The hip-hop thing.

Saw this article by Juan Williams awhile back, referring to an interesting Pew Research Center poll of the African-American community on AA issues. What caught my attention in this piece was what Williams chose to focus on — most notably, his comments on hip hop culture.

Williams is no fan of this culture, as he’s made obvious in multiple articles on the subject over the years. Mostly I’ve always chalked his opinion up to old age/out-of-touchness, and the usual grumbling that older folks will do about whatever bizarre subcultural fads younger folks latch onto. Juan’s parents probably complained about jazz and zoot suits; for him it’s rap and baggy jeans. Some of this is career posturing; there’s no better way for a black columnist to get read than by saying what conservative white people want to hear, as people like Michelle Malkin can attest. So I’ll be honest — I usually ignore commentators like Williams when they start getting their rant on. I’m not really their target audience.

What I am, though, is a member of the generation that grew up on hip hop. I’m not an across-the-board fan, but I nod my head. I lean back. Sometimes I buy. What I don’t do, unlike Mr. Williams and apparently the majority of black Americans who’ve decided to blame hip hop for “high drop-out rates, record black-on-black murder statistics and a record number of out-of-wedlock births”, is tar and feather a musical form as the root of all evil. Because, quite frankly, that’s silly. Of all the scapegoats they could come up with for the myriad of problems faced by the black community, this is the best they could come up with? Come on, now.

On top of that, they’re not even talking about all hip hop. If all you’re listening to is what’s in constant rotation on the Clear Channel and other “big corporate” radio networks, then you’re hearing only the tip of a massive and diverse iceberg. Most of the hip hop artists on my iPod have never gotten airtime on mainstream radio. Some of them are regional acts, popular only in certain cities or chunks of the country. Some of them are from other countries, because hip hop went global ages ago and sometimes I like my hip hop in Japanese, or Portuguese, or Arabic. It’s easy to find translations online. Some of the older artists in my iPod started out mainstream, then got pushed underground by the surge of gangsta rap in the 90s; most are still going strong. Some are newbies who distribute their work strictly online, or through CDs passed around hand to hand at parties, or through obscure labels not generally known for hip hop.

And none of them talk about bling. The guys might complain about problems they’ve had with individual women, but none of them denigrate the gender en masse. None of the women denigrate themselves. None of it glorifies prison culture, ignorance, or violence. There’s a few thugs and ex-thugs in the bunch — though more are college graduates — but even these are a cut above the 50 Cent breed of thug; they have better things to brag about besides getting shot and producing a really shitty video game. My current favorite tracks, like the Coffee Nods’ “Grown”, speak to elements of my life as a young black professional approaching middle age. These people are rapping about 401Ks of all things — and parenthood, and long term relationships, and office politics spiced with racism. I’m a writer, and in Hydroponic Sound System’s “Delirium”, they perfectly capture that feverish moment that strikes in the middle of the night where you get an idea and you just have to get up and write it down. And they rap about the fact that sometimes you can’t write it down, because you’ve got a 9 to 5 and rent to pay. This is subject matter that I suspect is a far more accurate depiction of life in black America than guns and hoes — but you’ll never hear it in the top 40.

What I’m talking about is underground hip hop, if you haven’t guessed. The underground is where hip hop started, after all, and naturally that’s where its soul has remained all these years. While the record companies and the mainstream media hype gangsta rap, bling, and booty, the true creative heart of the genre has kept on beating, evolving into political hip hop, impressionistic hip hop, religious hip hop, feminist hip hop, and a whole slew of other sub-subcultures. These are just as much hip hop as Fiddy and Diddy — moreso IMO, because they haven’t sold their souls for a buck.

Unfortunately folks like Mr. Williams don’t seem to be aware of hip hop’s true face. They don’t seem to realize that the rap they’re talking about — usually gangsta rap — is produced by companies that have made their money selling a fantasy of black urban culture to mostly middle-class suburban white kids. They don’t seem to care that sales in this category of hip hop are plummeting precisely for that reason — because the culture that created hip hop moved on to smarter things long ago, and even the suburban white kids are getting bored after nearly 20 years of the same old shit. As a fad, crap rap’s time is passing.

