Our place in history ...

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

Tupac Amaru Shakur passed away on September 13, 1996...

I wrote and published the following article, "Bamboozled by the Rap Industry" in 2000. Print media articles about Tupac and the state of hip hop written before, or written since, have earned me some acclaim. But this one, both still floats arond the internet and motivates emails from hip hop fans/scholars/advocates.

Rest in peace Tupac. You were arguably the important artist of my generation.


2Pac keeps putting out records despite the fact that he was killed in 1996. None of them seem to be going platinum, and all of them seem to be political. Spike Lee's latest cinematic hyperbole,"Bamboozled," may provide the reason why rap's most heralded "thug life gangsta" has yet to hit number one with any of his posthumous releases. Unfortunately, it may provide the "why" for a lot of questions that we have been afraid to ask until fairly recently.

It is trendy this election year to go after the explicit content of rap music, especially now that 70 percent of its fan base resides in suburban America and has sun-sensitive skin. Interestingly, those who have been paying close attention to the recent criticisms of the art form have noticed that many of rap's harshest critics are its founders and its ideologically positive minority. Why would those who made their living bringing baggy clothes, "ill beats" and a gun-toting "f--k da police" attitude into style now make a complete 180 and act like members of Vanity's born again congregation? The answer parallels the plot of Mary Shelley's first novel.

The monster is loose, and we cannot stop him. He will hunt us down and kill us if it is the last thing he does.

As Spike Lee's film points out, at the turn of the 20th Century, blacks wore black face and played the parts of mammies and sambos because they had no other choice. Those were the only roles available to black entertainers. Then Spike Lee and John Singleton came along, and pretty soon Steven Speilberg wanted to make a big budget movie about slaves who won the right to return to Africa.
We used to have only Richard Pryor to make us laugh, and now we have Chris Tucker, Chris Rock and all of "the Kings of Comedy".

If "Roots" had been made in the 1980s, Levar Burton probably would not have played Kunta Kinte, because Lawrence Fishbourne and Denzel Washington would have been battling it out with Wesley Snipes for the role. If it had been cast in the 1990s, "real African actors" would have been cast into its starring roles, and we would have gotten the chance to hear some Ibo, Bgandan, Swahili or some other easily identifiable African language on the big screen. We would have felt as though we were really experiencing slavery, and we would have felt audibly lost without the subtitles.

Aren't these signs of progress? Doesn't this show how far we have come in such little time? We used to have only Richard Pryor to make us laugh, and now we have Chris Tucker, Chris Rock and all of "the Kings of Comedy". In addition, there is the "Russell Simmons Def Comedy Jam" in syndication. Isn't that progress? Spike Lee intentionally, or not, obliterates our notion that we have come so far in such a short period of time. He makes us realize that we are just recycling the same routine. The comedian who started out telling jokes in a minstrel show about how voluptuous black women are and how funny black folks can be is the same man who today has an HBO special, in which he uses the word "nigga" several hundred times.

The original rap crews and posses that first threatened to fight back with force against an oppressive white establishment were quickly replaced by those who were willing and able to rap about themselves and their material dreams. People did not want to hear about the struggles in "da hood." They wanted to hear about "slappin' b--ches and jockin' hos." Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" received little nourishment from audiences who were told by those who dominated the airwaves that rap was to be trusted to the Beastie Boys and was about fighting for "your right to party."

So what did hip hoppers do in the face of this "white" taking of their music? Did they become even more political? Did they rally together to expose the white man's establishment for what it really was? No, they bought MC Hammer records. They stopped rapping about the struggle to survive in the ghetto and started rapping about dreams of leaving the ghetto. They started rapping about their ability to sleep with a lot of women. They started rapping about how the women they were getting with were tricks, whores and b--ches. Eventually, they started comparing women to motor vehicles and farm animals.

Everyone knew MC Hammer and Vanilla Ice were media produced fads, but with them, the pattern of rap success was born. The "hook" of a hit was to be a sample of a song that was not too old to sound unfamiliar but also was not so recent that listeners had reached saturation with it. The video for a hit had to have dancers with tightly choreographed moves, and the performer had to include several visuals of himself rolling with his posse in his hood or his favorite club. The lyrics of a hit had to be about how untouchable the artist said he was. "You can't touch this," isn't far from "You can get with this or you can get with that ... I think you'll get with this 'cuz this is kind of phat," and it is closely related to "Wu-Tang Clan ain't nuthin' to f--k with."

The lyrics had to have the artist repeating his name enough times that even a listener who did not speak English would know whose record he was listening to. "Vanilla Ice Ice baby," bears a striking resemblance to "it's the N-O, T-O, R-I-O, U-S you just lay down slow," as well as to "I'm Slim Shady yes I'm the real Shady, all you other Slim Shadies are just immitatin', so won't the real Shady please stand up."

