BLACK LIKE ME
By any rational objective standard, the main thrust of the urban black culture is anti-moral and, ultimately, self-loathing. It advocates the ontological rape of black women and imposes an anti-intellectual standard on young black men while incongruously defining their existence by an unsustainable standard of material wealth, sexual acuity, controlled substances and binge drinking. play audio► stop
I was visiting my friend jemondG last week, and, while he was getting ready to go, I glanced at the TV which was droning on unattended in the background. There was a music video featuring some nappy-haired rapster (they all look alike to me) and his buddies tooling around in a yellow convertible that was full to bursting with teenage black girls in fairly skimpy bikinis.
A couple things occurred to me right away: first, nearly all of the guys were wearing both a do-rag and a hat. I figured, in terms of their utility purpose, either would do, but these young men wore both. The style seemed to also be the ribbed A-shirt (what Jemond calls the "wife beater" shirt), and the ubiquitous sagging jeans over Tommy Hillfiger boxer shorts. Ok, tee shirts if you must, but I really don't get the do-rag and hat bit.
But the main thing that bothered me is what always bothers me when I see images like that: the insinuation that I'm just not black enough.
Almost every day I feel like I'm being accused of something. Convicted of the crime of singularity and felonious non-conformity to what is considered the norm or the mainstream of popular black culture. I am repulsed by the images on BET and I feel assaulted by the constant onslaught of the "F" word and barbaric mangling of the English language that is a conditioned response to an urban cultural expression which is, let's face it, a manufactured product. A largely white funded and white profited self-reinforcing dumbing-down of Black America, ingeniously designed to keep us ignorant, barbaric and poverty-stricken, divided among ourselves, morally and ethically bankrupt.
I mean, look at these folks below, a struggling new group called No Good, comprised of such positive role models as T.Nasty, Mr. Fatal and their female rapper Jiggie, who apparently lost her mind along with her pants for this publicity photo. The imagery— the threat of violence, the material prosperity, and the black woman demeaned, are the necessary hallmarks of a successful music career these days.
Across America you have black kids— from Maine to Nebraska— learning how to talk like west coast gangster rappers, southern twang inflections and all. It's truly creepy to hear a kid on Lennox Avenue in New York talk with a southern twang and use, universally, the same broken English as kids across America. This is not an accident. One kid speaking broken English in Boston and another speaking a different kind of broken English in Miami is an accident. Both kids, who have never met, sounding like brothers is not. It is a conditioned response to a fixed constant stimuli; to an urban "culture," which, let's admit it, is much more commodity than art.
Perhaps in capitulation to its widespread uniformity, we've made a case for the legitimacy of this thug and hoochie mentality, defending it as some unique artistic or tribal expression, which it is not. It is a manufactured product, packaged and for sale. It is the black race in America clinging to the lowest rung of artistic integrity while crowing about how we own that rung and how that rung is some unique, spontaneous cultural movement.
The demeaning of our women. The thug-life-ing of our young men. It is da flava environment of dese, dem, and doze (do ya feel me, yo? Knowhatemsayin'?) that validates the worst impulses of young black men either too tired or too cowardly to press forward in a society specifically designed to keep them down. It's all good— ain't no need for no education, yo. Bump that religion, G. Life ain't nothin' but bitches and money. Things are just fine down here on the bottom rung.
What you see on TV and what you hear on the radio and what you read in so-called "urban" magazines is not life and is not really art. We've become a paradoxical culture, imitating the "art" that is allegedly representative of real life, but of course, isn't. I mean, I've tried to fill up my Mustang with teenage girls in thongs. Can't find many volunteers. It's not real. Not by a long shot.
But, here we are, modeling our real lives after the stupidity we are bombarded with daily through the so-called "black" media. And I, the stranger on the shore, often feel rejected and passed by because I don't subscribe to this propagandizing of Black America.
I'm puzzled by the communal brainwashing, the mass hypnosis gripping our community to the point where God-fearing, church-going mothers, some who pray daily for their children's safety and survival, allow this degenerate, disgusting, anti-family flotsam to be piped into their homes ad nauseam and consumed without filter by their children. It's like Invasion of the Body Snatchers; we've become a race of Pod People, ingesting this filth and imitating art rather than the other way around.
The tragedy is, to a great degree, I can't find a place among my own people. I have great anxiety when I'm invited to social functions where there'll be a lot of black people because, to some great extent, I am not, culturally, in the mainstream. I'm the stranger on the shore, Tom Hanks back from the island wondering where his world went. These pod people who speak English as though it were a second language to them. These people buying too much beer and spending the rent money on clothes and hair weaves. It's as though a great many black people are mind-controlled, emotionally arrested people. Thin skinned, histrionic, suspicious of most anything they don't understand, conformist and tunnel-visioned, vested in a culture of under achievement that makes a virtue of misogyny and intellectual cowardice.
