The Ostracized Negro: Hip-Hop, Ethics & The Black Church
More and more I feel like I want a divorce; to separate myself from my cultural roots. I am completely insulted by the demeaning, hateful, profane, empty-headed vomit that passes for "Black Culture" these days, which implies that I am somehow not "black" enough to understand why this crap has artistic value. Hefting one of his three trophies aloft, giving some rambling and quizzical acceptance speech, I just shook my head— not at Kanye West, who is who he is and I guess he's good enough at it to earn the little statue— but at the ignorance of Black America to hold this foolishness up as the highest and most visible form of African American art currently available.
I'd asked a simple question: who's the hot artist these days?
17 year-old Sarecia, trying to work me for some free fried
chicken, said, “T.I.” “T.I.?” I asked, in my best Baffled Dad
look. “How do you spell that…?” Apparently T.I., this skinny,
fragile-looking kid is the new top dawg, along with a
spelling-challenged young man named Yung Joc and an unlikely sex
symbol named Lil’ Wayne—a guy who cannot apparently find the
beat, but somehow makes his rhymes work nonetheless. These are
the posters on her wall. These are the men she dreams about.
These are the qualities she values. It all seems like more Hood
Life to me, the negative qualities of young men being those most
often prized by teenage girls. Maybe it’s the edge of danger and
threat of violence that gets them jump-started. When I was 17, I
foolishly thought being good to girls would make them like me.
Alas, the exact opposite is true. The trend, more than ever, is
for boys to emulate hoodlums and girls to emulate hookers, being
sexually submissive to boys who do not value them. And, so, even
though most of the acts I discuss in this essay are no longer
quite the stars they were when I wrote it, the overall theme
remains true as, the more things change, the more they stay the
I really don't know what to make of Kanye West, the 2005 Grammy Award Winner for Best Rap Album, Best Rap Song and Best R&B Song. Festooned with huge angel wings (note to Kanye: angels do not, in fact have wings. Only cherubim do), Kanye floated among the masses churning out his puzzling Jesus Walk— a song I'm not entirely certain I shouldn't be offended by. No student of theology, West clearly knows as much about angels and Jesus as I do about rap music, and imagine that Pizza Hut conversation. Which isn't to say I don't like West or don't like his song, but that I don't understand West or his song. I don't think he's a particularly good or even interesting rapper, but what do I know? Someone obviously thinks he is both, since he sells a lot of records and won three Grammys. The scurrilously disingenuous non-talent Alicia Keys, whose work I completely despise, won four, so, once more, what do I know. Watching the Grammys I was fairly dismayed that, with few notable exceptions, popular music is today dominated by people who can neither play an instrument nor sing well. The songwriting is entirely derivative, echoing far better things and better days past, and the entire bent of hip-hop culture seems strangely anti-moral, Kanye and his silly wings notwithstanding.
If I was going to sing a song about airplanes, I'd at least do a little research into how planes fly. I really wish Kanye, and those who may follow him into some manner of religious chicanery, would at least read some part of the Bible before strapping on fake wings and singing about Jesus.
I also wish Us Folk, Us Black Church Folk, would do the same. The Black Church's near universal acceptance of and applause for West's unscriptural and ridiculous song— despite the fact his album contains a Parental Advisory warning label—is damming condemnation of our bankrupt culture, our ignorance and cowardice. Applauding this foul-mouthed blowhard, who, like most other foul-mouthed blowhards in his field, is enriching himself by furthering negative stereotypes and perpetuating the image of black America as uneducated and uniformed; riding the corpses of young black men all the way to the bank. And we, in our ignorance, in our cowardice, embrace guys like West and R. Kelly, just because they feint right, momentarily clothing themselves in an air of spiritualism; prostituting the cultural aspects of our faith without embracing any of the intellectual underpinnings.
R. Kelly, who has, apparently, skated past the cell door on multiple charges of child pornography (having allegedly filmed himself having sex with and urinating on a fourteen year-old girl), is instantly in our good graces after Happy People/U Saved Me, Kelly's Oreo Cookie album, one side sacred, one side profane. Both sides dull, as, for my ten bucks, Kelly really isn't an interesting talent on any level. But, then, I'm not a fourteen year-old girl, to whom Kelly's workman-like writing and singing perhaps have some appeal.
More and more I feel like I want a divorce. I want to separate myself from my cultural roots, from home, checking into what other ethnicities might have me. I am completely insulted by the demeaning, hateful, profane, empty-headed vomit that passes for "Black Culture" these days, which implies that I am somehow not "black" enough to understand why this crap has artistic value. Hefting one of his three trophies aloft, giving some rambling and quizzical acceptance speech, I just shook my head— not at West, who is who he is and I guess he's good enough at it to earn the little statue— but at the ignorance of Black America to hold this foolishness up as the highest and most visible form of African American art currently available.
Meanwhile, BET’s airing of its annual salute to Gospel music the following week, to my surprise, was quite good. Very tastefully done, with a modicum of foolishness (notably the sequined Bobby Jones, to whom Shirley Caesar lent a great measure of credibility even while losing a commensurate amount herself just for standing next to the patently obvious minstrel phony). Stand-outs were the typically stellar Yolanda Adams, a ferocious Kierra “Kiki” Sheard, and the Clark Sisters themselves, reunited to pay tribute to the great Mattie Moss Clark. Karen Clark-Sheard was luminous and seemed poised to break out of the pack to gain or perhaps surpass Adams’ level of mainstream acceptance. She is a brilliant firebrand, a legacy her daughter Kiki seems sure to inherit, but Kiki’s voice is still too immature to take on Mom.
Tye Tribbett was unexpectedly animated, given his D’Angelo-style laid-back attitude on Life, Tribbett’s James Poysner-fueled stellar sophomore effort. Tribbett and J. Moss are clear evidence that the most exciting things happening in urban contemporary music these days are indeed happening in Gospel. It really is an exciting time to be into black Gospel music, a genre that seems to be bulging at the seams with innovators (though I'd love to strap any number of those performers into a chair and give them an easy Theology Pop Quiz; I doubt most of them would fare any better than West).
Unlike their secular counterparts, the black Gospel scene is populated by young people unafraid to take chances and test limits. There is precious little the world has to offer in terms of this music that we don’t already own on our side of the fence.
Caught between two extreme versions of precisely the same thing, the artistry was at least more interesting on the Gospel side, though the commitment to and knowledge of ministry remains an open question for all entertainers, Gospel or secular. But it did put me in the same frame of mind as my 2001 essay on Hip-Hop culture, and I figured now was a good time to revisit that earlier work.