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Jul. 28 2010 — 5:04 pm | 229 views | 0 recommendations | 3 comments

Hip-hop promotes poverty? No, no y’all

NEW YORK - OCTOBER 02:  Rapper Lil John perfor...

Image by Getty Images North America via @daylife

Since its inception, hip-hop has endured endless attacks – typically, but not always, wrongheaded – mostly because of references to violence and for celebrating a culture that devalues women. When a wealthy, white radio host used a derogatory term to describe members of the Rutgers women’s basketball team, other wealthy, white men rushed to his aid by inexplicably pinning blame on hip-hop.  Perhaps the fever pitch of misdirected blame on rap music was reached when Congress devoted time and resources into hearings probing the genre, another hilariously off-kilter spectacle in which a body of old, wealthy white men who authorize war wagged their fingers at the use of indelicate language.

But perhaps the most ignorant and insulting knock against hip-hop yet – and that’s saying something – is this suggestion from a writer at TheLoop21.com that it in spotlighting the gritty, ravaged neighborhoods from which many rappers emerged, the artists are actually glorifying poverty. It’s a ridiculous premise in virtually every imaginable way – the most obvious being that acknowledging poverty and desperation exist and treating them as if they’re worthy of aspiration are far, far different things.

The author confuses one of the most celebrated notions in hip-hop – pride in one’s roots – as a devastating concept that forces those who make it out of poverty to act as a sort-of one-man welfare agency for his deadbeat friends back home.

“This mentality of dependence is encouraged and glorified by rappers and then forced back upon the potential breadwinners of poor communities. Athletes, politicians and even members of are own family are thrust into positions of sharing with the hood.”

This is about as logical as knocking someone who sits at his mother’s bedside during chemo treatments of enabling cancer.

In other ways, the author simply seems laughably unaware of most popular hip-hop – he makes the bizarre assertion that hip-hop should embrace self-sufficiency, which is essentially the equivalent of suggesting country doesn’t talk enough about pick-ups trucks and American flags. The braggadocio and swagger that exemplifies hip-hop relies on artists reveling in having taken matters into their own hands. Take this Kanye West line from “Bring Me Down”:  “Made a mil myself, and I’m still myself, and I’ma look in the mirror if I need some help.” That type of back-patting is typical of an artist and a genre that rewards those who climb out “tha hood” but who don’t forget those who never made it.

Notably, the suggestion that rap glorifies poverty ignores what has been an enduring – and valid – critique of hip-hop’s materialism. Rappers have long touted their bling, be it cars, clothes, jewelry, houses, whatever, precisely because those things are big, glittering symbols that they have escaped poverty. There are certainly arguments to be made that an obsession with diamonds and Dom shows misplaced priorities, but it’s hard to ignore these rappers’ desire to distance themselves from having very little and what it represents.

Look, don’t get me wrong – much as I love hip-hop, it is ripe for critiques, and indeed, many brilliant ones have been made. It’s a complex community with characters ranging from Soulja Boy to Mos Def, and anything that big, crowded and noisy is bound to have its problems. But this assertion is patently ridiculous – and so blind to even the most obvious and celebrated hallmarks of the genre it purports to want to help that it deserves to get called out.

Jul. 26 2010 — 2:49 pm | 1,907 views | 0 recommendations | 12 comments

Why Is Rihanna Singing in Eminem’s Domestic Violence-Fueled Single?

Rihanna in her Last Girl on Earth Tour

Image via Wikipedia

It has been a year and a half since Chris Brown was arrested for assaulting Rihanna, his girlfriend at the time, the night before the 2009 Grammy Awards. Both of them have released albums since then, acknowledging the incident in their own ways – Brown with songs like the over-the-top “Changed Man,” and Rihanna more subtly on tracks like “Stupid in Love” and “Cold Case Love.”

Though she shouldn’t have to forever wear her victimhood on her sleeve, Rihanna did express in interviews following the incident that she felt to compelled to speak out about her ordeal out of concern for her young fans who might be dealing with similar problems. It’s pretty bizarre, therefore, that her newest hit has her singing the hook on a domestic violence-fueled Eminem track, the single “Love the Way You Lie,” currently No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart.