Look, I'm sure there's something positive in this mess somewhere beneath the surface, but surface is all most people see. And, it's a seedy, wretched surface, full of the thong kids and cuddly types like Nas, Beanie Sigel, Outkast, Black Robb, Gostface Killah, his partner Dirty Ol' Bastard, J-Shin, Lil' Zane, Yuckmouth, Bone Thugs 'N Harmony, C-Murder, Mac-10, E40 (left) Lil' Kim, whose most apparent talent is her ability to look slutty on her album covers, and countless other young people, exploited for their gifts and abandoned after their first album or EP tanks amid a bloated field of urban music (have you ever heard of Young Shootas, Dirty Heartz Villainz, Da' Unda' Dogg or the girl group Infamous Syndicate?). Okay, maybe somewhere in there there is Common, whose M.O. is philosophy over felony, and Ghostface and Bastard are part of the award-winning Wu-Tang Clan. But this is a culture of foul language, excesses in drink and drugs, and of black women reduced to an obscene footnote. And I'm just not interested in any of it.
I'd like to think it's just that I've outgrown it. That my disdain for much of the hip-hop culture is borne out of generational differences and the arrival of middle age. But, by any rational objective standard (or any religious model— Christian, Muslim, Jewish, or Hindu), the main thrust of the urban black culture is anti-moral and, ultimately, self-loathing. It advocates the ontological rape of black women by black men; a de-humanizing of black women into momentary sexual diversions and stage props. It imposes an anti-intellectual standard on young black men while incongruously defining their existence by an unsustainable standard of material wealth, sexual acuity, controlled substances and binge drinking. Failing to achieve or sustain that lifestyle, especially in the absence of a quality education, leads many young black men into often unrecoverable spirals of low self-esteem, while many black girls binge and purge and starve themselves to look like the hoochies in the videos, hoping to attract the hardened, gangstered "rough necks" who will inevitably abuse and neglect them. The patterns are, by any reasonable and objective standard, pathological; a race subsumed with self-genocide by means of centuries-old unreparated wounds growing increasingly cancerous with each successive generation.
The propagated music video stereotype of the black woman is that of a nameless, promiscuous, mute concubine. A totally disposable asset, like the rapper's watch or his car; buy her a 40-ounce and a spliff and she's on her back like a turtle. The black man as the virile, god-like figure, now a virile satanic figure; a foul-mouthed bringer of violence and mayhem loosed in the streets of OurTown.
Is all hip-hop bad? Of course not. I love Lauryn Hill. I don't get Wycleff, but I love her. I was elated at the positive vibe she invested her Miseducation of Lauryn Hill, the positive messages to the young girls who form her core fan base. And I have never seen Hill dressed like a hooker or engaging in simulated sex or other degrading situations in some capitulation to coked-up marketing execs more invested in selling records than in the young minds they are poisoning daily. I love Meshelle Ndege O'Cello, a little-known bassist and rapper whose jazz-flavored funk riffs soar on her marvelous Plantation Lullabies. And although the bisexual O'Cello appears topless in the CD artwork, it is (to my subjective opinion) more artistic than hoochie, and, while her angry lyrics border on extremism and racism, they are, still, reasonable artistic expression intended to challenge the listener moreso than medicate or titillate. And, geez, the woman can just play like nobody's business.
I wish I could say the same of Janet Jackson, a woman too beautiful and far too powerful in the industry to be lowering herself to scenes of S&M and simulated fellatio. This is a woman who. like Hill, could be celebrating the achievement of having sold a gajillion records with her clothes on, but instead debases herself at every turn, trying, I suppose, to out-Prince Prince. Janet apparently misses the point that Prince is a unique bit of business who exists out on the island with me, and whose warped vision of the world comes as much from his painful real-life experiences as anything else. Nobody expects Prince's fetish-driven worldview to be anything more than Prince's opinion. It's art, and is, in that context, far less potentially damaging than much of the BET stuff that presents itself as 'real life,' a reflection of our lifestyle and our culture. It is neither. It is a lie of irreducible proportions that we as a people buy into every time we pay that cable bill.
