Monday, March 30, 2009

It's Hard Out Here for a "Pimp", Even on Commercial Radio

"Every Black Man who goes in the studio has always got two people in his head: him, in terms of who he really is, and the thug that he feels he has to project—the performance thug."

- Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes

Hip Hop group Three 6 Mafia won an Oscar for best original song with "It’s Hard Out Here for a Pimp", which was part of the soundtrack for the movie Hustle and Flow. Given that Three 6 Mafia is the second Hip Hop group to win an Oscar, it is obvious that Hip Hop has become mainstream. The Telecommunications Act of 1996 has strengthened corporate control of radio stations and has allowed for the commodification of Hip Hop music. Corporate control of radio has stifled social commentary and diversity present in "old-school" Rap and Hip Hop. Instead, corporate control has encouraged the proliferation of Gangsta Rap and the Gangsta Image, which has become the de facto voice of contemporary Hip Hop culture. Although some Gangsta Rappers are "pimping" this image for fame and money, some are also “pimping” for the opportunity to include socially conscious and relevant lyrics on their albums.

This Gangsta image is steeped with racial and sexist stereotypes about urban Black men and women. Introduced to the consuming audience is the n***a persona who is a Gangsta, making his money as a pimp, hustler, drug dealer or killer. The Black woman B***h or ho is a hypersexualized vixen intent on bringing the Gangsta down via sexual manipulation or even violence. The Gangsta Rap currently dominating the nation’s radio airwaves transmits misogynistic and violent messages (directed at other Black men and women).

While promoting the image of the outcast and outlaw, Gangsta Rap also promotes excessive consumption of sneakers, jeans, colognes, champagne, cars, and sports drinks. Given the hyper-commercialization of the Gangsta image, radio station owners have clamored to attract this urban consuming audience, which studies have shown is primarily White, male, and suburban. Socially conscious Rap rarely gets played because radio station owners fear losing advertising revenue as a result of declining white suburban listeners.

In the late 1970s, Hip Hop rose out of the ruins of a post-industrial and ravaged South Bronx as a cultural expression of young, urban Black and Latino men. Written off and rendered invisible by White and Black politicians, these young men were isolated and ignored in what was categorized as a dying city. Rap and Hip Hop allowed these young men to celebrate and live their lives.

Through radio air play, these young men attained visibility from an otherwise marginalized existence in America. In fact, Rap would be proclaimed as the Black CNN. Many rappers gave voice to what would have otherwise remained unseen by the larger dominant American public: police brutality, poverty, and urban deterioration. With its confrontational style, Rap defied both Black and White middle class norms. Rappers spoke in their own voice and on their own terms, as members of a historically marginalized segment of America's population living in America's blighted urban areas.

Today, although Gangsta Rappers have glorified the very racialized and stereotyped images that have contributed to their exclusion and repression, they have reaped more financial reward than any other generation of Black activists, musicians, and artists.

Not unlike the originators of Rap, today’s Gangsta Rappers have limited societal visibility and resources. They have achieved a modicum of commercial success, even while some have sown seeds of resistance in a very mass-mediated and corporate dominated space. Such resistance receives much less attention than the Gangsta Image. Although such resistance may not necessarily translate into a vision of a more just society or a call for a social movement, it nevertheless serves, in a subversive way, as a challenge to the corporate and dominantly inscribed Gangsta Image.

For example, at the very sites where the commodified Gangsta Image is created - albums containing the Gangsta Rap lyrics - some rappers squeeze in a few tracks subverting the very image of the Gangsta. In “Moment of Clarity” on The Black Album, Jay-Z, a multi-platinum Gangsta rapper, asserts that he would not make any money if he rapped positively like Talib Kweli or Common:

"If skills sold, truth be told, I'd probably be
lyrically, Talib Kweli
Truthfully I wanna rhyme like Common Sense
But I did five mill' - I ain't been rhymin like Common since
When your cents got that much in common
And you been hustlin since, your inception
Fuck perception go with what makes sense
Since I know what I'm up against
We as rappers must decide what's most important
And I can't help the poor if I'm one of them
So I got rich and gave back, to me that's the win/win"

Given his (and most rappers') former situation as a young Black man in urban America who hustled to make ends meet, he declares that he had to make the best of his situation and rap about what made money.

Still other songs, like Jadakiss' "Why?" on his Kiss of Death album, take on a clearly political and serious tone (although it is wedged between other songs glorifying the Gangsta life). In it, he suggests that George Bush had information about the September 11th terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center before it happened.

These songs obtain much less visibility via radio air play. However, these rappers’ lyrics suggest a 21st century double-consciousness reminiscent of W.E.B. DuBois. The rappers are aware that the music industry is exploiting them, but they have chosen to take on the corporate-created and consumer-driven public image.

