Monday, March 21, 2005

Missing: Flava Flav- 5' 7" 150 lbs. Socially Conscious Rapper. Last Seen Wearing a Clock

Being from Texas and growing up in the 80’s. I share my southern sensibilities with many brothers who grew up in that wonderful time to be a black youth in America. At least I thought it was wonderful. Don’t get me wrong…there was still evidence of racism and discrimination in the world, but society seemed to be on an upward trajectory or maybe my naive optimism made me think so.


White America was repenting for it's past discrimination, as affirmative action took hold. Blacks were rising to new heights in every aspect of American achievement including politics, science, and business. It was a time of firsts like Jessie Jackson being the first black presidential candidate, Guy Bluford being the first black astronaut in space, and Oprah Winfrey became the first black to own her own television and movie production company.

Opportunities seemed endless when I was a boy as the Huxtables replaced the Evans family as the prototypical black American TV family. By the end of the eighties, we even had a new hip late night talk show hosted by Arsenio Hall. Hollywood was feeling the power of Eddie Murphy in front of the camera, and a young Spike Lee was on the move behind the camera with School Daze and Do the Right Thing. The airwaves were saturated with Michael Jackson, Prince, and Luther Vandross, and the new urban-derived performance art known as rap had culminated in the mainstream success of a group known as Public Enemy. The evils that remained on our city streets seemed to be under assault by these urban griots who stated defiantly It Takes a Nation of Millions To Hold Us Back!

The NFL and the NBA were starring the likes of Walter Payton and Magic Johnson who were redefining what it meant to be a professional athlete. Carl Lewis and FloJo kept up the tradition of the Olympics being a time for African Americans to shine on the world stage.
Every where that I turned, blacks seemed to be making progress in our society. The world seemed to be a promising place when I was 15. I thought I could easily play professional tennis like Zina Garrison, become a brilliant lawyer like Jonathan Rollins (Blaire Underwood) on L.A. Law, or become a world class neurosurgeon like the real life Benjamin Carson.

However, before I would graduate from high school, the world would start to reveal to me that there was much to be worried about, and not everything in our society was moving in the “right” direction.


It started with a backlash against affirmative action that unveiled the hidden racial tension, that I thought was not there. As I enjoyed the attention of a myriad of universities offering me academic scholarships, I listened as Jimmy (a white kid who went to my predominantly black high school) lamented his difficulties getting into a decent college. It was only a matter of time before “Hopwood versus the University of Texas” would start to revoke the opportunities that we had just started to enjoy. We saw Rodney King take a beating, and his attackers get off. Then we saw Los Angeles burn…again. Of course, the US criminal court system tried to right the wrong by acquitting OJ after we watched him hold a gun to his head in the back of AC's White Bronco.

On television, quality shows were replaced by programming that reintroduced the stereotypes we had tried to forget. Jerry Springer was getting ratings by bringing the most ignorant people he could find on television for the world to see. This eventually led to the reality television boom. Although blacks have behaved badly on these programs, I must admit that reality television has been mostly an equal opportunity degrader. By the mid-nineties, Martin Lawrence won NAACP Image Awards in 1993 and 1994. Was Sheneneh the most positive image of blacks on television? Even BET capitulated to the pressure to structure it’s programming around ribald stand-up comedy and tawdry music videos. Speaking of music, Michael Jackson went on to become the King of Odd, instead of the King of Pop.

Well, at least we still had our street poets that would never betray what hip-hop was founded on...right? Enter the commercial success of rap. After NWA (who were at least original) went multi-platinum on Ruthless records with no airplay, label executives woke up and subsequently perverted rap into something that is hardly recognizable as art. Instead of Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five reporting on the harsh realities of urban life in the Message, we have the latest 50 Cent offering (escorted by the obligatory posse, “G-Unit”) with Snoop Dogg exclaiming he’s a “P-I-M-P”. Do you remember when the top rappers squashed their beef to record Self Destruction? I don’t think violence prevention is what rappers have in mind now when they’re planning their next “collabo”. If you scan the airwaves of today’s over produced tales of glorified violence, misogyny, materialism, drunkenness, and promiscuity, it’s clear that rap changed direction in the nineties. Except for a few voices crying out in the wilderness, the game’s dun changed.

