would be people in “body bags.”  Soon after, Mays writes a three-page article on the group. Bernard, one of the other staff writers becomes dismayed and resigns because Mays wrote the article without telling anyone and had the article list Bernard as its author. Troubled by the lack of journalistic ethics, other fellow writers instantaneously decided to quit as well. However Mays was finally able to find a new staff and list Ray “Benzino” Scott as co-founder even though Scott himself had no journalistic experience. (Chang 2005)

  The effects of these trite images have promoted community discussions. In Cleveland columnist Sam Fullwood (2005) for the Cleveland Plain Dealer attended an event geared towards these polemical issues. The event took place at Myers University and featured Mark Anthony Neal and author of the controversial titular book “Why White Kids love Hip Hop,” were the guest speakers. According to the article both men demanded that hip hop culture stop depicting black men as thugs and gangsters, even though hip hop itself should be exonerated and rather the blame should be placed on the media that shapes and defines it. A more poignant question came when 16 year-old Natasha wanted to know how she could get black men her age to value education. She talked about a young man whose ambitions led him to only three life chances-a football player, basketball player, or a rapper.

  Hmm this sounds familiar.  Perhaps more worrisome was the boy’s apathy towards studying which would make his dreams a reality, and provide many opportunities as well.  Natasha, also observed that some black students would ostracize fellow black students because they had an interest in books and weren’t the media’s concept of what is “being black” mean.

  This conflict closely parallels the antagonism between underground alternative rap and commercial “gangsta” rap which hip hop mags saliently provide for more coverage than the former. The results of gangstas, drug dealers, and other characters being used as hip hop images was so profound and influential that it created a dichotomy between African-Americans and African immigrants. Africans view black Americans as being lazy, drug dealers, incarcerated and are solely prosperous by being either a rapper or playing a sport. (Freeman Kirby, Niang Thione 2006) 

  This is because of how African Americans are portrayed in the American media. It follows that because hip-hop is an urban African American and Latino cultural phenomenon and hip-hop magazines document this. It doesn’t take a cultural anthropologist to figure out what’s wrong. For the purpose of this paper it is important to delineate between underground/alternative rap artist and their more monotonous, insipid, prosaic rapping counterparts.
   According to AMG’s All Music Guide to Hip-Hop (2003) alternative and underground rap can be defined as a subgenre of rap that “refuses to conform to any of the traditional stereotypes of rap.” It’s sonically eclectic blending with other musical forms such as rock, reggae, soul and even folk. The most significant difference is that these artists tend to have more “inventive” lyrics than the more popular rappers. 

   For example,  one Aesop Rock song lyrically documents a young girl and her life long relationship with the art world. The Last Emperor raps about what it would be like to have his favorite rappers go to battle against his favorite comic book heroes (X-men, superman etc.) Jewish rapper Remedy has a heart-felt song about the nefarious events that took place surrounding the holocaust. Arguably the most non-stereotypical rap son as far as lyrical content is concerned is a song by an artist known as Sage Francis. The song is called “MakeShift Patriot”, which criticizes the media during the Sept 11 attacks, by rapping about how the media exploited the victims family by prying into their personal lives and how the media magnified the issue of xenophobia. This is just an example of a cornucopia of talented artists who barely are featured in hip hop magazines with only a few paragraphs let alone featured on the main cover- except for magazines like URB which is dedicated to more independent acts.

   In one magazine issue, in an exclusive interview with URB, (Sterling 2006) Slug a Minnesota rapper notices how it’s difficult for black kids because all of the reinforcements about rappers they’re seeing on TV and other media outlets are nothing but stereotypes. He continues by adding, “If you don’t feel that way and trying to see something else, where do you turn?” Slug summed up essentially what the purpose of underground hip hop was: “it made you think.” (Sterling 2006) This is exactly what John Stuart Mills meant when he wrote that “There have been, and may again be great individual thinkers in a general atmosphere of mental slavery.” (Sommerville, Santonie 2001) Why is this so?

 According to hip-hop journalist Jeff Chang, (2003) the main thing that separates artist is how media monopolies label certain artist. For example a conscious rapper, also labeled as a “backpacker” only reaches a certain niche: vegan, college educated, anti establishment. Because of this limit in marketability underground rappers as far as their artistic contribution is concerned become pushed aside for more racy and formulaic artists.

 The same thing happening to underground artist is happening to other hip-hop art forms. (Chang 2003) One of the earliest journalists of hip-hop culture, Steve Hager from the New Daily News was one of the first journalists to notice how graffiti art, rap, and break dancing were interrelated. As a result Hager ended up writing a book entitled Hip-Hop: The Illustrated History of Break Dancing, Rap Music and Graffiti.  This along with books like these became the hip-hop cannon or as Chang (2003) put it “the foundational works of hip hop journalism and scholarship.” 

  The lack of break-dancers and Graffiti artist in magazines led to the chagrin and consternation of hip-hop purist. Legendary break dancer Crazy Legs (Richie Colon) from the Rock Steady Crew, was upset because he felt that as rap became more popular people lost interest in break dancing. This is a hard issue to come to deal with because both rap and break dancing came from the inner city so there was a sense of kinship between them as illustrated by Steve Hagar. (Chang 2003) Although there have been a few articles in the past about break-dancers and graffiti artist they were a paucity compared to rappers, moreover it isn’t as if these dancers and graffiti writers suddenly disappeared. 

   For example there is a yearly hip-hop event in Cincinnati known as Scribble Jam that involves a graffiti expo.,  break dancing, djing, beat boxing, and MC (rapper) competition that has been in existence for over 10 years. It has had rappers like Rymefest  (who wrote some of the lyrics to popular rapper Kanye West’s “Jesus Walk” song) and even Eminem in its first here competing in the MC competition. Yet unbeknownst among hip-hop purist this event didn’t merit one article in any hip-hop magazines except for URB. It’s also interesting to note how artist rather than events or social issues that affect hip-hop graced the front cover of mainstream Hip-Hop magazines. (Muhammad Cedric)

   Aristotle once wrote that “The laws that previously existed continue in force but the authors of revolution have the power in their hands.” (Somerville, Santonie 2001) Likewise the negative monotonous traditional view of hip-hop is going to remain stagnant unless someone in the media decides to take action. The 1970’s sardonic spoken word poet Gill Scott Heron (one of the archetypes of rap) once made a joke in his nominal album  “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.”  (1973 Heron) 

  The point that Heron was trying to make was that social change for the better was not to come about via television.  In other words because t.v. viewers were more preoccupied with  “Green Acres, The Beverly Hillbillies, and Hooterville Junction” and “Glen Campbell, Tom Jones, Johnny Cash, Englebert Humperdink”  “a cultural revolution” that challenged racial inequality (like hip hop) would be overlooked and ignored. 

   However, with magazines there is a difference. Magazines use words to get their message across. As hip-hop poet Saul Willliams (2006) once wrote, “The written word is the consolidation of thought.” (Cepede 2004) Magazines have the power to make us look more in depth about an issue unlike t.v.’s brevity that enables people to lose interest. 

  Although some critics might suggest that I am being overly analytical and that the problem here is non-existent I am reminded of a petition circulating on the internet a few months ago. The petition was used to protest BET (Black Entertainment Television.) According to the website it alleges that BET had supposedly not played a hip-hop video by underground group Little Brother because it was deemed too intelligent. If hip-hop magazines choose to adapt this paradigm for what hip-hop is and should be then hip-hop, like my subscription, will be canceled. 

1 comment :