Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and the Fate of the Black Male pt 4

As much as the prison complex and the rap industry affect the livelihood of black males in society, they also affect the way in which black males are seen in this society. Again, the understanding of how a criminal label can affect how you are seen is fairly simple, but the role of the commercial rap industry is more complicated and subdued. If the prison complex is used to label African American males as criminals, then the commercial rap industry substantiates that labeling by portraying an enjoyment of the lifestyle that leads to prison. Take the industry’s use of Travis Scott, for example. Scott is a contemporary rapper worth 2.5 million dollars whose most recent song, Antidote, has been on Billboard’s Top 15 rap songs for weeks. Here is an excerpt from Antidote, “I might do it all again / I just hit a three peat / fucked three hoes I met this week / I don’t do no old hoes / my nigga that’s a no-no / she just want the coco / I just want dinero / who that at the front door? /if it’s the feds oh-no-no” (Travis). Travis Scott grew up in the suburbs of Houston, Texas in a two-parent home with his father running a business and his mother working for Apple. He went to college, but dropped out. Travis Scott lived in a socio-economic status that is less likely to be influenced by gang culture and criminal behavior yet, his counter-cultural lyrics still portray a blatant and monotonous display of criminality while rejecting the idea of instilling value through socially conscious poetry.

The commercial rap industry has used African American males like Travis Scott to rid the diversification of Hip-hop’s counter-cultural mentality in order to display African American males as a demographic that embraces the lifestyle of a criminal. Therefore, the commercial rap industry is aiding in the dehumanization of African American males by portraying the notion that we as a community enjoy lifestyles that lead to second-class citizenship.

Using lyrics from the 7-grammy award winner Kendrick Lamar, the commercial rap industry is saying, “Fuck niggas’/No better than Samuel or Django/No better than a white man with slave boats” (Kendrick). Yet, Kendrick’s words can also be used to show the battle that Hip-hop culture is currently fighting against the criminalization of African American males:

“Retraced my steps on what they never taught me/Did my homework fast before government caught me…[this is] straight from Ethiopia/N-E-G-U-S definition: royalty; King royalty- wait listen/N-E-G-U-S description: Black emperor, King, ruler, now let me finish/The history books overlook the word and hide it/America tried to make it to a house divided/The homies don’t recognize we been using it wrong/So I’ma break it down and put my game in a song.” (Kendrick)

In showing the royal lineage of African Americans, Kendrick Lamar exemplifies Hip-hop culture’s resistance against the “second-class citizen” stigma of said demographic. However, the emcee element of Hip-hop is not the only one fighting this battle. Hip-hop dance, with its growing influence in American mainstream culture, can have a massive impact on the identity and perception of African American males in this country. As a Hip-hop choreographer and teacher in graduate school, I have studied the ways in which the values of Hip-hop culture—Peace, Love, Unity, and Having Fun—can be cultivated within a studio classroom and a concert stage environment (Chang 105). As a result I’ve created artistic works that use street dance styles to raise awareness on issues such as police brutality, and explore ideas of identity and representation in regards to African American males living in this society. I’ve also created weekly Hip-hop dance classes in the city of Columbus called “onCUE” where “CUE” is an acrostic for create, unite, and empower. These dance classes are for the entire community where students learn foundational street dance techniques in order to grasp a new way to connect with themselves and to converse with others; thus, encouraging the dissolution of social, economic, political, and criminal barriers.

By introducing a pro-cultural agenda through Hip-hop dance, I am combatting both the “second-class citizen” label brought on by mass incarceration and the criminalization of commercialized rap music. My efforts might not be enough to change the system, but I’ve witnessed the affects enough to know that it changes lives including my own. I’ve gone from seeing myself as solely a thief to proclaiming that I am a dancer. I am a teacher. I am an artist. I am a scholar. But most importantly, I am an embodiment of the positive influence that a criminal can have on this society through Hip-hop.

 

Works Cited

Alexander, Michelle. The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. New York: The New Press, 2012. Print.

“Billboard Hot Rap Songs.” n.p. n.d. Web. 23 February 2016.

Chang, Jeff. Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-hop Generation. New York: St. Martin’s, 2005. Print.