Ironically, the proliferation of the mass-mediated Gangsta Image has begun to foster a much needed discourse within the Black community on issues related to racial stereotypes, misogyny and violence - issues that pre-date Hip Hop and Gangsta Rappers. Neither the Gangsta Rappers’ subverted resistance to the Gangsta Image nor this renewed racial discourse justifies the virulent misogyny and violence in Gangsta Rap lyrics and images. However, the subversive maneuvering of Gangsta Rappers suggests that Gangsta Rappers are not just being "pimped", but are doing a little "pimping" of their own.

Historically, radio played an important role in providing a forum for socially conscious Hip Hop cultural and political expression. The 1996 Telecommunications Act led to the consolidation and corporate takeover of radio stations, which has had a deadening effect on positive discourse among America’s young, urban, Black men, through Rap and Hip Hop. As a result of the 1996 Act, radio airplay is no longer balanced, but instead heavily slanted towards the racialized and sexualized image of the Gangsta Rapper for the purpose of promoting consumption. More space needs to be made on the radio airwaves for socially relevant Hip Hop, and the 1996 Telecommunications Act must not stand in the way.

- Akilah Folami

Note: A version of this post first appeared on the Talking Justice blog.


  1. This post brings up many important themes in current hip-hop discussions. These are questions with which I wrestle often: Who's gaming whom? Is capitalism winning or is subversive activity from inside the system actually chipping away at that system? Can we ever achieve consciousness outside of capitalism's vice grip on logic and order? What are the boundaries between simulation and the real?

    A complete analysis of hip-hop must address the disconnect between participants and listeners. DuBois’s double consciousness is also an important tool because there are psychological ramifications to this journey. Living one thing and performing another must be psychologically painful. In this schizophrenic condition, that of fighting capitalism while participating in it, being a gangsta while not being a gangsta, creates an unstable terrain upon which hip-hop artists must constantly reorient themselves.

    With the proliferation of gangsta rap images have we passed a point of no return? Utilizing parts of Jean Baudrillard's writing on simulation, might we begin to question if there are gangstas anymore? With the proliferation of images, comes the erasure of the real. Are not the realities of hip-hop's listener's being erased the more popular hip-hop becomes? I am unsure at which point hip-hop no longer becomes a force of resistance and instead functions as a mechanism of control. Hip-hop places hip-hop in danger with the unmitigated copying of images.

    This is true for all movements and all genres of music, however. Every time pop music comes out with a new star who sings about reckless sexual exploration, pop music becomes more than a voice of pop culture, it becomes a replication of what culture once was. That is not to say that sexual exploration is wrong, but that the constant recreation of sexual(ized) images is debasing the sexual act. Brittney Spears puts pop music in danger and erases the real of sexual experience. This is not Brittney’s fault, but characteristic of much of what pop music has become. No longer is their sex or celibacy. There is simply sex and we are all a part of it. Pop music has replicated relationships to such an extent that we’ve already experienced all there is a thousand times over before we can accept a hug, hold a hand, or share a kiss.

    Hip-hop is in danger. It is surely better to fight the system even if the fight is lost because to not disrupt capitalism is to lead us to a quicker death. For whatever reason, I'd like to be around to blog at least a little longer. Part of struggle is defeat. As we struggle to engage the consciousness of youth, to expand or obliterate the image of hip-hip, we must remember the legal mechanisms at play that thwart those efforts. Appreciating these failures is fodder for continued struggle. Akilah’s post has helped describe and analyze the importance of the legal situations that make hip-hop’s realities possible. Hopefully in the words of Sam Cooke, “A Change is Gonna Come.”

  2. who was the first hiphop/rap artist to win an oscar?

  3. Pam,

    I believe the first rapper to win an Oscar was Eminem for Best Song ("Lose Yourself").

  4. Three 6 Mafia won its Oscar in 2006 for best song while Eminem won in that same category in 2003.

  5. The corporate takeover has killed hip hop, at least in the sense that quality hip hop gets any mainstream attention, which as Akilah points out, can be partially attributed to the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

    A blatant result is that the album as we once knew it is dead, the real radio station is dead, and the record label is dead. Now, we have a "single dominated" industry where the only way to make money is through puppetry and not artistry. If you can't produce a single for iTunes or a hot ringtone ... see you later and good luck getting mainstream success on an independent label. It's so bad, even artists like Jay-Z who have already established a loyal fanbase prior to this corporate takeover are stuck playing the game.

    An example of an artist that I like who has gone through the corporate takeover is an artist by the name of Saigon. Some of you may know Saigon by his appearances on HBO's "Entourage" but I like to think of him as the once hyped next best thing that never gained mainstream success because he refused to play the game.

    Saigon was originally signed to Atlantic Records but never had his album drop as planned. A big reason for this was that Saigon didn't want to put out "Hip Pop" records ... in other words, he didn't want to do a track with label mates Pretty Ricky or sacrifice his music quality.

