Black Music The Mis-Managed Gift

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In the late 1960s and 1970s, the top Rhythm and Blues songs were about racial pride and self-love.  Songs like “We’re A Winner,” “Higher Ground,” and “Respect Yourself” inspired a generation of African Americans to work together and feel better about their circumstances. Today’s (urban) music contains derogatory language, normalizes violence, and promotes the pimp/gangster mentality.

James Brown asked Al Sharpton during their last conversation, “What happened to us that we are now celebrating from being down?  What happened we went from saying I’m black and I’m proud to calling each other niggers and ho’s and bitches?”  Brown said, “I sung people up and now they’re singing people down, and we need to change the music.”

James Brown was right.  Here are three reasons why we need to change the music in 2014:

1. We are not keeping it real. Rappers are unfairly blamed for many of the problems in the black community.  Professor Michael Eric Dyson argues that, “the demonization of gangsta rappers is often a convenient excuse for cultural and political elites to pounce on a group of artists who are easy prey.” I completely agree. However, we, as a community, need to challenge gangster rappers’ specious justifications for promoting violence and using derogatory language.

Many rappers rationalize their negative content by proclaiming to be street reporters. 50 Cent said, “Music is a mirror, and hip-hop is a reflection of the environment that we grew up in.”This statement is disingenuous. Many gangster rappers, including 50 Cent, do not simply rap about what they have experienced. Oftentimes, they glorify the worst aspects of the inner city. A perfect example is 50 Cent’s popular 2003 song “P.I.M.P.”

He raps:

I ain’t that nigga trying to holla cause I want some head/ I’m that nigga trying to holla cause I want some bread/ I could care less how she perform when she in the bed/ Bitch hit that track, catch a date, and come and pay the kid/ Look baby this is simple, you can’t see/ You fucking with me, you fucking with a P-I-M-P.

In this song, 50 Cent describes the life of a pimp as being exciting and glamorous. Taking on the persona of a pimp, 50 Cent brags that he drives a Mercedes Benz and wears tons of jewelry. If I were young or naive, I might think this would be a great career without negative repercussions.

50 Cent’s assertion that he raps about reality is not accurate.  This song does not reflect the true pimp-prostitute relationship in the inner city. Pimps engage in dangerous and criminal behavior. They can be sentenced to long prison terms for major offenses such as operating a prostitution business, child sex abuse, and sex trafficking. Moreover, pimps and gangsters ruin our communities. They prey on vulnerable girls (sometimes as young as 14 years old).  These girls are forced to engage in sexual activities in dirty motels, back alleys, and even the backseats of strangers’ cars.

I do not want to single out 50 Cent or this song.  Currently, the most downloaded hip-hop songs use the gangster/pimp/thug trope. As of January 2nd, 2014, YG’s “My Nigga” has spent 12 weeks on the Billboard Hot 100 Chart; and in less than three months (September 2013-December 2013), the single was certified Gold, meaning it was downloaded or streamed on-demand over 500,000 times. Songs like these wrongly promote actions that are illegal and deleterious to our community.

Think about the way repetitive lyrics and stylized music videos can influence impressionable young boys and girls. In The Hip Hop Wars, Tricia Rose writes, “As it stands now, ‘keeping it real’ is a strategy that traps poor black youth in a repetitious celebration of the rotten fruits of community destruction.”Furthermore, this distortion of inner-city life continues to link African Americans to laziness, criminal violence, and sexual insatiability; thus, reinforcing the most potent racist and sexist images of the black community.

2. Not keeping with tradition. In a 2007 sermon, Al Sharpton responded to arguments by rappers like 50 Cent.  Sharpton noted that black music has never been just a reflection of black life; black music has always encouraged and uplifted our community. Sharpton explained, “During slavery, we were not just singing about picking cotton; we were singing “Go Down Moses.” During the 1950s, we were not just singing about sitting at the back of the bus; we were singing “We Shall Overcome.” In the 1960s, when whites told us we were less than equals, we were singing, “I’m Black and I’m Proud.”Black musicians have always inspired our people to dream higher and think bigger.

One of the best examples of this is James Brown’s “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.” In the 1960s, Brown worked tirelessly to uplift our community. By 1968, he was frustrated that African Americans were still being marginalized and oppressed.  He was also disheartened by the rate of crime within our own neighborhoods.  In fact, urban violence was the final impetus that motivated Brown to write his trademark song.