But how did it get to be this way? How did we come to accept this grossly exaggerated, highly negative and offensive image of black people? A black performer is not "keepin' it real" unless he or she speaks in an unintelligible, agglutinating slang pattern. A black comedian is not funny unless he pokes fun at the differences between white and black people in the same show as he refers to himself and every other black person in the audience as a "nigga." A black rapper must wear baggy clothes and have tattoos and wear big platinum chains. He must like expensive cars and guns and have several of each. A young black woman must either wear a blonde wig or dye her afro some Las Vegas neon color. She must wear revealing, scandalous clothes, and she must be a gold-digger willing to perform any act if the price is right.

Progress has not been made. It hurts to write that, but in terms of the media, it is true.

How did we go so wrong? The sad truth is that we did it to ourselves. Just as in Spike Lee's film, blacks come up with what the minstrel should look like, and whites finance it. It is no longer the case that blacks must play minstrel roles in order to become famous, but they want to. It is the fastest way to the top. It is the way to go when you are a young black person who is full of ambition. You do not even have to be old enough to vote.

Long ago, when there was no black middle class or big groups of black consumers of popular culture, jazz tunes born in black neighborhoods were covered by white bands. Black rock n' roll classics made Elvis king. But now, in the 21st century, when 10 percent of the U.S. population has billions to spend and is a more impressive and dynamic population than it has ever been, they choose to continue to focus on producing bigger and better minstrel shows. More Ferraris in the next video. More ethnic jokes in the next routine. More scantily clad women on stage during prime time performances. More references to women's body parts and name dropping in the lyrics on the next CD.

Black people have been bamboozled so bad that they are doing to it themselves, and why not? When they aired the First Latin Grammies, Latino/Hispanics proved that dying your hair blonde is a necessary prerequisite to making a major TV appearance. White people have bamboozled themselves into believing that all of the stereotyping and categorizing they are doing nowadays is somehow not racist. In fact, they think it is progressive and liberal.

Michael Rapaport's character in Spike Lee's latest film is a white executive with a black wife and two bi-racial children. He uses they word "nigga" but only to show how "black and down" he is. He has pictures of famous black athletes on the walls of his office. He owns several pieces of African art. He, like the members of the minstrel show's audience, adorn themselves in literal and metaphoric black face and becomes upset when this act is challenged.

White kids listening to the Wu-Tang are yelling out the lyrics to "Shame on a nigga who tried to run game on a nigga." They are not censoring themselves. When the "n-word" comes up, they are blasting it at top volume. Maybe if these same kids have black friends they are reciting the lyrics in front of them. By doing this they feel as though they are proving that they are "down." White people saying "nigga" used to be something that symbolized how far from "black" they were. Only rednecks used that word. Now every kid in suburbia with a sound system uses the word as though it were a conjunctive phrase.

Progress has not been made. It hurts to write that, but in terms of the media, it is true. 2Pac might have said a lot of beautiful inspirational things, but his double album "All Eyez on Me," in which he talks about drinking, smoking and f--king, is the one which sold the most copies. We are all responsible for that. How many minority graduates are there from Ivy League schools? Learned minorities were supposed to change the world. That is why Booker T. Washington wanted us to educate ourselves, so that we could deal with the world on our own terms. That is why JFK wanted us to ask what we could do for our country, so that we wouldn't have to feel as though change was something that happened from the top down. That is why Malcom told us to read and why MLK dared to dream, so that we could make informed decisions concerning our lives and provide our children with a sense of peace and hope.

Spike Lee's "Skool Daze" was about how blacks criticize and hurt one another despite the fact that they depend on white approval and money to do what they do. Most of the movies Spike Lee made after that were pretty bad. They had predictable hyperboles that did little to engender a purposeful dialogue between the races. "Bamboozled" is a mirror. It's Spike Lee's mirror. It is not distorted, and after almost two- and- a- half hours, the figure in the mirror most clearly seen, other than one's self, is Spike Lee's. Maybe it was the experience of making "Malcom X." Maybe Spike Lee finally had an epiphany one day reading the New York Times on the toilet. Either way, the man became the Oracle of Delphi for long enough to put us in front of a mirror in which we look like the exploiters that we are.

I have made ethnic jokes and poked fun at friends based on stereotypes. I did it because it proved that I was "down." I could date women from any race, culture and/or religion because I was so "down." I not only exploited others, but I exploited myself. I bought into that whole Latin-lover stereotype fabricated by Hollywood during the "good neighbor era" and perpetuated by Ricky Martin's PR team. I thought that because I was Latino/Hispanic, spoke Spanish fluently, knew how to dance salsa and ate rice with beans and fried plantains that I was beyond reproach. I thought I could say and do anything I wanted. I built my reputation on this fact.

I've been bamboozled. I've bamboozled myself. To steal a term from rap, "I played myself," and the only thing that makes me sadder than this fact is the fact that we've all played ourselves.


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