Meanwhile, Magic announced he was HIV positive, and A-I-D-S hit H-O-M-E. Half of the other professional athletes denied that they were role models as they made 10 million a year, and we watched in horror as Dennis Rodman showed how bad someone would behave if no one held him accountable. Even yesterdays heroes lost their shame exhibited by Wilt Chamberlain when he disclosed his famous off-court achievements.


So now, as I ponder the last twenty years, I feel that something corrupted black America in the 90’s. However, when I try to think objectively about what changed, I have to consider that it’s all in my mind. The logical explanation is that my analysis suffers from recall bias…maybe my nostalgic memory of youth colors the 80’s in bright hues, but 90’s are shaded with darkness in my minds eye. Perhaps it’s just that I had a happy childhood, and therefore remember only what was wonderful, inspiring and positive about the 80’s. Then as I matured and had to start facing adult problems and feeling adult pain, I started to be sensitive to the sinister side of things in the 90’s. Reason would tell me that I’m not an objective observer of the time period. In the eighties, I was a kid, so I thought the General Lee was a cool car and I’d love to live in Hazard County with Bo and Luke Duke. However if I had been older, I would have been pissed off that a show honoring the confederate flag was so popular, and would have shook my head in disgust to see those Duke boys evade the law, knowing that if it had been Andre and Demarcus “making a way the only way they know how” in Georgia, they would have gone into the state prison system on a list of trumped up charges never to be heard from again.

Yes, maybe it’s me twisting the facts…logic says that our society was never improving, and that I merely perceived progress, but was too unsophisticated to see what was really going on.
Despite reason indicating that I’m biased and that there was no sudden change in black America in 1990, the left side of my brain just can’t seem to convince the right side of my brain that this is so. In my gut, I’m convinced that our social fabric was gaining strength when I was young…that black America was collectively walking into the promised land, and then something really did happen to change the direction of things. I can’t help but think progress was taking place, but we sold out or lost our way or something.
Well, maybe it is nostalgia. Maybe kids who grew up in the 60’s feel this way, and kids that grew up in the 70’s feel this way, and kids who grew up in the 90’s are going to feel this way. Maybe we all experience our youth with idealistic notions. Or…maybe my gut is right, and black America lost its way in the 90’s. I guess it cannot be known since no historian is truly objective, but this one thing I’m sure of: If you could travel back in time to 1990, and tell Chuck D, “In 15 years, Flava Flav is going to prostitute himself on a reality television show with his 'Strange Love' interest Brigitte Nielson”, Chuck would have died laughing…
But then again…it’s Flav.


At Mon Apr 18, 12:32:00 AM, Blogger chad said...

The following is a short letter I wrote before I graduated from medical school. It still seems relevant today despite the dated "artists" of interest. I thought I would append it to this posting about something changing in black America 1990, since it seems related.

November 5, 2000


In the last several days, I have been exposed to some very poignant discussion and thought concerning the issues of the media and how it affects people, in particular black people.

Last week, I saw the Spike Lee movie Bamboozled with my parents while they visited me here in Baltimore. I must say that I was pleased with Mr. Lee/s efforts to say something thoughtful about the media onslaught of television shows and music videos that negatively portray black Americans. Mr. Lee’s film (which in traditional Spike lee fashion had multiple story lines progressing simultaneously) centers on a television show writer/producer who, while under pressure from network executives, develops a pilot for a black minstrel show. The pilot is complete with characters in blackface (with names like “Sleep-an-eat”, “Mantan”, and “Lil’ Nigga Jim”) set in a watermelon patch. Needless to say Mr. Lee went to extreme measures to make sure the audience knew that there was nothing “entertaining” about this show other than the degradation of the black American image. The movie was a little difficult to follow, and Mr. Lee’s point was obscured by the complexity of the storyline, but the basic objective of making the audience think about the direction that television has taken in the last few years was met.