And the Mr. Williams of the world seem completely oblivious to the origins of the hip hop they hate so much. I’m referring in this case to the incestuous corporate media machines that power the supposed blockbusters of hip hop. For example, Black Entertainment Television is owned by Viacom. Contains no actual black people in positions of authority. (Robert Johnson doesn’t own it anymore, and even if he did, I’m not sure at what point a person switches from “black” to “sellout”.) Viacom also owns VH1 and MTV. Think these networks are competitors? I suppose they are, superficially — but since their profits all feed into a single pot, are they really? They mutually benefit from every top-40 hit, because those hits then go into constant rotation on multiple channels, driving up viewership across the board. It’s obviously in their best interest to work together on choosing which hits to promote. But let’s dig deeper. Viacom also owns CBS and Paramount, and has close ties to Tribune Entertainment, which owns big-name newspaper properties like the Los Angeles Times and the Chicago Tribune. In 2007 Viacom signed a deal with Microsoft to collaborate on promoting MTV and BET properties. Remember, Microsoft owns MSN, a top online news source. Backing up, CBS Corporation owns Showtime, one of the big cable players, and several book publishing conglomerates, like Simon and Schuster. One of Viacom’s properties, CBS Radio, is currently in a distribution deal with Sony BMG — a record company, which owns dozens of big name hip hop acts.

What does this all mean? Well, remember the old saying that there’s no such thing as negative publicity. So for example last year when the Imus scandal erupted, we saw newspapers (owned by Tribune), online and cable news outlets (owned by Microsoft), and broadcast TV news outlets (such as CBS) raise a big stink over the use of the n-word in hip hop (played on radio stations owned by CBS), and playing samples of records (owned by BMG) and videos (found MTV and BET) to illustrate their point. Viewership went up. Readership went up. Page clicks went up. Sales of ads and albums almost surely went up. Meanwhile Imus’ most recent book (published by Simon and Schuster) gets a sales-rank boost on Amazon.

So Imus makes money, Viacom and all its children make money, maybe even a few artists make money… and all for the low low price of the Rutgers’ women’s basketball team’s self-respect. And as a feel-good sop to everyone involved, hip hop gets to be the scapegoat of the hour.

Here’s the thing. That stuff you hear on mainstream radio? The stuff that’s so “controversial” and “popular”? So outrageously misogynist and violent and cutting-edge “hard”? Is a focus-grouped artificial construct cynically produced by one hand of a giant corporation whose other hands (because there are way more than two) are simultaneously promoting said product across a vast multimedia landscape. Said promotional methods include not just ads, not just hype, but “horrified outcry” and other such blatant manipulation of the media. What really slays me is that in the end, the gangsta rappers are the last and lowest-paid of the whole pile. The only people they’re fooling with all that bling BS are white children too ignorant to realize they’re getting chumped, a few (only 29% of sales, remember) kids of color who’ll probably grow out of it, racists who just need an excuse to believe every possible black stereotype… and Mr. Williams, who really ought to know better.

So. The next time any of you out there decide, like Mr. Williams, to make some denigrating blanket statement about hip hop and its terrible, epidemic effect on the black community, please make sure it’s actually hip hop you’re talking about — the real stuff, I mean, and not the musical Frankenstein manufactured by rich old white guys in suits. You’ll sound much smarter if you do.

Many thanks to JAM Renaissance, who awhile back administered my own much-needed smack to the head about what is and isn’t hip hop, and who currently runs one of the smartest podcasts I’ve ever heard from the hip hop underground, 360D Radio.

Dear Black People: Stop Embarassing Me Pt. 2 — Damn, Jim.

So, one of the icons of the Blaxploitation era is looking to carry on in modern times:

OG Nation's ads -- white people partying

Brown insists that his OG Nation is all about creating a climate of inclusion and diversity. Some of the ad copy found at the company’s site makes for entertaining reading. “”Lagers have been around for over 2,000 years, dating back to the days of the original gangster Egyptians.” The people pictured presumably enjoying Brown’s products on the site don’t look very “original gangster” to us.

