Some would say the recent altercation at the BET Hip-Hop Awards was just the latest embarrassment to befall hip-hop, an oft criticized slice of pop culture...and they would be correct. It's the "latest" incident, not an aberration. It's more behavior deserving of more criticism, only to fall on deaf ears. It is criticism earned and deserved every step of the way. Hip-hop has no intention of changing or improving, and its most respected members have no designs on raising the bar above ignorance. I'm clear on this reality and you should be too. Nothing is going to change, not at least until someone of real relevance within the genre begins to care, and not a moment before.
This isn't the first brawl or violent foolishness connected to a hip-hop awards show, and it's sad having to acknowledge such truths with each subsequent incident. There was the gunshot into the ceiling during the 1994 Source Awards and the murder of Notorious B.I.G. in 1997 shortly after the Soul Train Music Awards. We can't forget the all-out melee at the 2000 Source Awards and Eminem's tussle at the 2002 MTV Video Music Awards. Surely you remember when rapper Young Buck allegedly stabbed a "fan" at the 2004 Vibe Music Awards.
(Cue Barbra Streisand) "Memories...like the corners of my mind."
Those are only the award show-related incidents. There is not enough space in this column (or my next 5 for that matter) to highlight the inordinate number of arrests for guns, drugs and random acts of misogyny commonly associated with hip-hop in the past five years alone. For example, I'm not going to spend my time today discussing how rapper Webbie was arrested last month for "allegedly" robbing and kicking a woman down a flight of stairs. I could...but not this time. Today, we'll just stick with the general themes of lawlessness, misogyny and ignorance; not necessarily in that order.
Recently, civil rights leader and entertainer Harry Belafonte accused some artists, including Jay-Z and Beyonce of "turning their backs on social responsibility." It's in moments like these where Belafonte's words ring loudly and undeniably true.
For the all the financial success attained by Jay-Z, there has been no effort on his part to elevate his music personally or hip-hop more broadly. Although "Jigga" is firmly ensconced in middle age, he still gleefully and carelessly advances his music career calling women Bs and Hs; and men Ns like his 20-something counterparts. Not only is Jay-Z completely indifferent to the idea of acting his age and showing young Black men a better way; he is perfectly content and comfortable promulgating the worst imagery imaginable for the sake of a dollar and continued hip-hop relevancy.
It's a mid-life crisis with a hip-hop twist.
Instead of being a voice of guidance, a hip-hop elder statesman to the younger generation; Jay-Z still opts to spin yarns about N**** in Paris and sell them on iTunes. You're 40-WHAT Jay-Z? No amount of wealth will ever validate or justify such a career trajectory. No number of "hits" justifies the Peter Pan mentality or the ignorance and indifference which subsequently thrive on it.
But if Gwyneth Paltrow dares tweet the name of the song or makes direct reference to it, all hell breaks loose. I guess only "we" are allowed to wallow in ignorance and we're very territorial when it comes to it. Bully for us. Jay-Z can rap it and make money doing it, but the White actress shouldn't even tweet a reference to the title of the song. Got it. That's ignorance on top of ignorance. It's not popular to say, but it's not untrue either.
But I digress...
Hip-hop has abrogated any and all responsibility as it relates to decency and accountability time and time again. Brawls at award shows have all types of deleterious consequences for all Black men. If you think such public displays of foolishness don't impact the treatment of Black men around the country, you are a fool. Racial profiling is real and there are laws against it to prove as much. Racial bias is real. And to think, hip-hop had plenty to say about the Trayvon Martin tragedy, but fails to make the connection between racial profiling and racial stereotype promulgation. Stop making these problems worse.
I know, I know, somebody will be quick to tell me about the singular and rare hip-hop artist "here" or "there" who doesn't subscribe to the ignorance and foolishness; but let us deal with the overwhelming bulk of the art form. Let's deal with 99 percent as they say in this political season; 99 percent which offer nothing of substance or intrinsic social value.
