Bring Tha' Noize: A Look at Hip-Hop, Black Families, & the Black Church
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Hip-hop culture has developed into a global phenomenon. The main element of the hip-hop culture is rap music, which serves as a medium for today's youth, particularly African-American youth. However, to some Black families and Black churches, rap is a destructive art form. Findings from this study suggest ways in which Black families and churches can support positive African American family formation and leadership development through hip-hop culture.
Key Words: Black families, Black churches, Hip-hop, Leadership development
Reynard Blake is Disproportionate Minority Contact Minority Over-Representation (DMC/MOR), Institute for Children, Youth & Families, Michigan State University, Michigan, 48824. Electronic mail may be sent via Internet to firstname.lastname@example.org
I remember the moment like it was yesterday. It was the summer of 1986, I had just finished watching a Rob Base and DJ Easy Roc video, and I bet $40 with my father over the impact of hip-hop culture. He said it was a fad that would disappear from the Black music scene like disco. I argued that rap music—and more importantly hip-hop culture—would stick around for years to come.
Sixteen years later, Rob Base and DJ Easy Roc are hip-hop afterthoughts, and I still have not collected on my bet. But hip-hop culture and the generation that grew up listening to its music have not faded away. This group is now a pivotal force within the Black community—Blacks born between 1965 and 1984 make up over 18 million of the 33 million Blacks in the United States.
The author of this excerpt (Hubbard, 2002, online) provides an interesting insight on the generational debate and the competing opinions surrounding the significance of hip-hop culture and its most important artistic manifestation: rap music. To Black baby boomers, rap music may sound like incoherent, nonsensical noise with strong, overbearing beats packaged on television videos with scantily clad, gyrating women and men with gaudy jewelry (otherwise known as the "bling") and sagging pants. However, to Black youth, rap music is the medium where their hopes, aspirations, fears, and anger are expressed. Moreover, rap music represents to Black youth a form of individual self-expression where there are no rules and where their culture is defined and celebrated. In short, rap serves as the "noize" of Black youth and reminds America that they have their own leadership, their own views, and are a socioeconomic and political force.
The goal of this article is to explore the relationship between hip-hop culture, Black families, and the Black church. My analysis will examine three areas: (a) a socio-economic overview of hip-hop/rap in the context of record companies and media conglomerates; (b) a paradigm for hip-hop culture as a socio-political mobilizer for African American youth; and (c) a strategy whereby the Black church may increase Black male participation. In order to do this effectively, I must define and analyze hip-hop, its meaning, and role in relation to African-American families and the Black church.
Hip-hop or rap, an art form and culture nearly thirty years old originating from the Bronx, New York, has provided a forum for African-American and Latino youth to express their respective cultures and speak on a number of issues. Today, hip-hop is a global phenomenon that appeals to almost all ethnicities and is synthesizing a new culture that goes beyond race, education, and income.
Despite the growing acceptance of hip-hop within White America and the middle class, hip-hop is also under siege. Blake (2003) highlighted some of the comments on rap or hip-hop by Bill O'Reilly, popular talk show host on the Fox News Channel:
When I confronted perhaps the most powerful rap and hip-hop executive in the world, Russell Simmons, about explicit lyrics that may be a corrupting influence on high risk children, he looked at me like I was from Mars. "These things need to be expressed," he said. "The plight of Black kids is now much more vivid to the white world because of rap."
That may well be true. But what about those Black kids trapped in ghettos with little parental supervision and guidance? Are rap themes going to help them get out of their dire circumstances?
The answer is no. If those kids adopt vulgarity in their speech, an anti-white attitude, and an acceptance of dope and violence, the only way they're likely to leave the hood is on a stretcher or in the back of a police cruiser. Hard work and discipline punch the ticket out of poverty. Thinking up rhymes about cocaine is not going to go far on a college admissions application.
The fatal flaw of the rap world is that it doesn't harness the legitimate rage that exists in the bottom end of our economic system in any positive way. Rap doesn't provide solutions; it provides excuses. And it denigrates the values that Americans need to succeed, like respect for others. You can't run around calling women "bitches" and expect to be taken seriously. If you do that, you're a fool. Yet those rap songs are loaded with coarse, hostile language that rappers say is cool and "reflects what's real."
Well here's some more reality for you rapper boys and girls: Many kids who emulate you are going to suffer. You are feeding them cheap, destructive images that will hurt them in the long run. And you're making big bucks doing it. So rap with that, my man. Reality is a bitch.