Or very Egyptian, judging by the image on the left. Kinda obvious who his target audience is, huh? He didn’t even throw in a token black person for street cred. I’m not offended by the omission, though; I’m just bitterly amused at how openly Jim has acknowledged a core truth of the “gangsta” cultural prostitution sales engine. Black people have never been the primary audience for most of this ostensibly-black cultural material. It’s why I always get so annoyed/amused whenever people get up in arms about black rappers, etc., profiteering from this stuff — why do they never get up in arms about white teenagers, etc., snapping it up like candy?

That said, the profiteers do deserve some of the censure, so… damn, Jim. Just… damn. ::shakes head::

No, we’re not gonna take it

In the October 15th issue of Newsweek I read a little sidebar piece on Race & Gender titled “We’re Not Gonna Take It”.

At no small personal cost, Anucha Browne-Sanders stood up and demanded an end to the kind of abuse African-American women regularly tolerate from some black men. We are not “bitches” or “ho’s” to be harassed sexually or otherwise, she declared.

It was a brave thing for an African-American woman to do. Our community is reluctant to talk openly about the problem of black men mistreating black women.
“Black men have to start taking responsibility for being part of the reason black women are so disrespected in the first place,” [says Terry McMillan]. …but plenty of blacks–men and women alike–are loath to point fingers publicly.
The reasons for this silence are complicated, but mostly it’s about not wanting to make things tougher for black men than they already are. …any additional attacks from black women are seen as a betrayal.
Yet without open dialogue, nothing is solved.

I definitely agree with that. One thing the author didn’t mention is the tension between in-group condemnation and condemnation from without. My hackles rise when I hear white folks pronouncing from on high that black men disrespect black women. But I won’t hesitate to call out this behavior myself. I feel that I have more of a right, not only as a black person but as a black woman, than any white person of any gender.

While I understand the whole Besieged From All Sides feeling, I don’t think that men should be allowed to use this as a dodge when the problem is brought up. Of course there are black men who don’t disrespect black women as a matter of course. But there’s a lot of music, television, and film that does. There are a lot of individuals who do. Any time anyone anywhere has a conversation wherein a black man states that he prefers to date white women because black women are too “angry” and “demanding”, they are being complete asses and should probably be smacked for their own good. Most of those black men are only alive today because some black woman (who was probably angry a lot, even if it didn’t show) put up with them for 18 or more years, nurtured and loved them, and probably still does.

We–and by we I do mean black people–need to get out of this habit of cutting slack and ignoring the problems in our own community because we are under attack from outside forces. We cannot become stronger and better and more powerful if we ignore our own faults. And we certainly can’t do anything if half of us are constantly under siege from the other half.

This does not, however, give white folks a free pass to talk shit about black men. Nor does it mean that I am on their “side” against black men or even agree with their assessment of what, exactly, is broken in this equation.

Dear Religious Black People

Speaking as a black woman who was raised in the church (AME Zion, to be precise, but I have strong Baptist ancestry, too), speaking as a woman who is still deeply spiritual though no longer Christian, speaking as a woman who is queer, I have something to say: Knock it the fuck off.

I understand the tension between LGBT folks and Christianity, but what you need to understand is that this whole crap where you participate in bigotry, discrimination, and hate is not only un-Christian, it’s completely insane from people who not that long ago were considered a half step above gorillas by many people and are still considered such by a significant minority now.

I am well aware that we cannot compare the stuff that LGBT folks go through to what black folks and other ethnic minorities go through wholesale. There are some similarities, yes, and there are some major differences. This argument isn’t about that. It’s about the fact that you, as people who have and still suffer from the effects of hate, bigotry and oppression, do not seem to have any compassion or understanding for LGBT folks.

This is not true for all Christian black people, I know. If this isn’t true for you, then just know that I am not talking to you. I am most likely talking to the woman in the big hat behind you fanning herself. I am talking to the people who, despite the fact that we are in a serious crisis in this country that starts from the White House and trickles down on us all like urine, are still playing the You Have To Be Against Them To Be With Us game. It’s not cool.