    He recently released a track describing this called "Trans Atlantic Slave Deal" where he addresses the situation:

    "All I could give 'em was tribalism; I tried to hit 'em with a lot of wisdom but the system was pushin eroticism
    They say sex excels record sales
    So in your video, need to see some naked girls (say what?)
    Then they said I should do some gangster rap
    I said Julie, at least 10 of my friends dead thanks to that
    I said in the movie they put the blanks in that
    In the ghetto they usin live ammunition when they bang the gat
    And how could that not be a selfish act?
    She said - "Oh yeah!" and put me on shelf for that"

    Unfortunately, Saigon serves as the exception and not the rule. I disagree that rap artists today are doing any "pimping" when it comes to their music. They are still being completely pimped. Most artists simply fold to the corporate pressure and thus sacrifice musical quality in an effort to gain monetary success. Real artists get away from the major label and make their money through hard work with digital album sales. For instance, Joe Budden has managed to expand his fanbase by working with Amalgam Digital and speaking with fans directly on on his website. If you're reading this, you should go get his latest album "Padded Room."

  6. The "Gangsta" image in rap music today is a misnomer. Gangsters wear suits not gold teeth and gold chains. Gangsters act in a way that draws attention away from them not to them, unlike the flashy image and conspicuous consumption illustrated by the rappers of today. Gangsters have children and grandchildren who become judges and senators. Gangsters are thinkers, and know the consequences of their lifestyle and don't glorify it.
    The "Gangsta" image in rap music, which is now often referred to as the "Goon" image, most notably by Plies from Miami and Jim Jones from Harlem, is a sure way to sell music, but it's also selling the community out.
    Frank Lucas claims that Ellsworth "Bumpy" Johnson was "the only TRUE Gangster that ever been through Harlem." Although he was a Gangster, Harlem in his day was the Black Mecca. Harlem was owned and controlled by African Americans. Sources say that "Bumpy" wasn't an advocate of drug trafficking. He was also involved with other known figures such as Stephanie St. Claire (Madame Queen), a woman who bought the numbers game to Harlem and who was also influential among the white gangsters of the time. There was also Casper Holstein, who became a philanthropist and gave back generously to the community.
    After the heroine swept through the community during the 1960s and 70s, through the likes of Frank Lucas and the always flashy Nicky Barnes, the community was destroyed, buildings were abandoned and crime was out of control. The cycle continued in the 80s with the onset of the Crack era when hustlers like Alpo from Harlem became filthy rich, while the rest of the community was starved. The once valuable real estate properties in Harlem were reduced to crack dens. Take a look at Harlem 20 years later. It's no longer the Black Mecca and center of cultural richness that it used to be.
    The cycle is repeating itself with these so-called "Gangsta rappers" who claim to be drug dealers and criminals. Sure, they're enriching themselves but are they selling an image that's doing an injustice to the communities they come from. Are they paying attention to what's going on in the public school and housing projects where they come from? Do they know what the drop out rate is or the number of youngsters who look up to them and want to be rappers? Or are they not considering the effects of how things might play out in the future, the same way Frank, Nicky and Alpo did in years past?
    In order to keep the cycle from repeating itself, every rapper should listen to Jay Z's verse in Moment of Clarity and think about making that "Win-Win" a reality.

  7. This is an impressive piece. I agree with every word. However, I just wanted to add that although the radio stations only seem to support the negative music, this is also the case with the listeners. Most of hip hops listeners support the gangster rappers versus the positive ones like Talib Kweli. The question is where does this circular situation begin and end? Its hard to see who is the cause of it. One effects the other and it continues on in a vicious cycle.

  8. As an educator of young urban children,

    I strongly agree with this piece. I would just like to add that from the perspective of a teacher, if we want change (and I do) the parents, guardians, teachers, role models, and those who simply give a damn must work together to make a difference. Because while those in the know see this as a business and the rappers as "gettin their pimp on," the children I am teaching view the stories contained in these rap lyrics as gospel. For some of these students, the lyrics within these songs are words of hope. They are as real to these students as scripture is to a believer, And they cling to them as a repentant sinner clings to scripture for a chance to have a better life. Someone needs to tell me how can I show them that this is all about making money by giving the masses what they want?

  9. if hip hop lyrics are gospel to the young urban children, then how do we hold record label executives responsible for the dirge they force artists to record these days? the artists could, of course, walk away and refuse to release records that denigrate women or praise the thug life, but can we really expect young men and women to walk away from records deals and genuine cash flow by taking a principled stand?

  10. i'd like to know whether the blog authors considered any female nominees to the "hip hop hall of fame" before they posted this month's poll. surely if wyclef jean got a nod, lauryn hill is just as (more than, in my opinion) deserving.

  11. anonymous, 4.12.09, 11:40 a.m.

    good question. queen latifah is deserving, as is m.c. lyte. the commentary following the hall of fame post discusses various thoughts on female hip hop artists, including queen latifah, rah digga, m.c. lyte and lauryn hill.


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