Tuesday, August 09, 2005

Not Our Finest Hour Indeed

When did hip hop go from an urban subculture, replete with its own visual and aural language, to a commercial and trivial expression of the worst depictions of urban life?

When did "keepin' it real" become a glamorization of urban warfare?

Who decided that real hip hop was exemplified by lyrics that encourage carefree violence?

When did our righteous anger at unemployment, undereducation, poverty, and racism degrade into celebrations of drug dealing, denigration of women, and materialism without responsibility?

Why is 50 Cent supposed to be more real than Common?

When did hip hop go from being the love of one's life to being an aged street whore?

Why must every hip hop disagreement end with violent threats or death?

Why do poor Black and Latino kids aspire to be rappers and not doctors?

Why do so many of our kids know rap lyrics but can barely read?

When did White people get permission to morph hip hop into grotesque buffoonery? Why did Black people decide it was okay just to get a piece of the pie?

When did young women become convinced that slapping each other as hard as possible was an acceptable form of entertainment and way to make a fast dollar?

America's fascination with the grotesque, the violent, has found its way into urban America. New York's major hip hop radio station, Hot 97, no stranger to controversy, agreed to pay a punitive fine of $240,000 for its production of "Smackfest." In Smackfest, two young women are pitted against each other in a contest where they slap each other in the face as hard as possible, with the winner declared by the radio personality (or personalities). Five rounds, $500.

Sure, it's easy to criticize Smackfest and say little about Extreme Fighting, televised contests where average guys risk life and limb in an organized brawl. It's easy to hold Smackfest under a microscope, when boxing is one of the highest grossing forms of entertainment (I'm not sure for me, if it's a sport), and when professional wrestling, staged or not, is as well. Violence sells as well as sex. We can only look at video games, and the proliferation of those games that employ fantasy violence or animated crime, and how much money they earn, as examples. What disturbs me so much about Smackfest is the message it sends to young Black and Latino women. The voluntary participants in this fiasco are young women who either believe they're "representin' " for their 'hood, or believe a simple slap is an easy way to make money, or an easy way to prove how whatever they are; tough, survivors of an ugly way of life, capable of overcoming crappy circumstances. These girls are duped into thinking this is cool. Why Emmis Communications, the parent company of Hot 97, issued a lame statement:

"Despite the fact that the contestants voluntarily participated in what was supposed to be harmless entertainment, it was not our finest hour, and New York City deserves better."

Is the voluntary participation what makes gratuitous violence acceptable? What exactly is harmless about slapping someone as hard as possible? Among the videos available on the web, is one where a contestant ends up with a bloody lip. And what is entertaining about it?

Hot 97 is no stranger to controversy, and neither is radio in New York City. From Opie and Anthony's staged sex in St. Patrick's Cathedral, to terrified screams accompanying dialogue after 9/11, to song lyrics rife with racial epithets and profanity accompanying dialogue after another tragedy, that of last December's tsunami disaster. While I am not a fan of Howard Stern, what distinguishes Stern's antics from those of Hot 97's is that he's a White guy, paid by other White guys, targeting everybody, but staying just above the mire enough to be annoying. Opie and Anthony are also tasteless White guys, paid by other tasteless White guys. The mostly Black staff of Hot 97 takes its marching orders from White guys, and they've been duped into thinking it's okay to drag other people of color through the muck, egged on by White guys.

I'm not saying Smackfest, the Tsunami Song, the shootings outside Hot 97's offices, and probably more offensive things, would be any more acceptable if they came from a Black-owned station. We're certainly critical enough of BET, which incidentally is now partially White-owned. It is sad that Black folks are willing to whore themselves, accept any line of bull handed to them, and turn around and criticze you for calling them on it. And, too many of us are willing to forgive and forget; Emmis Communications, in addition to the fine, is donating $60,000 to Safe Horizon, an anti-violence organization.

Marcus Garvey, whether you love or hate him, was right when he said "Up, you mighty race. You can accomplish what you will." New York does deserve better. So does this mighty race.

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