Hip-hop and Minister Louis Farrakhan go way back. The expressive voice of
the Nation of Islam's leader has been popping up on hip-hop records since the
genre's formative years. It's always been an odd coupling; the Nation of
Islam's sober asceticism and the hedonistic impulses of hip-hop would seem to
have little in common.
Well, they were coupled again at an event titled the "Hip-hop summit:
Taking back responsibility," held June 12--14 in New York City. Organized by
Russell Simmons, co-founder of Def Jam Records, the gathering brought together
artists, record company executives, politicians, activists and scholars to
discuss the state of the music and address its excesses. Among those excesses
is a seeming obsession with vile lyrics that depict gratuitous violence and
other kinds of dysfunctional behavior. And, it seems, when performers are not
rapping about that behavior, they too often are acting it out.
Farrakhan delivered the event's keynote address and although he chided the
crowd for those excesses, he offered comments that educated rather than
condemned. Farrakhan's two-hour speech captured the attention of the diverse
audience of street-hardened rappers, cynical execs and earnest activists alike
and demonstrated anew why his appeal continues even into his seventh decade.
"What society would like to do with the young people is break the mirror
rather than look in the mirror," Farrakhan said, referring to hip-hop's
tendency to reflect rather than refract society's values.
The debate about the music's effect on behavior has raged since its
beginnings. Born raggedy on the streets of New York City in the mid-1970s, the
style of music called hip-hop, or rap, has become the third-best-selling
musical genre in the country, behind rhythm and blues and rock. It also has
gained global popularity as a favored music of youth around the world. In the
U.S., hip-hop accounts for 12.9 percent of the $14.3 billion in domestic
sales, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.
That success leads some to ask, if hip-hop ain't broke, why fix it?
Well, for one thing, Congress is making noises about legislation that could
drastically affect the hip-hop industry's bottom line. A bill proposed by Sen.
Joe Lieberman (D-Conn.), called the "Media and Market Accountability Act,"
threatens to restrict mainstream access to rap music. And there are other
signs of governmental hostility. The Federal Communications Commission
recently fined a station in Colorado Springs, Colo., for playing a record
titled "The Real Slim Shady" by white rapper Marshall "Eminem" Mathers.
One of the most important sessions at the summit was a closed-door affair
that focused on political empowerment. Three members of the Congressional
Black Caucus joined prominent intellectuals--including DePaul University's
Michael Eric Dyson--as well as activists and execs to plan how best to fuel
political activity with the power of the music.
But aside from thwarting threats from congressional moralists and other rap
opponents, participants in the summit tried to come to grips with the issues
that make rap such a controversial product in the first place. The music is
notorious because it remains rooted in the lives of its creators: urban black
males, America's most feared and criminalized population. Even as it grows in
popularity among white teenagers (whites are estimated to buy 70 percent of
all rap records), a demand for authenticity or "keepin' it real," continuously
refocuses the music on the bleak urban landscapes that produced it.
"Gangsta" rap is a subgenre that focuses on life in an underground economy
made possible and profitable by the war on drugs. This devotion to
authenticity can perpetuate stereotypes by giving an unearned centrality to
life on the margins.
Unlike many of his peers in the civil-rights and black nationalist
movements, Farrakhan understood the power and gravity of hip-hop.
The feeling was mutual; artists ranging the spectrum from gangsta rappers
to "conscious" rappers frequently spoke his praise.
Farrakhan's verbal audacity was a perfect fit for the aggressive, "no
sell-out" attitude of rap music. "One rap song from you is worth more than
1,000 of my speeches," he told the crowd at the summit. "You are the new
leadership. Will you accept your responsibility as a leader?"
Farrakhan gets a bad rap for many things--some of which may be
deserved--but he's directly on point with his efforts to make hip-hop more
res-ponsible and he deserves credit.
Salim Muwakkil is a senior editor at In These Times
Copyright 2001 Chicago Tribune