Jackson has never had any real-life experiences, so her attempts at being "bad" come across like cheap Styrofoam. Prince's rage is genuine, hers is, in large measure, manufactured by Jimmy Jam & Terry Lewis, Prince's former pals. Together Again, Anything and Special are fine moments, but they are Poignancy On Cue, with Miss Janet celebrating her sexual emancipation at the expense of the teeny boppers who form her core audience. Much as I enjoyed her most recent Velvet Rope (and I did play the thing to death), I still think she could have upped her integrity as an artist by cutting back on the simulated sex and the on-track masturbation scene. And it's not the masturbation I object to; I think if women masturbated more, they'd get into fewer bad relationships with bad men, but that's a different rant. I object to the deification of sex: not as a liberating factor to grown women but as obsession and near addiction, an insatiable injunctive demand on her life that reduces the fiercely independent Miss Jackson and, by extension, her millions of pre-teen fans, to the disposable object her rap counterparts routinely knock boots with.
Whether she or her brother/rival/tormentor Michael like it or not, young kids are their core audience. They can try and reinvent themselves all they like, and they can scream about how they are not role models, but, at the end of the day, kids are still buying their records, Which means they are getting rich off of the souls of young America, white and black (in their case). But, rather than use her bully pulpit to help shape young minds, Janet opts to continue finding new ways to shock us every couple of years in her painfully obvious attempts to bring closure to a childhood exploited by Gorilla Joe. What about the time you said you didn't f__k her, she only gave you head? Okay, I get the idea, the emancipation of a scorned woman. But the explicitness of the expression (sans warning label on the CD) is a breach of an implicit contract between the Jackson clan and the legions of parents who grew up singing along to Got To Be There who still think this stuff is safe for consumption by their children.
Likewise, TLC, who, despite their mature age still look like the pre-teen demographic that buys their records, continues to squander their opportunity. Scrubs places their cards squarely on the table: a guy has to have material wealth to win their affection. I was completely flustered when a young friend in my car started singing cheerily along to This Is How It Works— a primer on oral sex from the otherwise harmless Waiting To Exhale soundtrack. I'm sure she was enjoying my Old Guy discomfort immensely, but this girl was just years out of Barbie Dolls and Rock 'N Roll Elmo, and this, to me, was an invasion of her innocence and a betrayal of the race in general by a trio of sellouts too immature to see the damage or too greedy to care. I should rush to qualify my annoyance with the trio (any of whom I'd marry tomorrow, no questions asked) by noting the incredible Waterfalls and the poignant and awesome Unpretty, both of which show their raw power at speaking to young black women on a level more superficial girl groups like Destiny's Child can only aspire to.
And, when did Destiny's Child start the hoochie thing? Part of the Houston trio's immense strength in their wildly successful second album was the notion of four young women who were not showing every inch of skin. Their more recent evolution into Just Another Skanky-Looking Trio is totally ill-advised and revelatory of their character and artistic integrity, an integrity that was, apparently, a marketing gimmick. DC is far too popular to need to undress for increased record sales, so one is left to conclude these still very young women are suffering from the same tribal dementia that grips much of the nation. As they gain more control over their careers, more and more flesh is exposed, demeaning the girls and devaluing their art and whatever ethical foothold they'd made in the community as they cheekily go about the business of selling their young fans down the river. Last year I might have held DC up as an example of the positive aspects of urban youth culture. But today, the popular and positive Minnie Mouse divas who talked to young black America about Bills, Bills, Bills and Sweet Sixteen may as well be in the yellow convertible with the other thong kids, grinding blurred nether regions for BET's family network while liquor is poured on them poolside. Oh, gracious, I'm so very Rush Limbaugh today, but honestly, at first glance, it's impossible to tell Destiny's Child from any number of extras in any tacky rap video.
Of course, white America now has Eminem to contend with. A purveyor of hate and masochism of the first order, Eminem is the Elvis of the new millennium— the talented white boy getting rich off of a borrowed culture. But white America finds Eminem shocking, vile, disgusting. They have risen up, in large numbers, to protest this guy, who is, arguably, no more vile than, say, groups like Cypress Hill or even Ice Cube back when he used to be good (Cube's brilliant AmeriKKKa's Most Wanted and Death Certificate stand as landmark recordings, brilliant in spite of the violent, racist, and misogynistic imagery. I've not heard much in the last 20 years that could come near Cube's seminal shotgun discharges, his dissertations on ghetto rage).
But, lo, white America has risen up with a loud cry, helping ol' Em to sell a lotta records, while black America remains a de-fanged, mute, shuffling and servile non-entity, saying little and doing little about the dozens of Eminems, plain and peanut, in our midst. Maybe the damage inflicted by this "music" is mitigated somehow by the "artists" themselves being black. Maybe if Em, or some other white rapper, re-recorded some of the popular "music" saturating our airwaves, calling our women bitches and "ho's," we'd finally notice how offensive some of this stuff really is.