Rihanna’s portion of the song is rather tongue-in-cheek. She moans the refrain throughout: “Just gonna stand there and watch me burn, well that’s all right because I like the way it hurts/Just gonna stand there and hear me cry, well that’s all right because I love the way you lie.” In between her bouts of singing, though, Eminem hurls angry words that paint a scary picture of a relationship gone wrong, a theme typical of his raps. “I feel so ashamed, I snap … I laid hands on her/I’ll never stoop so low again/I guess I don’t even know my own strength,” he spits, before closing the song with this terrifying revelation: “I’m tired of the games, I just want her back I know I’m a liar/If she ever tries to fucking leave again, I’ma tie her to the bed and set this fucking house on fire.”

Subtle, Eminem is not. Which makes Rihanna’s participation in such an explicitly violent song all the more hard to understand. She has lent her vocals to countless rap tracks by other artists, giving a strong feminine touch to songs like “Run This Town” with Jay-Z and Kanye West, and “Live Your Life” with T.I. And while some of those songs contained vaguely violent elements, they were rooted in metaphor (“Get your fatigues on”), and had Rihanna as an active participant – she dons the same all-black outfit and badass swagger as the men she’s next to. But in “Love the Way You Lie,” the girl at the center of the story is clearly and unequivocally a victim, even if Eminem describes being hurt by her too.

Rihanna certainly isn’t obligated to forever use her music as a platform from which to speak out against abuse. There has to be a happy medium, however, between advocating for women and participating in a song in which one is getting beaten to death.

Jul. 19 2010 — 2:14 pm | 4,046 views | 0 recommendations | 15 comments

Norma Lopez: Another victim of Missing White Woman Syndrome?

Norma Lopez went missing on her way home from summer school. Photo via KTLA News.

When 7-year-old Kyron Horman went missing from his Portland, Ore. school early last month, news outlets ranging from blogs to newspapers to TV stations raced to cover the story. His name quickly climbed up most-searched term lists and People magazine has been relentless in its documentation of each break in the case. Meanwhile, the case of another young boy who went missing at nearly the exact same time as Horman, Anthony Thomas, generated only a fraction of the coverage.

It was only a yet another example of the media’s crush to report on abductions and foul play involving white women and children, while giving little coverage to minorities who disappear: The latest example is 17-year-old Norma Lopez, who appears to have been kidnapped on her way home from summer school in Moreno Valley, Calif. Most of the coverage of Lopez’s disappearance has come from local news outlets, while the national attention to the case by places like the Los Angeles Times and CNN has been restricted to short blog posts — rising nowhere near the level that dominated the disappearances of girls like Elizabeth Smart and Natalee Holloway.

Media coverage is crucial to the cases of people who go missing because it is often vigilant members of the public who can play a role in helping law enforcement find the victim. Certainly a young, beautiful girl like Lopez and the eery circumstances surrounding her going missing — some of her belongings and “evidence of a struggle” were found in a field Lopez would walk through as a shortcut — are just as deserving of coverage as any other person — white, female or otherwise.

Jul. 16 2010 — 2:34 pm | 161 views | 0 recommendations | 1 comment

The reverse age dynamics of L.A. and D.C.

Selena Gomez-Alex

Image via Wikipedia

As some people may have noticed, I’ve been pathetically absent from my own digs as of late – in large part because I recently completed a cross-country move from Los Angeles to Washington D.C.

I’ve been predictably surprised by my new, strange habitat: It’s a bizarre place where Subway restaurants serve pizza, where bars offer “rail” drinks (instead of “well”), and where Lay’s peddles a dill-pickle-flavored variety of potato chips. (Also, if you couldn’t tell, I do a lot of eating and drinking.)

But beyond my own fascination with the peculiarities of various food and beverage purveyors, there’s an interesting dichotomy in the power and age dynamics at work in each town. Both L.A. and D.C. are one-industry towns, revolving around entertainment and government, respectively. The faces of those industries, and those who actually wield power within them, are almost hilariously opposed.

The likes of Selena Gomez, Zac Efron and the stars of “Twilight” are all visible power players in Hollywood. Throw their faces on your vehicle and it’s likely to be at least moderately successful. It’s a culture that fawns over youth and discards older stars with relative ease. But the people (and by that, I of course mean white dudes) who actually hold the puppet strings – the studio bosses, news directors, magazine editors, etc. are of course much older. Viacom chair Sumner Redstone is 87, for example.