In The One: The Life and Music of James Brown, R.J. Smith recalls Brown watching a television news report about black-on-black violence with his longtime manager, Charles Bobbit. The book notes, “Mr. Brown said, ‘Black people love each other, why do we have to do this to each other?’” After a few moments, Bobbit retreated to his room. Brown asked him to come back twenty minutes later. When Bobbit entered, he saw two napkins with the phrase written, “Say It Loud – I’m Black and I’m Proud.”  Brown asked Bobbit to gather 30 kids and meet him at the recording studio. Using the young people to help him sing the chorus, Brown recorded the song that night.

Brown, later, explained his reason for incorporating boys’ and girls’ voices into the song. In his autobiography, he wrote, “If you listen to it, it sounds like a children’s song. That’s why I had children in it, so children who heard it could grow up feeling pride.” Over 50 hip-hop songs have sampled James Brown’s melodies.  I wish more platinum-selling artists today would emulate Brown’s desire to use lyrics as a means to empower and uplift young people.

3. Music is a powerful tool In our culture, musical artists and their songs have always enjoyed a central role.  Nikki Giovanni once wrote that, “if [Aretha Franklin] had said, ‘come let’s do it, it would have been done.”Even during Dr. Martin Luther King’s career, comedian and activist Dick Gregory understood that an artist like Aretha Franklin had just as much political and social impact as King. “You heard her three or four times an hour. You heard him only once on the news.” This analogy is even more true now. Not only do we hear a song by an artist like Rihanna or Kanye West several times an hour on the radio, but we are also inundated with their music videos on television and online.

Every time an artist of that caliber releases a new single or album, millions of people all over the world are talking about it and/or sharing it via social media. Three weeks ago, so many people were downloading the new Beyoncé album and posting about it across all social media platforms that many pop culture commentators joked, “Beyoncé had broke the Internet.” Furthermore, Rihannahas over 32 million more followers on Twitter than First Lady Michelle Obama. Today, our musical artists have an even bigger platform to help shape our community’s discourse.

Throughout black history, artists like Aretha Franklin took advantage of their unique position by recording empowering songs like “Respect” and “Think.”  One of Aretha’s favorite songwriters and artists, Curtis Mayfield also used his status to encourage African Americans during the civil rights movement.  In Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, Werner writes:

When the struggle seemed too much to bear, followers of both Martin and Malcolm took heart from Mayfield’s gentle exhortation to “Keep On Pushing.” As they savored the bonds of love and friendship that bound their families and the movement itself together, they sank into the soothing harmonies of “I’m So Proud” and “Woman’s Got Soul.” “People Get Ready” tapped the deepest wellsprings of the gospel vision and gave many a weary soul a place to rest.

Some people suggest the civil rights era demanded an approach that is no longer relevant or necessary. This argument is problematic. During that period, we were fighting for justice and equality in greater society while simultaneously wrestling with complex issues within our own community.

In 2013, we experienced the Trayvon Martin verdict, the striking down of a major component of the Voting Rights Act, and the continued proliferation of the prison industrial complex. Yes, we continued to celebrate having a black president; but, we only have one black governor (out of 50) and one recently elected black senator (1 of 100) in the United States Congress.

In addition, we struggled to find ways to curb inner-city youth and gang violence. This epidemic claimed the lives of too many of our precious boys and girls. Moreover, the homicide statistics did not account for the countless young people who survived violent attacks but were severely injured, traumatized, or emotionally numbed.

In 2014, we still face many uphill battles and challenges. And that is, ultimately, why we need to change our music. We need songs that will motivate us to stay positive. We need songs that will encourage our young people to graduate high school and attend college. We need songs that will remind us to respect ourselves and our community. We need songs that will inspire a generation to work together to solve our most difficult problems. Now more than ever, we need our artists to sing us up!

Jarrett MathisJarrett Mathis is the Founder of Empowering Ourselves, Inc., a 501© (3) non-profit organization, whose mission is to empower black youth and reduce violence in Brooklyn, New York. To learn more about Empowering Ourselves, please visit www.EmpoweringOurselvesInc.org.  He can be contacted at jarrett@empoweringourselvesinc.org

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22 thoughts on “Black Music The Mis-Managed Gift

  1. Our music needs to change but how? What are the first steps for making this happen? I hope for a day that I don’t have to worry about being blasted with the N-word every time I listen to a song but I don’t know if these artists even realize the errors in their ways. How do we bring more awareness to this issue within our communities. Especially with kids.

    • I think we have to start with children, including those that are not our own. Mentorship and education is key to spreading knowledge. Jarrett’s non profit focuses on this. Visit his website, he was featured on CNN for his workshop were he teaches Black children the history behind the N-word.

