Sunday, December 2, 2007

Bad Rap


When rap music emerged from the inner city in the 1980s, I had friends telling me this new black art form was going to change the world with its explosive power and poetry. Rap threw a light on the realities of growing up on the streets. I tried getting into it but was already partial to reggae and Motown. Soul was too cheesy and jazz too refined. I liked the blues, but these pounding urban chants called rap were just too hard for me to grasp—too culturally specific.

Students were "anthropologizing" the new sound, tracing it back to West African "bragging songs," which were once sung around the fire by men after a hunt. I expected it all to blow over in a few months. In 1993 I heard cowboys shouting gangsta rap epithets at a barn dance in Picabo. A few years later I saw children in the South Pacific island kingdom of Tonga making finger signs on the beach. Their parents were mystified. The signals are meant to convey the street addresses of inner city kids or maybe the dealing turf of particular gangs.

The extraordinary power of the music was followed by styles based on urban necessity. Baggy pants and deep-pocket hoodies began as practical garb for concealing weapons during urban warfare, which ensued during drug wars or after being "dissed" by a rival. I was still trying to figure out Mr. T's gold chains when rap music videos were suddenly filled with extravagant images of shallowness and depravity. At least Mr. T was funny. Bob Marley was even religious.

What began as a dynamic form of self-expression from an overlooked segment of the urban population soon became the worldwide hip-hop phenomenon. Soon, even the most insulated of us had heard about inner city kids killing each other for sneakers, fixated on a culture of drugs and violence as the only way out of poverty.

Music, poetry and dance had once promised an alternative, but some rap musicians and producers went from telling tales about the plight of the ghetto (Tupac Shakur's "My Block") to a celebration of the violence, greed and misogyny at the heart of gang street culture (50 Cent and others).

A lot of money was made all around and rebellious girls looking for something different from daddy seemed willing to jump at whatever caricature they saw on TV, even if they had to become "bitches and hos" to get it.

Because of the beguiling nature of the media, every generation's cry for help runs the risk of turning its victims into heroes. Today, political leaders from the Caribbean to Israel are trying to turn hip hop back into the social consciousness movement that marked its beginnings, incorporating messages of peace and tolerance into its rhythms. But rap will always have the tragedy and hope of the streets of the world in its rhymes. Its pulse will continue to tell us what we need to know about the world of the inner city and the dispossessed.

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