In D.C. though, it’s the old, white men who are the public faces of the government (minus, you know, one very-visible guy who is less white). It’s a culture where age is often considered an asset. Take this report from my new place of employ, which finds:

But the culture on Capitol Hill not only makes it taboo to question older lawmakers’ ability, it also rewards their longevity with roles as influential committee chairmen and a greater share of earmarks. …

“This job is the only job in the country where you can keep working even if your staff [members] are literally carrying you into the office,” said one former Senate staffer who worked for Sen. Arlen Specter. The 80-year-old Democrat from Pennsylvania recently lost his primary bid for a 6th term.

And predictably, it’s the young staffers doing the carrying who weird enormous power behind the scenes – a fact emphasized by a recent New York Times magazine article, All the Obama 20-Somethings:

When Barack Obama’s presidential campaign began on a clear and frigid day in Springfield, Ill., in 2007, the young men and women who would shovel snow in Iowa, crash on couches in Pittsburgh and pass up grad school to join it could not quite grasp that two years later their journey would end at the Oval Office. They also could not imagine all of the unseen difficulties that would await them — everything from a cratering economy and an attempt at a Christmas Day terrorist attack to plummeting poll numbers as their president fell to earth. Showing up to work each day at the most prestigious address in America can feel a bit like finals week in college. They are always on call, always working hard.

I know all too well how easily age can work against you when you’re applying for anything beyond an entry-level position - a fact that is only amplified in an economy where recent grads find themselves competing with workers in their sectors who have been laid off and possess years more experience. It’s weirdly comforting to know, then, that one sector that values and encourages young people is also one of the most powerful.

Jul. 12 2010 — 1:06 pm | 256 views | 0 recommendations | 2 comments

Arizona law takes hip-hop back to its roots

Talib Kweli performing in Brooklyn/Red Bull Ex...

Image via Wikipedia

Despite its tendency to sometimes dwell on bitches and bling, and despite its status as arguably the most dominant force in pop culture, hip-hop remains the mainstream musical genre that most willingly delves into politics – and nothing has made that clearer recently than Arizona’s controversial immigration law.

Racial profiling and disparate treatment from police helped launch hip-hop from the start, and has been a consistent thread for decades, from N.W.A’s “Fuck tha Police” to Tupac Shakur lamenting “Cops give a damn about a Negro, pull the trigger, kill a n—-, he’s a hero,” in “Changes” to Jay-Z speculating in “99 Problems” that he got pulled over because “I’m young and I’m black and my hat’s real low.”

After spending much of 2008 and 2009 celebrating the candidacy, and win, of President Barack Obama, rap artists are getting back to the business of calling foul on disparate treament of minorities. Kanye West and others already joined a group of musicians – including rap troupe Cypress Hill - under the banner Sound Strike, all of whom promised not to play in Arizona because of SB 1070, which gives law enforcement officers broad authority in stopping and demanding documentation from anyone they suspect of being in the country illegally.

The Washington Post points out that Brooklyn rapper Talib Kweli has also taken Arizona to task in his song “Papers Please,” aimed squarely at Arizona, rapping “I could never support a law that don’t respect humanity.” Kweli told the Post that he felt a personal connection with what Arizona minorities will be dealing with when the law takes effect:

“I grew up with my mother telling me . . . you are never supposed to leave your house without ID,” Kweli said in an interview Friday. “This is something I’d grown up used to as a young black person. I’ve been stopped and been detained.”

Indeed, such encounters with the police are enduring hallmarks of some timeless hip-hop tracks. Chuck D and Toki Wright have also released Arizona-themed songs – not to mention the tracks like Public Enemy’s original “By the Time I Get to Arizona,” which took issue with the state back in 1991 when it refused to honor Martin Luther King Jr. with a national holiday.

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    I'm a Los Angeles-based writer and editor focusing on pop and politics, race and culture, and where Gen-Yers fit into it all. My writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, the Christian Science Monitor, WashingtonPost.com, the San Francisco Chronicle and People magazine. Among other things, I'm Oregon-born, hip-hop-addicted, and weirdly optimistic that the journalism business will stay alive.

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