Tag Archives: rap

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 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.

 

Where White People Say “Nigga” Freely: Reflection of my Kendrick Lamar Concert Experience

Two weekends ago I was the most excited I’ve been in a while. I was going to see one of the most prominent figures in Hip-hop music and culture: Kendrick Lamar. I was hype because although I’m a Hip-hop dancer, I really don’t get down with a lot of rappers. Kendrick, however, is one of the few rappers who I consider to be an artist within the emcee element of Hip-hop culture. I don’t agree with how he says a lot of things, but that is beside the point as he produces products that allow for one to take an introspective look into their character, their relationships, and their society. Kendrick’s lyrics personally encourage me to search for a deeper knowledge about the different cultures I represent and how that affects the way I negotiate myself within the structures of American society. Whether it’s replaying the words of Tupac Shakur in order to discuss a philosophy of revolution that spawns from the enlarging gap between the rich and the poor, or providing historical knowledge of the convoluted n-word that goes beyond the African-American experience of slavery, I can count on the words of Kendrick Lamar to constantly help me question what is happening in today’s society. So yea, I was pretty hype to let loose and enjoy the concert; and I paid enough money, waited enough time in line, and suffered through enough bad weather to deserve enjoying that concert! However, I quickly realized that my being at this event was not for my blissful enjoyment, but rather for a heavy educational experience.

I’ve been thinking a lot about black males who identify themselves through Hip-hop culture and how stereotypes of that demographic serve as evidence for mainstream audiences to justify devaluing black males within American society. All cultures have their own stereotypes, but there may be no other demographic whose stereotypes affect the way they are seen and treated in society as much as black men in America. Stigmatizations such as the dangerous thug, the uncontrolled sex symbol, the violent drug dealer, and the primal athlete aid in many people’s reasoning as to why so many black males are incarcerated, why so many black females are single mothers, why black-on-black crime is so high, and why the black male academic dropout rate is so high. And, Hip-hop culture, specifically rap music, is constantly dealing with receiving ridicule for enforcing these stigmatizations.

So, I’m observing Kendrick Lamar express what I believe to be an authentic and artistic description of his life—an on-going struggle to find a sense of true and positive self in the midst of growing up in one of the most dangerous urban areas in America. As a result, lyrics with themes such as violence, drugs, gang life, and more are being portrayed as a representation of the culture in which Kendrick grew up in. And, in what I believe is an attempt to keep it real as an artist, the word “nigga” is constantly flowing from the voice box of Lamar’s throat to the ears of a sea of Caucasian college students in Columbus, OH (the crowd had a diverse mix, but still… it was mostly white folk). And, surprisingly—or maybe not—they are repeating the word right back to him.

Without going into the complication of the n-word in contemporary society, I just want to say that the historical baggage of the word has not lost its power regardless of whether its nigga or nigger. If a white person calls a black person a nigga in many contexts, especially out of malice, somebody is dying…just kidding…but not really. The point is that although the n-word still has the power to devalue a black person within a society that still carries the stench of racism within its foundational structures, all races in America find it okay to use the contemporary version of the word, and its mostly if not completely because of Hip-hop culture. Now, to go back to the concert, is it Kendrick’s fault that all these white people have no problem yelling out nigga? Many people would answer yea because he is responsible for the lyrics that he produces. Others have made the argument (and I’m generalizing) that these white people are going to say it anyways, so why not just be real with it, especially if the lyrics are authentic to the rapper’s experience?

Despite what side you’re on, and there are quite a few sides, there lies the fact that the word “nigga” is not used simply to describe a comrade. It is used to represent a commercial portrayal, specifically through Hip-hop culture, of what it means to be “real” as a black male in society: aggressive, strong, materialistic, misogynistic, homophobic, violent, and more. Yet, being “real” is exactly what is aiding in the devaluing of the black male in American society. For people who cannot understand the struggles of living against those stigmatizations on a daily basis to be yelling out this word, to me, is just ignorant. Furthermore, people who know about this struggle yet decide to say the word anyways…to each is own I guess. And, I get it. I’m a privileged black male from the burbs. I didn’t grow up in Compton or anywhere else where these stigmas are your daily reality. I just will never completely understand why anyone, especially black males, would so frivolously aid in the stigmatization of their own demographic within this hierarchical society.

