[Picture: Maya Angelou]
I can remember being really young, around four to five in my later toddler years and listening to my grandmother playing soul records all through the house. I would hear the records enough that after a while I memorized the songs and I couldn’t help but sing along to the Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin that my grandmother loved so much. She would dance and sing along and it made me feel warm inside to see her so happy which is a feeling I’ll never forget. The lyrics of the records that filled my grandmother’s house spoke of love, unity, hard work and struggle; all the things that the generation of the 50’s and 60’s could relate to.
The segregation era of the early 1900’s to late 1960’s was a time of oppression, struggle and open racial tension for many minorities in the United States. Many of the people enduring these struggles turned to art as a form of self-expression and new forms of music, art and literature sprung up. Specifically in the African-American community these new art forms didn’t receive much publicity outside of the rare few minority publications. The black communities latched onto the art forms however because they directly related to the messages that lie within of struggle, passion, perseverance and dedication. Soon the white media outlets couldn’t ignore the spread of these new forms of music and realized there was money to be made off the exploitation of these black communities.
As black art became more main stream, other opportunities arose in the African-American communities such as athletics. Prior to Jackie Robinson being the first black athlete in the MLB, there were no famous black athletes in white dominated sports. He is credited with breaking down the race barrier in pro sports (Schwartz). Other athletes would follow such as boxing’s first black fighter Jack Johnson and the integration of the Negro leagues into the National Basketball Association. These athletes faced tremendous adversity from everywhere because they challenged an all-white way of life that had never been challenged prior.
In order to understand the present we must first visit our past. The era that these athletes and artists grew up in was one of the most challenging times in our history for minorities and equal rights. Minorities received almost no media coverage whether it was crimes committed against them, achievements in art and science or coverage at sporting events. It wasn’t until the norm began to shift from segregation to racial tolerance that these media outlets discovered it was in their best interest to spread their coverage to these black communities.
African-American communities around the country found a real sense of pride in their country and it was in part because for the very first time they felt they were a part of it. Although coverage was still lopsided by all means you could hear their music on the jukebox, listen to their leaders and innovators on the radio and watch their athletes on television. Children had role models they could look up to, not only in sports but innovators in almost every profession. This was in part because blacks had little to no opportunities in the same education and work places as whites. The generation before them had fought the media’s propaganda that painted blacks as uncontrollable, dangerous individuals who were more animals than people. Racial tensions were still evident but the civil rights movement was taking strides towards change. As leaders of the civil rights movements were killed tensions in the black community began rise again and slowly a change took place in the music that represented the culture.
Gangster rap first hit the music scene in the early 1990’s. Rap culture first started at a positive movement, picking up where the prior generations of the 50’s and 60’s had left off on the message of struggle and perseverance in the black community. On the heels of the 1991 LA riots rap took a shift that would change the culture of athletics, art, and almost every aspect of black culture. It turned from a positive message to a negative one. Suddenly it was no longer about challenging the powers at hand through success in the classroom and peaceful protest; it became sell drugs, rob people, exploit women or play sports because that’s the only way out of the situation white people put you in.
Gangster rap was scrutinized by both the white and black communities because of its violent nature. The elder generation in these black communities realized that it could deteriorate all the progress they had fought so hard to make. The controversy surrounding the new form of music quickly caught the media’s attention and rap artists such as the LA based group NWA (Niggas with attitude) were offered hundreds of thousands to sign to huge music corporations such as Universal, Warner and Sony. These are the same corporate labels that had signed the wholesome artists of prior generations. Black culture had taken a turn for the worse at the hands of the music business and what started as a minor gang issue in our black communities would spiral into a nation-wide epidemic.
Rap music became the fastest growing industry in America and it seems like almost everyone got their hand in the pot. All of a sudden drug dealers, gang members, pimps and felons were being offered millions to write lyrics about the culture they came from. The music industry promotes the controversial content in the music, with no regard for the effects on the culture it influences. Kids grow up watching music videos where the only display of their culture is that of drugs, money, women, cars and clothes. Black youth begin to equate success with quick money and the only way they can reach that success is to become an artist themselves, sell drugs or become athletes. Most of these kids come from intercity, lower-class families with a single parent household. The most successful people in their neighborhoods are drug dealers who look, talk and dress like the artists they look up to on MTV(Music Television) and BET(Black Entertainment TV). They are then faced with the dilemma to stay in school and get a minimum wage job to support the household with a GED or drop out and sell drugs and get paid quadruple.
Rap culture is officially born in the 90’s and is still thriving today. It transcends sports where the athletes come from the same neighborhoods as the artists themselves and no longer have the wholesome role model appearance of the earlier generations. Instead via the media they flaunt their money with cars, women, clothes, shoes and tattoos; the same culture they saw as kids in these rap videos. This rap culture based on violence has taken away from the values that inspired a whole generation of people and it’s been fueled by the media. They bombard the youth with the same images of this rap culture instead of showing positive role models and the diverse black artists from other forms of music such as country, rock, jazz and contemporary. These huge music corporations won’t sign these artists even though they have talent because there’s no major profit in it. Sex and violence sells and America’s youth buy it.
With little to no media coverage of successful black men outside of sports and music black children are lacking these positive role models which can steer them away from gangs, violence and drugs. Not just black youth but youth from every walk of life are effected from rap culture, but it’s an epidemic in black communities where gang violence is at an all-time high. Media has more of a responsibility to media not to portray this as “ordinary” ways of life that black people enjoy living in. They’re taking away from the future of this country by limiting the potential of our youth to the promise of quick fame and fortune.
McMillan, Angela. A Guide to Harlem Renaissance Materials. Library of Congress. Retrieved Nov 2, 2012
Schwartz, Larry. Jackie changed face of sports. ESPN.com. Retrieved Nov. 3, 2012
The Culture Of Hip Hop: Reality Vs Media. Fiction Press. Retrieved Nov 2, 2012