In some ways, O'Reilly is correct; the misogyny within hip-hop is a major concern. However, O'Reilly did not explore the breadth and depth of hip-hop. "O'Reilly only sees the negative aspects of hip-hop and does not admit that America has created the conditions for hip-hop and that white-controlled media corporations like the one he represents promote the negative aspects of hip-hop" (Blake, 2003, p. 2). O'Reilly's use of "those Black kids" and "you rapper boys and girls" implies his supposed superiority, his belief that there is something innately wrong with Black youth, and reveals that his concern about rap stems from the increasing numbers of suburban white youth purchasing rap compact discs (CDs). In essence, O'Reilly sees no interconnection between the art and the conditions that created the art: neglect, intolerance, racism, and the underdevelopment of urban areas.
Potter (1995) highlighted the dilemma of O'Reilly and others like him:
Hip-hop is all too conceived of by casual listeners as merely a particular style of music; in one sense they're right, though the question of style has far more political significance than they may attribute to it. For others—including many musicians and music fans—it is not music at all, but rather from-the-gut "street" poetry or as with many of the performers quoted in a recent issue of Musician magazine just so much mindless boasting. Leaving aside the historical ironies of middle-aged rock-n-roll fans using the same arguments their parents once used about the Rolling Stones (that's not music, it's noise), it is clear that hip-hop continues to pose a problem for the old categories of music; it has recently reached the point where country and soft-rock stations make "no rap music" part of their promotional campaigns. Despite the fact that its audiences today are more diverse in terms of race, class, and region than any other music, the reception of hip-hop continues to be a central element in highly polarized arguments about race from both white and Black communities. (Potter, 1995, p. 26)
Indeed, this polarization is intense and highlights racial, social, generational, and cultural rifts in America. The challenge to those who love hip-hop and those who fail to understand its meaning is how the culture and art form may be used as a tool for youth, community, and family development.
Ultimately, this rift stems from the way hip-hop is presented to global society. This presentation has political and social implications for Black families, Black communities, and the Black church. However, if Blacks are portrayed as lazy or ignorant or hypersexual on CDs and videos, there is an increased likelihood that they will be viewed unfairly and unjustly. This portrayal of African American culture and family life propagates images that mitigate opportunities whereby people from non-Black backgrounds may interact with African Americans in ways that dispel negative myths and stereotypes.
There are numerous definitions of hip-hop or rap. Hip-hop performer, historian, and journalist "Davey D" Cook defines hip-hop as
...an art form that includes deejaying [cuttin' & scratchin'] emceeing/rappin', breakdancing and grafitti art. These art forms as we know them today originated in the South Bronx section of New York City around the mid-1970s. Hip-hop has thrived within the subculture of Black and Puerto Rican communities in New York and is now just recently beginning to enjoy widespread exposure. From a sociological perspective, Hip-hop has become one of the main contributing factors that helped curtail gang violence due to the fact that many adults found it preferable to channel their anger and aggressions into these art forms which eventually became the ultimate expression of one's self (Davey D, 1986, online)
Cook's perspective is significant because it suggests that hip-hop has a redemptive power, as it provides a medium for young people to use their energies to express their feelings, define their realities, and vent their frustrations in a nonviolent manner.
Hip-hop, like many other art forms, is filled with conflicting, often competing messages. Dyson (1993) highlights this trend:
Rap artists sense that as they are inventing a musical genre that measures the pulse of Black youth culture, they are also inventing themselves. From the ready resources of culture, history, tradition and community, rap artist fashion musical personae who literally voice their hopes, fears, and fantasies: the self as cultural griot, feminist, educator, or itinerant prophet of Black nationalism; but also the self as inveterate consumer, misogynist, violent criminal, or sexual athlete. It is this ever-expanding repertoire of created selves that invites up to interrogate the values and visions of rap culture, to perceive the force of its trenchant criticism of racism, historical amnesia, and classism, and to gauge its surrender to American traditions of sexism, consumerism, and violence. (pp. 276-277)
The above excerpt is significant because Dyson crafts an interesting argument; he points out that America created the conditions for the development of hip-hop and given it its context. Moreover, hip-hop provides a forum to address racism and reinforce Black culture. Most importantly, hip-hop has afforded African American youth to define itself based on its own terms. Lastly, hip-hop forces America to look at itself structurally in terms of race, consumption, and violence.
Despite the "in-your-face" style of hip-hop in presenting America's ills, America does not respond to hip-hop, as it should. Hip-hop, particularly through the use of videos, at times, shows the bleakest of conditions for African American and Latino youth, with dilapidated buildings, dirty streets, unemployment, incarceration, and violence. The images are disturbing; they are the antithesis of America's image of opportunity for all. Hip-hop videos also challenge the myth that anyone, if they worked hard enough, could experience the "American Dream." Based on the bleak images and themes presented in hip-hop, one would think that America would rally around the youth portrayed in the videos and address the poverty and social isolation from which many hip-hop artists originate. Unfortunately, America chooses to do very little for the youth and, for the most part, considers the violence and bleakness portrayed in the videos as common, everyday life for Black youth.
