September 28, 2007
If the Sylviagate incident proves anything, it’s what happens when you let your opponents control the debate.
As hip-hop grew ever more commercially successful, criticism of hip-hop enjoyed a similar boom, to the extent that the term “hip-hop” itself became synonymous with misogyny, violence, hypersexuality, and crime.
Not that hip-hop’s critics hadn’t always laced the culture with those adjectives. And not that hip-hop didn’t do everything it could to encourage that criticism by its failure to support the artists who could make it a well-rounded genre. But hip-hop itself has begun to accept the fallacy that it is, by and large, a liability. What a shame.
It pains me, in 2007, to have to defend hip-hop against the charges of people like Bill O’Reilly. It’s like being asked to defend Evolution from its Creationist opponents. Or putting Ahmadinejad (or Bush for that matter) onstage with academics looking for straight answers. In a proper debate, you and your opponent play by the same basic logic. In the above discussions, none of that happens. Science cannot debate Belief, because Belief doesn’t care about evidence. Humans cannot debate their humanity against people who believe them ultimately inhuman.
O’Reilly believes what he believes about hip-hop because he has no visceral connection with Black people as human beings. I’m not saying he doesn’t work with Black folks, or that he can’t have lunch with them. I’m saying he doesn’t have the experience of co-habitation with the Other, in the broader sense of the term, as in living with Black people as friends, meeting them on their own terms.
That is what allows O’Reilly, in Two Thousand and Freaking Seven, to be in Sylvia’s Restaurant, even under the “protection” of Al Sharpton, and be amazed that Black folks act like human beings in their own homes.
O’Reilly is, sadly, emblematic of the baby boom generation. That’s our parents, folks. Even with the Civil Rights movement, even with the Golden Age of rock and soul in the 1960s, this vaunted generation still couldn’t get it together.
My own parents are what you might call typical upper-middle-class suburban Jewish liberals. My Mom moved us to Columbia, Maryland when I was nine. But thought we lived in the same house, my mother and I lived in very different worlds, mine more multicultural than hers. Half of my friends were black, hers were mostly white, even though she worked in downtown Baltimore, in social work. We shared the same politics, mind you, the same abhorrence of racism. We shared the same love of Black culture: I wouldn’t know who Earth, Wind and Fire or Stevie Wonder was without her. But for some reason, I walked that life in a way that she could only talk it. I owe the Columbia experiment a great deal for that, a planned town that allowed folks to live in proximity that created more connections than fear. But another part of the difference is generational.
I lived that life in a time before hip-hop, but what hip-hop did is it allowed everyone in my generation and those after me an opportunity to live that life, to meet Black minds on their own terms. Hip-hop created awe, and then it demanded respect. I’ll say it again, hip-hop’s essential gift to America is that it created the first generation of Americans who are not afraid of each other. It’s a gift that my parents, as liberal as they are, or O’Reilly, as fucked up as he is, can’t access.
Hip-hop did it.
Remember that the next time you talk about your passion for this culture and this generation and someone — even one of our own — shifts the debate to the inevitable talk about damage: damage to women, damage to Black self-image, damage to culture, damage to society. I’m not saying there hasn’t been damage. But talking about hip-hop has become like talking about Palestinian freedom with some of my fellow Jews (usually my parents’ generation): they always want to shift the debate to the Holocaust. I’m not saying there aren’t bad people out there who want to murder us. But let’s talk about the great majority who just want dignity, justice and peace.
Similarly, let’s talk about the great gift of hip-hop — whether it’s Soulja Boy talking about “Superman that ho” or Common talking about the pain of relationships, whether it’s 50 Cent talking about his nine or Talib talking about his mind. All of it, ALL OF IT is good. Because it’s till doing what it did from the very first time we heard the genius verses of Grandmaster Caz through the mouths of the Sugarhill Gang. It’s making us fall in love with each other. Hip-hop, for 30 years, has been creating the America of the future.
Poor O’Reilly. He never heard the sage advice that might have helped him at Sylvia’s. Luckily, we did. So let us begin that ancient poem we all know by heart: “Have you ever been over your friend’s house to eat...?”