So, anyways, yea…that’s why I couldn’t enjoy the concert featuring my favorite rapper.

Hiphop Lesson #1: Empower Yourself while Encouraging Your Community

Ain’t a way around it no more, I am the greatest
A lotta niggas sat on the throne, I am the latest
I am the bravest, go toe to toe with the giants

I ain’t afraid of you niggas, I’ll end up fading you niggas

We all kings
Kings of ourselves first and foremost
While the people debate who’s the king of this rap game
Here comes lil’ ol’ Jermaine
With every ounce of strength in his veins
To snatch the crown from whoever y’all think has it
But rather than place it on his head as soon as he grabs it
Poof, boom, paow, it’s like magic
With a flash and a BANG the crown disintegrates
And falls to the Earth from which it came
It’s done

Ain’t gonna be no more kings” J. Cole Fire Squad, Forest Hills Drive

Maaaaan, I’m fascinated by Hiphop! Over this past week I shared a lecture from Youtube by KRS-One called “40 Years of Hiphop” with my dance classes at The Ohio State University (Buckeyes National Champs say what!?) in order to get them exploring the question of “What is Hiphop?”

In pondering the question myself, I have gained insight to a powerful characteristic of the culture. Hiphop culture contains a paradox that emphasizes self-empowerment and peer-encouragement simultaneously through the form of art and competition. In other words, Hiphop allows the opportunity for an individual to be confident enough to claim that they are the best while also being selfless enough to claim that their peers are the best as well.

This brings up the question of, what is it to be the best? I would say that to be THE best means to be YOUR best. Hiphop culture in the form of bboying, emceeing, djayin, and graffiti writing offers an artistic format in which individuals are encouraged to show their best selves. Speaking from personal experience, whenever I am dancing within a battle, I am going out with the mindset that I am the best dancer out there! Nobody can touch me- I am better than you, you, you, and you! Before you claim me as being pretentious, let me remind you that I desire for my competition to show me their dance with the same mentality!

Why you may ask? Because ultimately, I am Hiphop, and Hiphop is me. But Hiphop is not just me, it is also anyone else who claims that they’re Hiphop. So, therefore, by both of us expressing our best selves through dance, Hiphop is at its best. If both my competition and I consider each other as whack, we ultimately devalue ourselves, and therefore, Hiphop. However, if both my competition and I find empowerment in being our best self, while encouraging the other to be their best self, we both leave as individuals with more value than when we came into the space.

When you look at the quote above, you see this same paradox in the rap element. J. Cole released his album a few months ago and with that release, claims that he is the greatest emcee alive! If you’re agreeing or disagreeing with that statement, you’re missing the point. Now I have to admit, I cannot claim that J. Cole is doing anything more than simply laying out some hot, yet narcissistic lyrics; however, for the sake of this post, lets say he is being intentional. Now J. Cole, being Hiphop and having a Hiphop mindset, is the greatest because he said so! As a fellow Hiphop artist, I say that he is right. Not necessarily because I believe J. Cole’s talent beats all others, but because I believe he, through his album, is contributing his best self to the Hiphop collective.

Hiphop is not the only culture that shares this mindset. As a Christian, I know that Christianity also contributes to this idea of being your best while encouraging others’ to be theirs in order to fulfill the body of Christ. The thing that fascinates me about this concept in regards to Hiphop is people’s perception of the culture. I am generalizing when I say this, but I do not believe many people think that Hiphop culture touches upon anything deeper than money, women, materialistic pleasures, drugs, guns, and partying (Thanks mainstream media!!!). Yet, Hiphop’s foundation also lies in the concept of power to the individual and responsibility to one’s community, amongst many other things. So what is Hiphop? Hopefully, you’ve gathered that it is deeper and more complex than you ever imagined!