18 April 2007

Imus Did Us A Favor

One of the things I miss most about England, apart from the NHS and entrenched eccentricity , is the BBC. I listen by default to NPR here in the USA, but it almost makes me want to cry some days, it's so bad by comparison. And WNYC, the local outlet, is if anything a worse than average NPR outlet. The whole time I'm thinking, here I am in the media capital of the world and these bozos are the best they can come up with?

Still, once in a while they put together a good program, and this morning's discussion of the Imus affair, even though you'd think it had been done to death by now, was one such case. The focal point was rap mogul Russell Simmons' claim that the use of racist and sexist language in hip hop was "different" from what Imus had said, on the grounds that rappers were "poets" who were "angry, uneducated and come from tremendous struggle," thus giving them "license..to say things that offend you."

Simmons is confusing marketing hype for political or social opinion; as someone who's made his fortune selling hip hop records, he knows as well as anyone that many successful rappers are straight outta the black middle class and merely affect the whole gangsta thing because, well, it sells records. So it's particularly ironic that Simmons denies Imus the right to use the same language his own recording artists use on the grounds that Imus was "a privileged man who has a mainstream vehicle and mainstream support and is on a radio station." And that makes him different from mega-millionaire Simmons exactly how? Or from any number of mega-millionaire rap artists who have a "mainstream vehicle and mainstream support" and are on the radio?

Talking this over on the Brian Lehrer show yesterday were Ghetto Nation author Cora Daniels, DJ (formerly of Berkeley's KALX, no less) and hip hop journalist/impresario Davey D, and author and former Berkeley professor John McWhorter. Davey D did his best to sound reasoned and reasonable, but his message still came off more or less as, "It's white people/the corporations/racism/etc. that are responsible for promoting the bad hip hop and suppressing the good stuff" (not his words, but rather my attempt at a paraphrase).

Cora Daniels, who I'd heard before and who impressed me considerably, said that, "As a black woman, it doesn't make me feel any better if Snoop Dogg calls me a ho than if Don Imus calls me a ho. I'm still being disrespected." And McWhorter, who I've also heard before, pretty much cleaned Davey's clock, summing things up by saying, "
Black people will stop supporting this kind of music when we like ourselves better," and adding, "There is something disconcerting about the fact that with a war going on, a health care crisis, and rising murder rates in our city, we are so upset about an old white man calling some people some names."

Meanwhile, back fanning the flames of hyperbolic overreaction, as originally stoked by Messrs. Sharpton and Jackson, we have one Brenda Knight, founder of a "women's empowerment organization," likening the Imus remark to a "national disaster, a tsunami... a raging force that destroys who I am as an African American woman." Wow, if a few stupid words spoken by one over-the-hill shock jock can have that kind of power, I can see where she thinks she needs to get empowered.

Cooler heads have of course pointed out that while it certainly wasn't his intention, Imus has done society a favor by getting people talking about things that have long needed talking about, and by that I don't just mean entrenched racism and sexism, but about the role that the black community plays in its own oppression. Sharpton and Jackson are getting a long-overdue kicking, and not just from whites, which might be expected, but also from quite a few blacks, which is refreshing. But even more vital are the many black voices now being raised against the hateful caricatures of blackness - portraying black men as sex and violence-crazed beasts and black women as bitches, sluts and hos - perpetrated not by white racists, but by black mercenaries. Or, as Russell Simmons cynically calls them, "poets."

Do I want to see rap music banned or censored? Not at all. And if I'm honest, I sometimes enjoy the stuff, my favorite of all being NWA, which kind of laid down the benchmark for all gangsta rap to follow. I'm entirely in favor of people being free to make or listen to the kind of music they want, but when the violent racist and sexist values of hip hop start percolating throughout society, then it's long past time to have a serious conversation about whether this is the direction we as a society want to go. When hip hop apologists deny any connection between what Imus said and what hip hop artists say constantly, they ignore the fact that it's hip hop that has put those words and concepts into common usage. Imus, in his sad old white man way, was just trying to keep up with the brothers. And by doing so, he did us a double favor: getting his own pathetic, humorless self taken off the air, and simultaneously getting us talking about far more important stuff.


Curt said...

Imus is a dreadful bore. I had no idea that many people listened to him.

NWA is still the king of the genre. I felt no need to buy any other ganster rap in 25 years. The sound isn't dated and the albums hold up to anything from today.

Ok now I sound like an old white guy.

Sammy said...

Larry, thanks for blogging, its some of the most rational thinking I see in my entire day.


I am not Star Jones said...

To me, Imus wasn't fired for his words -- he was fired for his words leading to the loss of ad revenue.

Hip hop -- language and the pose...it's funny how Russell is available to appear and discuss this branch of nihilistic pop culture ( wondering who will attempt to defend the Girls Gone Wild money machine when Oprah turns her eyes to that?)

I would hope that the heads and board members of the companies that distribute many of these records might be willing to discuss their rationale for profiting from it.

I can't take Russell or anyone else wringing their hands over the current language/pose of popular hip hop seriously until everyone - white, black, puerto rican -- shows some true accountability.

I don't even want anyone to say I'll stop distributing the stuff -- just stand up and say my houses are paid for and my kids college fund is set because I make millions off of hip hop records and I have no intention of stopping that.