Cummings, Pond. Andre Douglas. “Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice.” Social Science Research Network (2009): 19. Web. 23 February 2016.

Kendrick Lamar. “i.” Genius. 23 February 2016.

Something From Nothing: The Art Of Rap. dir. Ice T. Indomina Releasing, 2012. DVD.

Travis Scott. “Antidote.” Genius. 23 February 2016.

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Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and The Fate of the Black Male pt 3

Part 3:

Ice Cube—previous member of the rap group, NWA—in The Art of Rap says, “What [street knowledge] means to me is letting the streets know what the politicians is trying to do to them and then letting the politicians know what the streets think of them, if they’re listening.” In the same interview, Ice T then responds with, “I wanted somebody to take my album, when they done, be more intelligent about the game than they were. Versus me saying that I’m tough…” (Something From Nothing). This insinuates that even the “gangsta’ rappers” of the 1980’s who dropped the F-bomb like it was a preposition had an intent to instill values into their hood and into the minds of anyone who would listen.

The rappers of today previously mentioned in the list of chart toppers don’t seem to have any similar kind of intent behind their music. Social conscious messaging is either completely void from these artists’ work or it exists and is swept under the rug by the rap industry. When you look at a rapper like Yo Gotti, his latest album The Art Of Hustle—which features a Billboard top 15 song, Down In The DM—begins with the track My City, which is an authentic reflection of life in Yo Gotti’s hometown of Memphis, Tennessee. Yet, Down In The DM holds almost 11 million views on Youtube compared to My City’s 43,000 views, thus showing the disparity in the kinds of counter-cultural Hip-hop music that is played on a commercial level today.

Michelle Alexander in the New Jim Crow established what the label of “second-class citizen” implies in this country: discrimination equal to the treatment of blacks during slavery and the Jim Crow era. However, how is commercialized Hip-hop related to this label of second-class citizenship? The number of incarcerated African American males is at an all time high in the United States. Simultaneously, the most influential medium for black men to be heard by a mainstream audience has shifted towards a counter-cultural movement that represents excessive sex, illegal drug use, and violence. I suggest that the combination of the two is a powerful force that negatively influences the ways in which African-American males identify themselves in this country and the ways in which others identify them.

When I was ten years old I moved to the edges of inner city Philadelphia. It was the first time I had been in an environment where the majority of people around me resembled my ethnicity and racial make-up on a daily basis. As a boy trying to fit in, I found myself listening to rap music and watching Hip-hop music videos through 106 and Park on BET (Black Entertainment Television) despite my parents’ strict opposition against such things. I was a part of a Christian home with both parents invested into my life, yet I remember how my mind solely desired the fruits of my Hip-hop influenced environment. I wanted to wear the baggie clothes of Puff Daddy, talk like 50 Cent, and get the girls like Nelly. Naturally, I started cursing whenever my parents were absent, I sagged my pants as soon as I left the embrace of my mother to go off to school, and I talked to females like they were meant for only one thing. The black males I looked up to in the media influenced the way in which I viewed the world, even in contest with my own parents’ teachings. If my ten-year-old mind was so influenced by the counter-culture of commercialized Hip-hop that my parents felt a need to move me from Philadelphia after 3 years, I can only imagine the magnitude of influence it has on young black boys whose fathers are in jail.

Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and The Fate of the Black Male pt 2

Part 2:

Interestingly, there has been another movement, the Hip-hop movement, transpiring in urban environments, especially amongst African American males. Hip-hop’s music has always been used to represent a counter-cultural movement. However, the ways in which Hip-hop has accomplished this has shifted since it has become more commodified. In the 1980’s and 90’s Hip-hop was an amalgamation of messages and sounds as artists from all over the United States gained the access to rep their hood on a mainstream platform. Therefore, Hip-hop as a whole began to reject the norms of American culture by both positively empowering the black community and glorifying criminal behavior. Andre Douglas and Pond Cummings in Thug Life: Hip Hop’s Curious Relationship with Criminal Justice emphasize the latter part of this complex discourse in saying:

Hip-hop exposes the current punishment regime as profoundly unfair. It demonstrates this view by, if not glorifying lawbreakers, at least not viewing all criminals with disgust, which the law seeks to attach to them. Hip-hop points out the incoherence of the law’s construct of crime, and it attacks the legitimacy of the system. (19)

Songs such as Me So Horny by 2 Live Crew, Fuck The Police by Niggaz Wit Attidudes (NWA), and 6 In the Mornin’ by Ice T, which perpetuated violence and a gangsta lifestyle, stood in harmony with the socially conscious messages of My Philosophy by Boogie Down Productions, The Message by Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five, and Fight The Power by Public Enemy. Ultimately, they all told their own story in their own way without apology, and it created a plethora of counter-cultural themes within the same genre.