Hip-Hop, Faith-Based Institutions, & Families
Black families and Black churches must respond. When hip-hop artists provide social commentary on America's inconsistencies and ills, it must find ways to use them in forums, in discussion groups among generations, in schools, and press conferences to remind America what it has created and how it must address these ills.
Conversely, when hip-hop artists promote or celebrate misogyny, violence, sexual irresponsibility, and gluttony Black families and churches must address the issues in the same manner as it would the positive issues. Furthermore, they must not only hold the artists accountable, they must hold the gatekeepers such as the record companies, media outlets such as Black Entertainment Television (BET) and Music Television (MTV) (subsidiaries of media conglomerate Viacom) accountable by voicing their displeasure and possibly, refuse to support the sponsors of the distasteful shows. Black churches and Black families must not allow corporations to define African American manhood and womanhood because, if left to its own devices, corporations will continue to show Black life in its worst possible light. Ultimately, denigrating Black life by promoting the most ignorant elements amounts to an attack to render Black sociopolitical awareness irrelevant and impotent because, if African American youth are shown to be powerless, uninformed, and without morals, then they may begin to believe the lies and wallow into self-depreciating and destructive behaviors.
Such political and social impotence is manifesting in hip-hop circles. "Sway," a reporter for MTV News, radio host, and participant in the 2001 hip-hop summit convened by Russell Simmons, indicated that
The state of hip hop today reflects American society—with the attendant confusion, miscommunication, wealth, individualism and disconnected groups working on the same causes, said Sway, a reporter for MTV News and "The Wake-Up Show," a syndicated radio program. "Hip-hop needs to police and define itself to preserve power," he said.
"Rap music has become a commodity; it's become a product and we've lost control. We don't have control over who gets signed; we don't have control over the big money as a whole. We have little percentage deals, distribution deals, imprint deals but we don't run the distribution. It's come to a time where we need to take ownership of this, understand its power and affect on the world and do good by it," he said.
This excerpt is significant because it sounds the call for Black families and Black churches to reassert themselves to help define and redefine what it is to be an African American adult.
Black churches and families must identify artists that do not challenge the status quo. These institutions must remove the mental shackles, which encompass the hip-hop artists that are basically satisfied with the present state of Black America and who see no relationship between their art and the social conditions that created their art. The unenlightened artists must be taught to understand that the power of words to build and heal has a greater relationship with the Black and socioeconomically distressed masses because they seek to highlight the socioeconomic and racial disparities endemic to society. Unfortunately, the artists that eventually embrace progressive and socially aware messages will do so at the risk of not selling as many albums as their nonpolitical counterparts.
In short, taking a stand to enlighten and inform comes at a price. This move to make hip-hop a more informative art form (at the expense of artists possibly making less money) supports Carmichael and Hamilton's (1967) contention that "those who would assume the responsibility of representing Black people in the country must be able to throw off the notion that they can effectively do so and still maintain a maximum amount of security" (p. 15). Despite its potential for creating substantive change, hip-hop has been a double-edged sword regarding myth and truth: It highlights the needs of African American communities and is an advocate for the powerless and downtrodden, while it glorifies materialism within a milieu of misogyny.
Black faith-based institutions can serve as vehicles to help youth organize around their issues, enhance the possibilities for Black consensus, and inspire new leadership. Additionally, they can serve as the moral compass of hip-hop, making sure that it continues to provide social commentary and criticism, while limiting its tendencies to promote unchecked covetousness and disrespect to women.
Hip-Hop & the Next Generation of Leaders
To bridge the pre- and present hip-hop generation gap, Black families and Black churches must understand and analyze the art form enough in order to mediate between the generations to inspire consensus between the generations on the tactics of fighting the inequalities indigenous to American life, to reinvigorate Black institutions (e.g., churches, the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Urban League) and encourage the hip-hop generation to accept the mantle of leadership.
Hip-hop and an appreciation of its values, its lingo, its worldview, its methods of organization and action be the medium in which the "old guard" will "pass the torch" of leadership to subsequent generations. Failure to do this will jeopardize, "the racial and cultural personality of the Black community" (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1967, p. 55). Most importantly, the "passing of the torch" to the hip-hop generation could represent an evolutionary phase in the collective health of Black communities in that the young would now be equipped to define their own destiny on their own terms. Black power would be achieved, which is rooted in activities of self-determination and self-help.
The hip-hop culture must learn how to address these issues while remaining commercially viable yet prophetic. To reconstruct society along desirable lines, coalitions and partnerships must be forged, particularly as they relate to dismantling exploitive socioeconomic systems. Carmichael and Hamilton (1967) supported this idea:
...It is hoped that eventually there will be a coalition of poor Blacks and poor whites. This is the only coalition, which seems acceptable to us, and we see such a coalition as the major internal instrument of change in the American society. It is purely academic today to talk about bringing poor Blacks and poor whites together, but the task of creating a poor-white power block dedicated to the goals of a free, open society—not one based on racism and subordination—must be attempted. (p. 82)
Hip-hop can be the vehicle for this coalition because it inherently breaks down cultural barriers and has been a teaching tool in explaining cultural nuances. This is where hip-hop is potentially dangerous to the status quo. If gaps between generations and cultures can be bridged, commonalities between the various groups will emerge, negative perceptions surrounding class could dissolve, and the stage may be set for coalition building and structural change.