    • it starts by leveraging the same tools for music distribution that independent artists already use. Creating a label is the easy part. Distributing music independently is tough, which is why most artists choose to make garbage music because they know that is the only kinds of music that the powers that be will sell coming from our community. They choose fame over money and control. Artists who are independent often make more money than those who are not. The creative control and larger share of profits can be used to further distribute positive music through independent digital channels. Artists can use that money to also start other business ventures in their own community. We would have a positive economic cycle built off positive music that would allow us to hire more of our own people and bring down our unemployment rate.

      Unfortunately, many will not see it this way and look to get rich quickly instead of being wealthy over the LT. They don’t feel it is their duty to be a leader in this movement, they rather watch someone else do it, like Tyler Perry or Oprah or Diddy. and then they will jump on the bandwagon later. This attitude of waiting until someone else steps up to take a leadership role is why economic progress takes so long for us. Other races work directly with each other so they all thrive in the long run. Blacks do not. We are still at the whim of the powers that be and most of us can have our careers destroyed instantly if we piss off the wrong people (i.e. Michael Jackson).

  2. This post is misleading. The obscenity in black music goes back to the 1920s. Have you heard the sexual innuendos in early recordings of black music? Even during the era in which you imply was so political aware, there were slew of black artists who never addressed the urgency of civil rights.

  3. There is no doubt there was almost sexual explicit songs by artist in the 60, 70′s, and all the way up through today. So artist like James Brown, Curtis Mayfield (my favorite) recording of songs aimed at uplifting black pride was popular, very timely and well received. But then less not forget, Curtis Mayfield recorded “Superfly”. The point is, the most popular and profitable today is the YG’s “My Nigga” and 50 Cent type of rap. Yet there is a payable market out there for the love raps, uplifting of race and pride raps, along with socially pointed rap lyrics that make a body feel good about themselves and their people.
    All it takes is a hardworking talented and social conscious artist with the nerve and patience to go after this untapped market. I am positive he, she or they will be rewarded in the long run. Sooner or later someone is going to do it, wait and see. It is those type of ground braking artist who tend to think outside the box instead of going for the quick bucks (and hope they make it) who end up with the longest and most fulfilling career. Examples are Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield, Staple Singers, and others who managed to record memorable socially potent music that spoke to the times. Who can forget “Respect Yourself”? Some did so, while still recording hits that appealed to the populist buyers. Who among our current or new artist will tap that market that’s dire need of some “feel good music” or telling the complete story not just the streets version of society?

  4. Mr Mathis, you have written an amazing piece! The concerns you highlight are not only true but alarming. Yesterday I had a conversation with a young journalist who writes for the hip hop Source magazine. Since he has a foot in the music industry, and we both work at Bronx Community College; I asked his opinion on my music. He told me I make it harder for myself by talking about my christian faith and by being positive. As sad as his statement was, it is true. Positive music does not sale! Our peoples very psyches have been corrupted to the point where they will happily purchase this misleading and degrading music. We don’t hear the tunes of the men and women who are “singing us up”, let alone even know their names. I don’t know when it started, but its lasted long enough. I have to agree with JAM. It starts with re-educating our people, old and young. We have to reteach the values and lifestyles that make for healthy individuals and communities. Since the old, or old enough, teach the young, I think it’s important we spend time helping them see the error of their ways. I must say I am a bit hopeless about the idea because most of our people do what they do to attain financial security. It would be difficult for anyone to convince me to give away my families security or “legacy” for the sake of the people. Especially when it’s the people who murdered your relative or have you living in fear. Until we can fix the economic discrepancy within our nation, I don’t think our people will see the need to consider anything other than their own individual success.

  5. Ka’ Ba

    “A closed window looks down
    on a dirty courtyard, and Black people
    call across or scream across or walk across
    defying physics in the stream of their will.

    Our world is full of sound
    Our world is more lovely than anyone’s
    tho we suffer, and kill each other
    and sometimes fail to walk the air.

    We are beautiful people
    With African imaginations
    full of masks and dances and swelling chants
    with African eyes, and noses, and arms
    tho we sprawl in gray chains in a place
    full of winters, when what we want is sun.

    We have been captured,
    and we labor to make our getaway, into
    the ancient image; into a new

    Correspondence with ourselves
    and our Black family. We need magic
    now we need the spells, to raise up
    return, destroy,and create. What will be

    the sacred word?

    Imamu Amiri Baraka

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