"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.