Saturday, May 5, 2007

reinventing our heroes

I wanted to weigh in on some things that have been discussed a lot here and elsewhere lately, the first being Spring Fling and the n-word in hip-hop, the second being the (artificial) relationship between Don Imus and hip-hop, and the third being where these intersect. Most of everyone has probably seen this, but at the height of the Don Imus fallout, people started pointing fingers at rappers, as though black people invented racism to entertain white people. Both Snoop Dogg and Russell Simmons (before changing his mind) had interesting responses, basically that hip-hop tells stories, and those types of stories require offensive language.

I have a not-so-easy solution: maybe they should start telling different stories. Maybe a rap song could still sell well, but celebrate a different kind of hero than we’ve become used to. Simmons and Snoop Dogg define hip-hop in their comments to necessarily have hustlers/pimps/etc as the heroes, to whom bitches are the female counterpart and the n-word is a term of camaraderie. This is almost a chicken-and-the-egg scenario, but which came first: songs defining the black male hero as a hustler/pimp, or black males taking this route to become heroes? There’s probably no discernible answer, but I have a sneaking suspicion we could do without that hero-myth altogether.

Think about how many really admirable black people you know—the guy next door who works really hard to get good food for his kids, the community organizer who helped you fight off gentrification, your grandmother who stood up to Jim Crow. Don’t they deserve a hip-hop song? But you would never write a song about your grandmother and use the word “ho,” so obviously the language would have to change. You could put out entire albums with these new heroes and with the appropriate language. I’m tired of songs where the hero is a pimp. For every pimp today, there was probably once a Black Panther, and for every “ho” humiliated on a record, there’s a Sojourner Truth or Angela Davis. Why aren’t these our collective heroes anymore?

And just a bit about the n-word in general: I think we can do better. Yes, we can reclaim something used against us, but why should we? I can’t hear the word without thinking about my granddad, whose family was chased out of Mississippi in the middle of the night by men in white hoods using the same word. He wouldn’t go back to the South for decades. I don’t want to reclaim something that terrorized people. I don’t think that’s empowering; I think it’s selling ourselves short. We deserve a better term of endearment and a more positive way of portraying ourselves.

And to respond to a discussion in the comments a few days back: hip-hop hasn’t failed. It’s still got the potential to reinvent the hero. When in doubt, turn to Boogie Down Productions.


Anonymous said...

"I don't want to reclaim something that terrorized people."


Joshua said...

Camille, this post is great. Really appreciate the discussion on heroism and how we can change that by reflecting on our personal heroes and reclaiming spaces for them.