So imagine my (and probably Harry Belafonte's) indifference to Jay-Z and Beyonce hosting a fundraiser for President Obama in recent weeks. The reality is that Jay-Z prefers rubbing elbows with the cultural elite and raising money for the president while ignoring the communities he could positively impact for free. But "promoting positive change" is so uncool and so unprofitable, I suppose. It is in moments like these that Jay-Z (and others) could provide real leadership and direction for a generation of young Black men who obviously have lost their way. This is the type of commitment and dedication to social responsibility that Belafonte is longing for yet is nonexistent in hip-hop. The ignorance of the BET Hip-Hop Awards altercation is covered in the media, highlighted on the blogs and cheered on within our culture.
And...and...most importantly used as further "proof" of the incivility and criminality of Black men.
We are all connected. If we can agree that the election of Barack Obama as president positively impacted the perception of African-American men, what do negative incidents such as these do for us?
I'll tell you, not a damn thing, with all types of long-term consequences.
There are too many in our music communities perpetuating the myth that such behavior does not have repercussions or consequences on the rest of us. I'm here to disabuse you of that notion. It is why people like broadcaster Geraldo Rivera feel so comfortable conflating Blackness and hoodies with criminality. Granted, Rivera's ignorance can't be justified, but neither can the ignorance of the likes of award show brawls which inform and undergird such opinions. Lil Wayne acting a buffoon while wearing a hoodie for a courtroom deposition hurts all of us.
It wasn't funny, it wasn't cool, it was embarrassing and impacts all African-American males.
All of us.
Racism and ignorance are inextricably linked. Hip-hop does not get to complain about stereotypes while simultaneously promoting them.
The foolishness has to stop.
Someone within the hip-hop community has to be bold enough to step forward and condemn the ignorance within the genre with the exact same enthusiasm we tend to condemn racism outside of it. I don't need Jay-Z and others "playing" political operative a five days out of the year and calling me "N****" all the rest.
I need him to effectively use his power and influence and step into the moment. It doesn't require any money, it just requires him to care. It is the socially responsible thing to do. Unfortunately, judging by Jay-Z's discography, it is clear he doesn't care now and never will. He's just not interested. Not even a little bit. Miss Social Responsibility, "he's just not that into you."
And neither is Russell Simmons for that matter.
The violence must stop. The misogyny must stop. The brawls at award shows must stop. The promotion of the drug culture must stop. If this message angers hip-hop enthusiasts out there... fine. Call me all the names you wish...but you won't be calling me "wrong." Of that I'm sure. Somebody out there has to care enough to say it, albeit unpopular in nature it may be. The right thing to say and do aren't often popular in nature. But my compass of right and wrong is neither calibrated by purchasing patterns of adolescents nor impacted by the desire to remain relevant in "the streets."
I answer to a higher power.
What saddens me the most is that Jay-Z, the former drug dealer with a mother, daughter, two sisters and most importantly the means in which to send hip-hop in an altogether different direction still celebrates the very worst of the African-American culture to make a buck. There is "doing nothing" and there is "perpetuating the problem." I dislike the former and detest the latter.
We in the African-American community can no longer complain about stereotypes being used against us while simultaneously giving tacit approval to hip-hop's promotion of them. There is no excuse, so stop offering them. It's time to stop forwarding the lie that re-electing President Obama is of greater importance to our community than intelligently using the influence we already exert over our own communities. These issues pre-date President Obama and will exist long after he leaves office, be it in 2012 or 2016. The only way they can be addressed is when we decide to put an end to the ignorance once and for all.
Morris W. O'Kelly (Mo'Kelly) is host of "The Mo'Kelly Show" on KFI AM640 in Los Angeles and Sirius XM Radio, political correspondent for the BBC Radio and Television networks and author of the syndicated column "The Mo'Kelly Report." For more Mo'Kelly, go to mrmokelly.com. Mo'Kelly can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and welcomes all commentary.
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