This brought up the question for me, “Is the diversity of rap music still prevalent today on the commercial level?” I did an analysis of Billboard’s “Hot Rap Songs” of 2016 to explore this query. The top rap artists played through a commercial medium are Drake, Yo Gotti, Travis Scott, Future, Young Thug, Fetty Wap, and 2 Chainz. These rappers account for over 90% of the Billboard’s top 15 rap songs in 2016 (Billboard). I’ve listened to every song created by these artists that are posted on Billboard this month, and every single one falls into one or more of the counter-cultural themes of drugs, violence, or excessive sex while not one represents education or the exposing of issues within our government, our cities, or our country.

 

The b(AA)ttle

This project explores the impact of many commercial rap songs on our society in regards to the representation of blackness in America.

It also combats the use of glorifying criminalization within rap songs as a way to silence the productive voices of blackness and black people in this country.

Enjoy!

Put Your Hands Up: Hip-hop, Incarceration, and the Fate of the Black Male pt1

Hey y’all,

It’s been a while since I’ve posted anything. Honestly, I’ve tried, but for my last semester of grad school…let’s just say senior-itis has not had any room to hit me. In grinding through this busy semester I did accomplish one of my goals– write a research paper and present it at Ohio State’s most distinguished graduate school research competition (applause applause “thank you very much” applause applause)! It got a lot of great reception and I thought it would be something people are interested in. Since it’s a 7-page paper I decided to split it into 4 parts to share with you all throughout this month. I hope you all enjoy!

Part I:

 

I am a graduate. I am Hip-hop. I am a criminal. In a few short weeks I will proudly graduate with a Master’s degree in Dance from Ohio State University with a focus in Hip-hop dance and culture. Graduation should be a time to celebrate, as I have accomplished an educational milestone that allows me to become a productive and influential citizen to society. However, sometimes I truly dread graduation because, for me, life transitions mean uncertainty—the uncertainty caused by poor decisions as a young adult. I wonder if my criminal record will deter me from opportunities that I could otherwise have. Two misdemeanors of theft have stigmatized me in the eyes of many—just another negative Black statistic.

Consider the correlation between the incidences of incarcerated African American males and the heightened glorification of criminality within contemporary commercial rap music. Today, the African American male is the prominent figurehead of both the industrial prison complex and the commercial rap industry in the United Sates. I will discuss how both discourses aid each other in the marginalization of the black male in American society through a textual analysis of scholarly literature and rap lyrics. I will also explore how Hip-hop dance can combat the stigmatization of African American males perpetuated by both the criminal system and the rap industry through a critical analysis of my work as a graduate student in Hip-hop dance.

Since the 1970’s the number of people incarcerated into the prison system has quintupled from 350,000 to over 2 million (Alexander 8). In some cities, more than fifty percent of the prison population consists of African American males. Today, according to the Bureau of Justice Statistics, almost one of every three African American males will go to prison in their lifetime. One out of every three. Look around. 1-2-Prison. That means over 7 million African American males will be labeled “criminal.” Michelle Alexander in The New Jim Crow provides insight as to what that label entails in saying:

Even when released from the system’s formal control, the stigma of criminality lingers. Police supervision, monitoring, and harassment are facts of life… a criminal record today authorizes precisely the forms of discrimination we supposedly left behind—discrimination in employment, housing, education, public benefits, and jury service. Those labeled criminals can even be denied the right to vote. (141)

The charges that most of these criminals face are for non-violent crimes such as the illegal use of drugs or the illegal selling of those drugs. Yet, these non-violent offenses, though largely self-induced, have laid the foundation for a pernicious, socially violent, movement that labels African American males as second-class citizens—a permanent stigma that is difficult to overcome.