Let me put it to you this way: Do you want a president who hates a whole group of people for an arbitrary reason? I know you may not think that sin is arbitrary, but I invite you to take a close look in the mirror before you start throwing stones (yes, that is me referencing the Bible). How many sins have you committed today, this week, this year? The whole point of protestant Christianity is that Jesus loves you and will forgive you if you repent. So, therefore, quit fucking worrying about what other people are doing. Or, if you can’t stop thinking about them, try projecting some love and compassion. You know, like Jesus would. But this whole prejudice thing? The whole not supporting a candidate because they won’t say “I hate those people”? That has got to stop.

No, I mean right now.


Dear Black People: Stop Embarrassing Me

Though this website is mostly a people of color positive zone, every now and then I feel the need to vent a bit about my own people. It generally happens when I want black people to stop freaking embarrassing me!

First up, hip hop artist Plies. Yes, his name is Plies. It’s embarrassing enough to have a grown-ass man running around calling himself Plies, but he supposedly waxed poetical with Vibe magazine on why he chose such a moniker:

Vibe: “Plies is an interesting name for a rapper, how did you get that nickname?”

Plies: “Plies is a tool, You can use it to put the squeeze on things, like I’m doing to these niggas in the rap game. I got the squeeze on them real tight, they feeling the pressure, or you can use it to pull things out. I pull out all the bullshit and keep the real you feel me?

It also a word you can use in terms of things goin’ on in yo life, ya dig. You may hear something I say and say that it plies to me.”

Vibe: “I’ve heard of a tool called a Pliers and the term applies.”

Plies: “You know what I’m trying to say my nigga, just buy my album, I’m from the South my nigga, we don’t learn no grammer. My Album out August 7, 2007, cop three copies each, it’s Christmas in July fo’ real, ya dig?



Now, I say he ‘supposedly’ said this to Vibe because there is some doubt that this snippet is from a real interview. I’ve only been able to find it on message boards and blogs with no attribution link. It was supposedly on but isn’t there now. I’ve seen some other recent interviews with this ‘Plies’ person, so I don’t have a lot of trouble seeing this as real. But, it may not be.

If it is: PLIES, stop FUCKING embarrassing me! That is some straight ignant shit, yo! Plies is a tool, You can use it to put the squeeze on things — gah!

If it’s fake, I suspect a white conspiracy ;)

This second item, however, is not a product of the white conspiracy.

Did you know that The View now has two black co-hosts? They brought in Whoopi to replace Rosie, not Star Jones. They brought in Sherri Shepherd to replace Star. (No, I don’t know who Sherri Shepherd is, either.) Apparently, Sherri is a Christian. She says that she does not “believe in evolution, period.” As a follow up, Whoopi asked her if she believed the world was flat. Her answer? “I don’t know.”

*tires squeeling, cars crashing*

You don’t know?

“I’ve never thought about it,” she went on to say. “‘Is the world flat?’ has never been an important thing to me.”

See, this is the reason people make fun of Christians. This is the exact reason.

Sherri Shepherd, stop embarrassing me! I mean, come on. Is the world flat? is not a hard question to answer. And if you answer “I don’t know,” that says to me you don’t want to admit, on national television, that you really, deep down, think that it is. And if that is true, then you need to sail off the edge of it. Right now.

The whole conversation is here, if you can stomach it:

Check out the grin on Joy Behar’s face. She’s happy to have two black women going at it instead of one black woman going at her.

Maybe we should write a letter to these folks ala “Dear Black People” or stage an intervention.  Because, really, there is no need for this foolishness.

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Criticizing the Critical

On the Kids Hair post, La – msviswan made this comment:

…it also seems black women with natural hair are putting emphasis on black women who prefer their hair straight as having some kind of self-hate. This insinuation (not saying by you) usually offends me.

