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.”
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 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 email@example.com