An African American's View
by Pansye Atkinson

Imus and Hip-Hop

Connecting the Dots: Imus, Hip-Hop
and an American Dilemma
by Pansye S. Atkinson

The image of "shock-jock" broadcaster Don Imus has been for years that of a mean-spirited bully. But for some, the April 2007 uproar about the use of racially-derogatory and gender-demeaning words by Imus and his producer Bernard McGuirk, regarding a successful Rutgers University women's basketball team, was ironically timely. The uproar was especially aggravated given Imus' claim that words he spoke to describe the predominantly African American team members were words common to African American Rap/Hip-Hop performers.

Of course, African American Rap/Hip-Hop performers are hardly the sole purveyors of vulgar, demeaning and hostile language and the violent and putrid images that permeate our society, although many of these performers are significant contributors. These objectionable elements are prevalent throughout virtually all forms of communication and entertainment (even among some comedians – who should give us a break, but appear to have substituted vulgarity for wit!), including the computer arena. Even some forms of soft (so-called) and hard pornography have been invasive; female performers in some Rap/Hip-Hop videos certainly personify sex for sale.

Although a few White performers have evolved, Rap/Hip-Hop is yet another vibrant, artistically demanding African American art form, combining poetry/music/dance/drama, which evolved during the latter part of the twentieth century. In the book Brown vs. Topeka: Desegregation and Miseducation - An African American’s View (1993), I posed the question, “...are the messages of the emerging musical form of ‘rap’ to be the critical stimulant for coping with and, perhaps, overcoming contemporary oppression?”

This is not being borne out as Rap/Hip-Hop has been co-opted and its corruption apparently fostered by some entertainment moguls of the dominant society, to the point that one is hard pressed to consider much of it as art. These moguls have come to primarily produce and primarily benefit from this, while allegedly prohibiting more representative Rap/Hip-Hop images/productions.

There are those in the African American community who have, from the beginning, helped to produce live performances as well as audio and video recordings, supporting performers and their cause. The quest to acquire and/or secure a piece of the American pie seems a dominant factor for many Rap/Hip-Hop performers as well as for some producers and others in the entertainment business. But when the nature of the genre is corrupted, production, support and profit on the part of anyone seems questionable.

The African American community is schizophrenic about the issue. Given the history of oppression and miseducation of African Americans, this Rap/Hip-Hop phenomenon looms as yet another result of what I refer to in Brown vs. Topeka as psychological occupation -- a condition in which the collective mind, or psyche, of a people is under the influence of an oppressor or alien force which confuses distinctions between that oppressor's interests and those of the victims' kind.

Psychological occupation is generally effected through certain subliminal education/miseduction, formal and informal.
Such victims can suffer from loss of identity, ethos and values, essentially internalizing those of the oppressor. Although such applications may not be routinely uniform among all African
Americans, the broader community generally suffers repercussions of confused actions initiated by a few.

Consider that, among other things, many Rap/Hip-Hop performances:

1) Demean, devalue, exploit, debilitate, and confuse values and significant feelings of self-esteem (as opposed to false pride which "goes before destruction") of the performers and others in the African American community, especially women.

2) Inspire "acting out" of violent or otherwise indecent or undesirable Rap/Hip- Hop scenarios in some African American communities, thus exacerbating and perpetuating, rather than alleviating the dire circumstances of those whom many Rappers profess to represent and assist by portraying their plight in Rap form. African Americans are divided by such behavior in the community, confused regarding attitudes toward not only the performers but toward those who emulate their actions.
Most importantly, such emulation effects a self-imposed societal control mechanism, preventing some who are less fortunate from evolving to compete within the broader society economically, socially and politically. This is especially the case among those who are not benefitting from the fortunes bestowed upon the performers by entertainment media.

3) Reinforce the centuries-old image of Black self-hatred/inferiority and White superiority. (Ironically, the White superiority and Black self-hate images were subtly reinforced by some of the testimony presented in Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka proceedings as well as in some reasoning in the final decision.)

Projection of the Black self-hate image appears to be welcomed and exploited in the dominant society, so is there any wonder it is reported that sales of Rap/Hip Hop recordings are now higher among White youth than in the Black community, putting aside that some elements of Rap/Hip-Hop music and culture seem to be appealing?

And so it is that most Rap/Hip-Hop has unwittingly devolved to the point of reviving/perpetuating a form of the "black-face" minstrel show from a degrading past, but with contemporary themes and genuine, self-deprecating Black faces serving several interests in what has historically appeared to be the dominant society's scheme of things regarding the status of African Americans.

In some earlier eras, those compelled to view or hear any vulgar or lewd portrayals most often had to actively and even covertly seek it, perhaps in “shady” places. For most, such material is at best offensive, and now so pervasive that it is often “in your face” before an opportunity to avoid or dispense with it.

For many, it seems obvious that frequent exposure to images of animosity, lewd and violent language and images as well as
images of easy-come lavish living, whether through Rap/Hip-Hop or other avenues, negatively affects a number of vulnerable children, women, and men of all races and classes. Should we not logically conclude, even minus certified scientific data, that such indulgence would likely contribute to increases in schoolhouse bullying and murders, children having babies, sexual predators, a quest for easy “bling,” etc.?

There have been in the past futile attempts by some individuals to effectively tackle such expanding  problems in a variety of entertainment and communication genres – notably, Tipper Gore (Al Gore's wife) in the mid-1980s, and the late African American activist  C. Delores Tucker, who particularly targeted Rap/Hip-Hop in the early 1990s, but with critical backlash. There have even been Congressional and judicial hearings on the matter, with little consequence.

Soon after Imus’ April 2007 faux pas, given the intense media coverage of the public backlash against Imus, he personally apologized to the Rutgers Women’s Basketball Team and also repeatedly apologized publicly for his ill-chosen words. The backlash resulted in Imus’ removal from both his radio and television spots, although he some months later secured another spot in the media. And with the spotlight and reignited public criticism concurrently on Rap/Hip-Hop, a few rappers pledged to promote more positive images - in their art and in their personal lives. Some producers may also follow with more fresh and wholesome productions.

Hopefully,  with the public conflagration over the Imus incident and other increasingly-sobering, anti-social manifestations - the massacre at Virginia Polytechnic Institute, violence at similar institutions as well as in other public and private arenas, fatal predatory and other sexual acts, etc. -- a perverted reverence for individual freedom and the usual debate-and-wait phenomenon characteristic of this society will not prevail. Hopefully, society will connect the dots and increase its vigilance, heighten its outrage, and similarly effect sober, critical change - with no double standards - and not allow the tail to continue to wag the dog.

Copyright 2007. Pansye S. Atkinson. All rights reserved.