Do I want to be white? Absolutely not. No Michael Jackson skin peels for me, but I also don't want to be forcibly assimilated into a bankrupt culture of dese, dem, and doze; the overlong cultural adolescence Black America has struggled through since the emancipation, our efforts to play catch-up and find equanimity in a nation socialized to see that as a threat.
Back to the video...
These nice young men took the girls to party somewhere, where there was lots of images of liquor being poured out to overflowing as the crew celebrated. The girls dutifully gyrated before the cameras, at times these ministrations were blurred out by the thoughtful, family-centered folks at BET whose idea this was to play these uplifting, life-affirming videos in the middle of the day when children could and certainly do see them.
I despise BET, a network empire built on cultural genocide, but that's a different rant. The tragedy of black single moms abandoning their children to this crap day after day is the New Black Holocaust. It would be better for a parent to stick a needle in their own child's arm and hook them on heroin than to hook them on this— a steady diet of exploitation. The role model of the hip-hop "G", his jewelry and watches bling-blinging and his bitches typically dressed in as little as they can get away with (and, typically, for no apparent reason. I mean, really, why is that woman above in her underwear while the men are fully clothed?), is the mainstream of thought in young black America. Too overt to be subliminal, the message to our young girls is it is both acceptable and normal to show as much of your body as possible to anyone who wants to look. That your mission in life is to find a man and to hang onto him by any means necessary and to have Brandy's figure, even if you don't have Brandy's gene structure. As though the myriad of opportunity presented to men in this country are not equally available to women.
The boys we tell heroic tales of glittering thugs with no apparent means of support who drive fabulous cars, wear incredible jewelry, and, statistically, do no not have meaningful relationships with women. In fact, women have precious few speaking parts in any of these videos. While the half-naked teenage girls certainly gets your blood going, the overwhelming sadness I experience at the exploitation of she who could be a senator or a great teacher or sports legend or priest overwhelms me and ruins the simple frat boy pleasure of the ubiquitous bikini scene.
My friend Doc Bright once told me, "I'm not black enough for those people," meaning he'd long ago separated himself, with Wynton Marsalis-like haughty resignation, from the popular stream of black consciousness (or lack thereof) and had found peace. Peace is likely the most elusive quality in our daily walk. Trying to find our center as an individual surrounded by an oppressive majority voice is a daunting challenge. Which, I guess, helps explain the inexplicable Macy Gray, the wonderful and wacky font of non-conformist thought, as well as the delightfully eccentric Erykah Badu, both of them pillars of my overall sanity.
To be fair, there are anti-social flourishes to even these artists. Gray's whimsical I've Committed Murder (And I Think I Got Away) is rife with violent imagery (of her killing her boyfriend's boss when she refuses to give Gray his severance check), and Badu's Tyrone certainly stereotypes black men (albeit justifiably so; the sad truth of the rampant disengagement of most black men is what makes the song so side-splittingly funny). But neither artist targets these songs to minors or presents these extreme views (for the most part, clearly satirical) as a normal, acceptable or desirable state of affairs.
Or, maybe, I'm just whining again. Maybe I just wasn't invited to the party. I'll be 40 later this year, and maybe this is a generational thing. I'd be prepared to accept the fact I'll never be into the saggy pants look, or glorifying excesses of drugs and alcohol, making a case for bad grammar as cultural totem— all of that— if any of it, at face value, seemed positive to me.
I don't say Waaaaassaaap! I don't wear baggy clothes. I don't even know which channel BET or MTV are on. I don't get Wycleff Jean. I didn't see Scary Movie. I don't think the Wayans are funny. I don't want to come to your house and smell marijuana. I can't stand black women who curse like sailors. I don't like soulless music. I don't watch the WB. I don't go to clubs. I don't own a single thing made by Tommy Hillfiger. I have never smoked, never done drugs and never had even one drink in my entire life.
I think Spike Lee is a pretty good filmmaker with occasional flashes of brilliance among the murky pools of self-indulgence. I like Lenny Kravitz, not so much for his non-existent moral imperatives as for his willingness to exist outside of the mainstream, in the place of the Ostracized Negro where people like Prince and Doc and me can find some small comfort. I like Seal and Tracy Chapman and I thought Living Colour's Stain was brilliant. During the day I have CNN on in the background. I watch All My Children and Letterman religiously.
I'm the man who fell off the world, shaking his fist at the club that would have me while yelling at Jemond to hurry up. Feeling superior on one level and inferior on another. It's not my world. I don't belong there. I have no place in it. I'm just not black enough.
And, maybe that's a good thing.
Christopher J. Priest
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