April 15, 2007

I-Funk

OK, this has been irritating me all week, so I need to say this before I move on to the far more constructive things I want to add to Our National Dialogue.

So many people are quick to point out "well, all of those rappers say things as bad as Don Imus or worse, and nobody has a problem with it."

And my response is, "Well, yeah."

And no. Because there is an ongoing debate among Black people about the misogyny & self-hate in alot of commercial hip-hop. And there have been people arguing against it, like C. Delores Tucker and such, for years. They just tend to get drowned out because, apparently, we as Black people seem to have an appetite for this.

HOWEVER....

Just because some of us are OK with it when we do it does not mean that we're OK with the Don Imuses of the world when they do it.

The fact of the matter is, in the modern day public discourse, the ownership of racial epiphets has now transferred from the patriarchal majority to each offended minority in question. Black people now own the word "nigger". Women own "bitch". Black women own "ho". Jews, Latinos, Native Americans - we all are now the gatekeepers on the words that were used to degrade us, and WE get to decide who can or cannot use them with impunity. So, someone like Eminem might get a temporary hall pass from certain Black people, but NO ONE is going to give Don Imus the time of day on this issue.

It's our discretion.

And, yes, it IS a double standard.

Deal with it.

But the other thing that's bothering me is all this talk of "Now we can get to the root of the problem - the f'n rappers!"

Laying the blame for our self-hate issues at the feet of gangster rap is kind of like saying it's the maggots' fault that the meat you left out on the counter all week has gone bad.

There is a reason that there is money to be made in rap lyrics that speak of crime, violence, and sexual domination. As I've said before, we have a crisis of manhood in our communities right now. Among other things, gangsta rap allows both young black men & women to experience Black manhood in an unambiguous, albeit toxic form. And let's not get it twisted: there are just as many young Black girls out there buying, singing along, and dancing for this music as there are young brothers living vicariously through it. Hip-Hop would not have a platform if it did not satisfy some deep-seeded emotional need, even if it is poisoning the well.

Of course, just like it's easier to pick the maggots off of a green steak than to actually go back out to the supermarket and buy a new one, it's much easier to boycott 50 Cent than it is to help a generation of brothers find jobs that give them their self-esteem back.

But the fact of the matter is, at the end of the day, the steak is still green.

Which brings me to the larger point I wanted to get to - what we need to do in our communities. My mom forwarded me an e-mail a few days ago which was a rehashing of Bill Cosby's big critique of the so-called slackers in our community that are messing up the proverbial curve for all the other Black people. When I asked other people on that particular list what should actually be done, the majority of responses I got generally involved some form of a "Come To Jesus" moment - i.e. if we could just talk to these people and help them understand how messed up their lives are, then we can get it on track.

Now, those of you who know me know that this particular tactic doesn't really work for me. People don't like lectures.

But, a few days ago, I heard Ruby Dee talking on Pacifica radio about the hip-hop issues around the Imus incident - she said that she can understand how some of the girls who feature their booty-shaking skills on BET and the like feel like they're beautiful and sexy and demonstrating their power, but that she wishes she could just talk to them about the struggles and sacrifices that were made before them to make the world where they have the opportunity and choice to do this even possible.

It reminded me of story I heard Maya Angelou tell Dave Chappelle on Sundance Channel's Iconoclast program, about the words she offered to an angry, raging young black man on the set of a movie - the young man was damn near frothing at the mouth over some presumed insult he'd just received from someone, but she said to him (and I'm really paraphrasing here) "I understand everything that you just said, but don't you realize that generations of Black people, enduring unspeakable conditions, got through their days by the dream that YOU would exist, here and now, today?"

The young man she was speaking to was Tupac Shakur.

And that's when it finally dawned on me.

If we are ever to reclaim our heritage, our homes, our neighborhoods, our families, and our loved ones, we have to learn a new model of respect.

Those of us who are successful, or prosperous, or who don't identify with what we perceive to be the seedier aspects of the hip-hop culture, have to learn to respect it enough so that we can actually have a conversation with the other brothers and sisters.

We don't need anymore lectures. We need honest dialogue.

Because it struck me that Ruby Dee can talk to a Karrine Steffans and say to her, "I know where you are and I know what you're going through because, in many ways, in my day, I WAS you, and here is how I got through it."

We need to learn to share ourselves, but our gifts can only be accepted if we treat the others as our equals. No matter how poor, or debased, or inappropriate we may think they are.

Because, at the end of the day, respect and acknowledgement is what they are truly trying to find, in the midst of all the offensive lyrics and suggestive dancing and disrespect.

They just want SOMEONE to say "I see you. I hear you. And you matter to me."

I vividly recall an incident where I had a very violent disagreement with some former friends of mine, and the sister of one of these people approached me and told me that I needed to be the better man and offer an olive branch. And I was just appalled that she would suggest such a thing - after all the ways these people had wronged me, why should I be the one to swallow my pride and make the peace gesture?

And she said "Because we're all a family, and we have to have peace. And because they're two little shits and they'll never do it themselves."

If peace and unity are as important as we say, than those of us who agree with The Cos need to swallow our collective pride for a moment to bring our estranged family members back to the dinner table. That's the only way they'll ever receive the nourishment and grace we can offer. And, even more importantly, it's the only way that WE can receive the many, many gifts they have to offer us as well.

It's a two-way street, but those on the other side are too wounded to make the first move. It's time for our so-called leaders to actually lead.

And maybe, in an odd way, Don Imus has created a moment of opportunity for just that.
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