Which dovetails nicely into a conversation started by Ren over at Feministe that BetaCandy summarizes thusly:

…how do you criticize insane beauty standards without criticizing the women who fit them, or work to? And is it ever appropriate to criticize women who engage in patriarchy-approved beauty rituals?

Which is part of the same problem, methinks.

It’s really easy for black women with natural hair to get on a high horse about it. To put down women who choose relaxers as somehow less ‘real’ or sellouts or shallow people who hate themselves. It’s a +10 attack spell against women who criticize us for having natural hair. Just last week my aunt said that I had hair “from the jungle” and she would just love it if I got it straightened again, because it would look better. When I asked her why in the world I would voluntarily burn the curls out of my hair and thus deny the natural beauty of myself, she rolled her eyes at me. Like that wasn’t a valid consideration at all.

And this is my family. I get it much worse from people who don’t even know me.

The thing is, women on both sides of the aisle give each other shit as part of a defense mechanism. If I choose to go natural and my friend chooses to go straight, we somehow feel our choices are only valid if we convince ourselves and others that the other choice is the wrong one. The truth is, neither choice is wrong as long as it’s a choice you made in your own best interest.

If you love the way your hair looks when it’s straight, then wear your hair straight. Especially if you’ve weighed the options. Maybe you like it straight because that’s the beauty standard you grew up with. Or maybe your face looks best when framed that way. I know mine looks best when framed in curls, which is natural for me. Dreds or braids would be natural, too. But I don’t think they’d look as good. Straight may look okay, but it requires more effort than I’m willing to put in. That’s my choice.

Black people need to stop giving people shit about their choices. If you feel a good friend or family member is choosing relaxer for a misguided reason, say so with love, not with judgment. Same with a natural style. But if you don’t know that person, keep your opinions to yourself unless asked!

Mamas, Don’t Let Your Daughters Grow Up to Hate Kinky

Oddly enough, the most consistently visited posts on this blog are the ones relating to hair. They no longer come out top everyday as they did last year, but they get at least 20-30 hits daily. Moreso lately because one was linked by Feministe (hi there!). Since I’ve been given this soapbox to stand on and folks are obviously interested in the topic, I thought I’d share my views on another aspect of ethnic hair issues: kids hair.

As I said before, my mother started relaxing my hair from the time I was about 5 or 6 because that’s what most black people do. It’s a cultural thing. Once a girl’s hair gets to a certain stage and it’s deemed ‘safe’ to do so, parents make the first important step in defining their child’s hair for years to come.

At the risk of bringing on an inundation of hate mail and hate comments, I must say what I feel: Don’t Do It. Don’t relax your daughter’s hair. Please, please, please, for the love of follicles, Just Don’t Do It.

Why? you ask. There are many reasons. Ranging from the social and cultural to the personal.

One of the reasons parents start relaxing their child’s (more specifically, daughter’s) hair is because of their own ideas about what is attractive, acceptable, and easy to manage. Most kids under 8 or 9 don’t do their own hair. Most can’t, and that’s okay. So it falls to Mom or Dad to take care of it. I’ll wager most parents don’t have a lot of time to devote to a kid’s hair, especially if they do it in the morning before school and work. Naturally, they want a style that is quick and neat. Most kids want a style that will make them look good, emulates the styles other girls have, and won’t get them laughed at or teased. Sometimes these desires match up nicely. Sometimes the parent’s desires are given precedence because they are the parent. Nothing wrong with that thinking, except the parent isn’t the one who has to walk around with the hair all day. And, eventually, the parent isn’t the one who will have to deal with the consequences of their choice once the child is old enough to do their own hair.

The kind of styles parents encourage or force upon their children sends a strong message. What kind of message depends on the style or the language used. Relaxing indicates that straight hair is more desirable, regardless of how much it hurts or how horrible it may turn out. Calling natural hair Dirty, Nappy, or Ugly may give a little girl a really fucked up sense of self-esteem. In order to look pretty, acceptable, or right, she has to fundamentally change a part of her body from its natural state.

