From “Fight the Power” to “Bling Bling”

BY EKONG UDOEKWERE

A 30-minute delay, audio and video difficulties and a sample of an as yet unreleased work-in-progress from an up and coming artist foreshadowed an informal exploration into the enigmatic genre of hip-hop. Sponsored by the Recording Artists’ Project (RAP), a Law School-based clinical program that provides legal services for local music talent, the panel, held in Austin North last Thursday, included a range of industry personalities, including Richard Frierson, a freelance producer; Jayson Jackson of Virgin Records, who has worked with the likes of Lauryn Hill and P. Diddy; Raymond O’Neal of Threshold Media Ventures, Inc.; Jameel Spencer of Blue Flame Marketing and Advertising; Len Burnett, founder of Vanguarde Media; and Brett Wright of Nu America Agency.

The panel provided for an interesting foray into one of the most visible cultures and musical genres in the world, presenting many of the same arguments that plague discussions among typical fans and critics alike. The discussions made several important points, many of them unexpected.

First, defining “the commercialization of hip-hop” as the utilization of the economic opportunities created by the music and its audience, rather than the more common euphemism for describing the genre’s increasing appeal to a non-black audience, and framing the issue as such might result in less vilification of the concept. After all, in a most basic sense, this “commercialization” is one means of economically empowering individuals from the inner cities who might not otherwise achieve the same sort of financial success. Second, cries that the true message of hip-hop is being drowned in ever-growing talk of money, clothes, cars and women (what those in the know call “bling bling”) might be unjustified. Hip-hop as a culture and as a musical genre encompasses a large spectrum of ideas, including music that addresses contemporary social issues as well as music that glorifies more material concepts. One could argue that this sort of multi-dimensional quality attests to the strength of hip-hop rather than detracts from it.

Third, the music never really crossed over. In other words, its current cross-racial/ethnic appeal was not necessarily initiated by artists going into studios trying to create a sound that would attract white suburban America. Instead, it was white America that that was attracted to the sound.

Fourth, accusations leveled at more commercial hip-hop artists for portraying images and lifestyles that many assume to be true of all African-Americans is a little unfair. Arguably, it would be ignorant for anyone to assume that the pictures that the videos and lyrics paint are representative of an entire race of people. After all, no one takes the sex, drugs and wild rock n’ roll lifestyles of rock acts like Motley Crue to be representative of all white Americans.

To be sure, this does not completely absolve hip-hop musicians of social responsibility. It is important that they use their exposure and market power to highlight issues pertinent to black America, white America and the world. Further, there is something to be said for that fact that most of the faces in hip-hop belong to a race that has not enjoyed much exposure in the media. Perhaps this should compel hip-hop artists to take their social responsibility more seriously, and consider what sorts of images of black America they want to share with the rest of the country and the world.

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