Then on yesterday, I attended a regional Student NAtional MEdical Association) SNMA conference hosted by the George Washington chapter of SNMA. The plenary session was about the impact of hip-hop culture on the health of America’s youth. The presenters showed interesting data regarding the rising incidence of violence among young adults in this country and the rising prevalence of televisions in American homes. Some very elegant natural experiments that involved measuring violence prevalence in populations that were exposed to various modes of media suggest that there may be a causal relationship. One of the presenters then went on to outline the state of affairs with the rap lyrics and videos and the magnitude of negative images and values being championed by current hip hop artists.

As my mind absorbed all of this information over the past few days, I could not help feeling convicted of contributing to this decline with my own appetite for entertainment that is less than above reproach in content. Now despite my Christian faith, I usually try not to be hyper-religious or ultra-conservative in my view point about artistic expression. However, my Christian faith does shape my values, and if I am to be a man of principle who abhors violence, scandal, sexual perversion, and all expressions of mans inhumanity to man, how can I justify listening to or watching anything that glorifies that which I detest. In Paul’s letter to the church at Phillipi he encourages the Christians by saying: “Finally, brethren, whatever things are true, whatever things are noble, whatever things are just, whatever things are pure, whatever things are lovely, whatever things are of good report, if there is any virtue and if there be anything praiseworthy—meditate on these things.”(Phi 4:8) Now if I want to have a mind that is governed by peace, why would I drown myself with images and values contrary images and values of love. The only result I get from saturating my mind with violence and degredation is fracturing my mind into a schizophrenic state as it tries to reconcile my stated values with those I’m constantly reveling in.

In addition to the effects that media has on me, my support of this degrading entertainment has effects on others as well. But it is hard to be the one to stand up against the current of what is popular. While at the SNMA conference, I sat next to a colleague of mine who I think of as good man. I usually like to hang out with this brother, and my impression of him is that he is thoroughly interested in the welfare of others as most medical students usually are. However, when we discussed what we had just heard from the presenters in particular about rap lyrics, he defended his enjoyment of artists like Mystical (Shake your Ass) and Jay-Z (Big Pimpin’), stating the often heard: “I just like the beat.” I agreed that those beats were indeed good, but then I asked him how much he would enjoy those same beats if the artist was a Mississippi Klansman singing about lynching black men. He assured me that no matter how intoxicating the rhythm was, he would be disgusted by such music and would support it in no way. He still maintained that he did not endorse the offensive lyrics of artists whose music he listened to, but he did agree that by tolerating these lyrics and endorsing “the beat”, he was clearly supporting this music more than the fictional M.C. Redneck. Then this pragmatic future doctor pointed out that even if he did refuse to support artists like Juvenile, his protest of the misogynistic lyrics would not change anything. He lamented that if he decided not to dance at any club that played "offensive" music, he’d be on the wall, while everyone else “backed that thing up”. My colleague said the popularity of these lyrics were pointless to resist, and he felt no responsibility for what this music was potentially doing to young impressionable minds. Like the Eastern proverb says, “Not one snowflake feels responsible for the avalanche.”

But that is where I feel that those who are enlightened to the effects of negative media images must stop and say, “I will not be a participant to maleficence.” We must be a people of principles. This means that if you never go to another nightclub, never buy another album, or never go see another movie, you will hold fast to the principle that you will not support with your time or dollars any endeavor that demeans, devalues, or demoralizes who you are. What is at stake is not just the integrity of your values, but possibly the future of a more impressionable generation. I will be the first to admit that I have been a hypocrite…shaking my head in pity at the prostitutes on the Baltimore streets as misogynistic lyrics pour out of the windows of my car. How can I justify that I know the words to Still Not a Player by Big Pun, but I can barely get through the first verse of Lift Every Voice and Sing without looking at the hymnal. How can I call myself committed to truth when I waste 30 minutes to watch the Wayan’s Brothers, but I don’t manage to get around to reading the Bible. How can I be man of principle if I will tolerate any foolishness called entertainment because it’s popular. In Paul’s letter to the Romans, he admonished the Christians to: “Be not confirmed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”(Rom 12:2) You may be an unpopular snowflake as the avalanche surges around you, but your conscience will be clear when you look at the conditions on the city streets. Your psyche will not be ruptured as your mind tries to integrate Jesus' principles of unconditional love deomnstrated by His conversation with the Samaritan woman by the well with NWA's philosophy of female degradation as demonstrated in their anthem "Bitches Ain't Shit..." More importantly, when you see some young woman who used to feel loved, but now feels numb as she sells herself, you will know that you did not help to degrade her...just because you liked the beat.