The message that natural/kinky/nappy hair is bad doesn’t only come from parents — kids at school, teachers, television, movies, books, any social or media entity a child may come in contact with might perpetuate this idea. Those factors are even harder to fight than familial indoctrination. But when this message comes from both ends, a girl doesn’t stand a chance.

Beyond the fact that any notion of natural hair being ugly and wrong is complete bullshit, there is the pervasive opinion that it’s harder to take care of. Running a comb through some kinky hair can be painful for both parent and child. Keeping frizzy curls looking neat feels like an uphill battle, especially on a humid day. But I’m willing to bet most parents don’t do a lick of research on how to care for natural hair before deciding to relax. They probably don’t feel they need to when the traditional solution works just fine. Truth is, natural hair care for kids can be easy and inexpensive. One just has to find the right combination of product and technique.

Granted, this is much easier to do now then when I was a kid. Due to the explosion in natural styles and care, more companies and small businesses are generating products and how-tos to make dealing with hair less time consuming and healthier. Most of the knowledge gleaned from dealing with adult natural hair can be applied to kid’s hair. And if you start them early with learning quick and easy ways to get their hair done, the earlier they’ll be able to do it on their own, freeing up valuable morning time for you.

There are plenty of folks who don’t want natural hair. Relaxed/straight is better, they feel. And that’s fine, too. However, I still ask that you not relax your daughter’s hair. Not at first.

As I said before, though you may feel that your daughter is an extension/reflection of yourself and want her to look good, she is the one who has to wear and take care of that hair. Therefore, shouldn’t she be the one to make the decision to relax? And shouldn’t that decision be based on a healthy attitude about herself? It should definitely be based on the knowledge of what she’s in for.

When my hair was relaxed, it took a lot of time to get it looking decent in the morning. And never really looked all that good in the end. When I finally decided to grow the relaxed bits out, it took almost a year. I didn’t want to cut it all off and start fresh because that would make me look terrible, so I had to deal with 2 – 3 different textures on my head for all that time. Plus, relaxer makes hair unhealthy right out of the gate. It breaks easily and therefore doesn’t seem to grow as fast. I’m sure there are other drawbacks that a hair dresser could point out. Girls should know this information before deciding to take that path.

Ease of care isn’t the only issue to deal with here. There’s also the social/cultural aspect: the messages black kids get about “good hair” and what is “neat”, “clean” or “acceptable”. They get it from all sides–home, school, society, media. And most outside forces are definitely on the side of the relaxed and unnatural. Some parents may say it’s better to relax their child’s hair until she’s mentally ready to deal with some of the larger issues. Like it or not, the larger issues will present themselves at the earliest opportunity. You need to prepare your child for them as soon as possible.

One of my cousins has a 7-year-old daughter who, though she has beautiful curly hair like mine, insists that she needs to have straight hair because it’s prettier. She didn’t get that idea from her home, but from school. At 7. You can’t wait.

It seems to me that if you’re going to raise a daughter in the present era who is proud of herself and her heritage, she needs to be proud of every aspect. Just as you’d want to bolster her from feeling that she’s inferior because of her skin color, race, religion, culture, or language, she should never feel inferior because of her hair. Women especially cannot divorce their sense of self-worth from their hair because American culture puts so much emphasis on it. Being ashamed of one’s natural hair is intrinsically linked with being ashamed of any other part of self. It’s growing out of the head, as much a part you as your skin, nails, or eye color. Therefore, it is imperative that hair becomes just as much a consideration in the self-worth building process as anything else. And it should go without saying (though it can’t) that brown girls growing up in America need all the help they can get in developing a strong sense of self-esteem.

So I’m asking again: please don’t relax your daughter’s hair as a matter of course. Learn how to take care of her hair as it is. Teach her to help you do so. Find a beautiful, natural style that will make her proud and is easy to do. And, when she’s ready to go it on her own, make sure she understands the choices before her. They will affect her for life.

Related Posts: Good Hair, Kinky Hair | Black Hair Etiquette Guide

Here are some posts (on another site) specifically about hair care and good products that folks might find useful: African American Hair Care (applies to anyone with curly hair, really) | 15 Minutes to Perfect Curls