At Mon Apr 18, 04:17:00 AM, Blogger Mr. Wilson said...

i see you finally got around to writing in this thing.

i have no additional insight into the conundrum you have discussed in the original post and the letter in the comments section.

i too question whether things are getting worse for "our" community and/or american culture as a whole or is it just that i am entering the stage of adulthood where I can no longer deny my the infinite potential of my individual choices? you and i are both familiar with the life of Mohandas Ghandi, and with that knowlege comes a shining example of how one conscientious soul can turn the world around. Perhaps we are blessed to be feeling the pangs of conscientiousness. Perhaps we are saddened that those pangs are not always powerful enough to arouse action and conviction in our hearts...or maybe we are just saddened that most don't feel the same pangs.

But there is one thing I have learned about conscientiousness: I was at a book club meeting yesterday, and we were discussing the Rwanda Genocide of the mid 90's and the ongoing genocide in soutern Sudan and the eastern Congo. One woman argued that knowledge of what was going on without any action on our parts implied we were complicit. (That woman was the "Ologist" by the way.) I don't agree with her though. I told her that I was much more focused in relating to the people I come into contact with in a positive way, then trying to figure out some way to directly influence what happens on the other side of the world. If what I do is good, than the effects can have nothing but a positive ripple effect.

Don't get me wrong. Some will be moved by conscientiousness to stop listening to gangsta rap, or to travel to east Africa on a humanitarian mission, but there should be nothing wrong with continued patronage of 50 Cent not any guilt over accepting one's lack of motivation to heal the world social issues. We are all connected and what hurts anyone on this planet ultimately hurts me. But similarly we all share and benefit in each other's joy. With that in mind, I don't think it benefits mankind for us to focus so much on our social responsbilities, that we turn our backs on the things that give us personal fulfillment. Should you not be able to drink wine and enjoy merriment because some destroy themselves with spirits. Should we not be able to momentarily lose yourself in the visceral side of hip hop, because other's accept the reality of the artist over their own experiences? Compassion and understanding should be given to the self as frequently as it is given to other men. Enthusiasm for giving our fellow man the tools to avoid suffering should not be at the expense of being able to create joy in our own lives.

At Wed Apr 20, 07:18:00 PM, Blogger Intellectual Insurgent said...

What defines culture? Generally, a common music, food, dress and language. If we take music as an example, you can see that the culture has changed dramatically (negatively) since we were children. Born in the early 70's, I grew up on Prince, MJ (when he was black), Duran Duran and Depeche Mode. The music was typically fairly happy, fun, introspective or socially conscious. Even the heavy metallers (Def Lepperd and Van Halen) were tame compared to the garbage today.

If Run DMC was starting up today, would they get the play they got back in the day? Would they be able to compete with 50 Cent's Candy Shop? I fear not.

I laugh about growing up to be my parents. I wonder if it is just the process of maturing that makes much of today's music distasteful. But, I realize that, as I have grown and evolved, so has music. It is not happy and positive as it was when we were children. Much of it is filthy, mysogenistic, materialistic and violent - everything that American culture is unfortunately becoming.

At Mon Sep 07, 01:43:00 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know you got allot of important things to say man, it's as if we lost the revolution and now the baby boomers are looking in their rearviews wondering what happened. The "man" has truly prevailed in ensuring that more and more minorities and poor people stay within their social confines and not strive to better themselves in any way. And this is how they poison us. Go figure.


Post a Comment

<< Home