Black families and Black churches must continually seek and develop strong, articulate leaders and facilitate substantive, physical and social change for African American communities. The issues to be addressed should range from economic development to establishing better service provision within Black neighborhoods to challenging the institutions and bureaucracies that have consistently failed to meet their needs. Hip-hop has always been at the vanguard of articulating the need for Black community development in its portrayal of poverty and community despair. What it has yet to learn, as in the Civil Rights movement, that the next phase is developing action strategies and organizing to meet goals.
Black faith-based institutions, such as churches and mosques—perhaps the most stable and visible organizations in Black communities—can seize a golden opportunity to pilot the promotion and development of the hip-hop generation's leaders. Historically, they have successfully provided numerous services to Black communities by being centrally located and accessible, by meeting the community's spiritual and physical needs, by providing Black communities with the latest news, by providing conflict mediation in times strife, by informing the community about jobs and services, and by financing community activities. Furthermore, one of the greatest contributions of Black faith-based institutions to African American communities is that they have served as a bridge or a common ground between the Black middle class and their poorer counterparts. This bridge building must be extended to helping Black families understand the art of hip-hop within a spiritual context in order to promote religious teachings.
In addition to Black faith-based institutions' legitimacy, their autonomy makes them powerful political institutions, particularly as they relate to youth development. Moreover, Black faith-based institutions have a wealth of resources. There are few institutions, public or private, that have doctors, lawyers, educators, administrators, carpenters, nurses, and other professionals and skilled individuals under the same roof, who profess to believe in the same things.
However, like hip-hop, Black faith-based institutions are a double-edged sword. Black churches have vast resources; they also have their fair share of challenges: there is territoriality. factionalism, and professional jealousies among Black pastors and ministers, some Black faith-based institutions possess ultra-conservative attitudes (there are those that feel that Black churches should not get involved in social or economic issues), dwindling congregations (many are predominantly female), high rates of unemployment within their congregations (especially for Black males), an increase in single-parent families, drugs in the community, and changing demographics, as more stable Black middle-class families move to the suburbs and away from Black faith-based institutions, many of which are located in urban centers.
Despite its inconsistencies, there are a number of reasons why Black churches should (and do) get involved in leadership development (and other development) activities. Like Black leadership and hip-hop, Black churches are a response to the political and economic structure that affects Black people:
The origin, growth, and transformation of the Black church are a function of the needs of Black people and the resources available to the Black church. Both the needs and the resources are conditioned by external economic and political factors, which brought on demographic changes in urban America. (Carmichael & Hamilton, 1967, p. 25)
Black churches have a philosophical basis behind their involvement in youth development. Many Black churches believe that it is morally right to get involved in social and economic justice issues, thus, there is a need to develop the necessary and sustain leadership to address those issues. As Black faith-based initiatives expand, so will its capacity to identify, train, and groom the next generation of leaders. Then again, the Black church must make itself relevant to the hip-hop generation, particularly as it relates to bringing young African American males back to church.
Black faith-based institutions have a history of producing and nurturing young leaders. However, in order for Black faith-based institutions to remain relevant, they must meet the needs of the hip-hop generation based on how it sees itself. In other words, faith-based institutions must go to where the hip-hop culture exists: the basketball courts, the street corners, the social events, the schools, and the prisons. For example, the Nation of Islam assertively embraces members of the hip-hop generation that are in prison, giving it instant credibility in the streets.
To reach the hip-hop generation, Black faith-based institutions must also become more entrepreneurial. Most of the organizations from which these young people originate could rival any Fortune 500 company. In fact, many members of the hip-hop generation became involved with the criminal justice system because of the drug trade. Their knowledge and entrepreneurial spirit must be harnessed and framed within a spiritual context and hip-hop culture to rebuild communities. In short, the goal of the faith-based institution is the formation of spiritual, social, and economic capital.
Collaboration is an important concept in developing new leaders. As Black faith-based institutions go about their youth development activities and address controversial problems, they will have to collaborate with the hip-hop culture in order to reach youth and empower them. Through their numerous youth development initiatives, Black faith-based institutions can expand their leadership base by providing members opportunities to become collaborators in the youth development process.
Through collaborative efforts, Black churches can use their power to develop task forces, ad hoc networks, and other innovative organizations that will not only address social issues but provide opportunities for leadership development. Like any institution, faith-based institutions cannot be all things to all people. However, what they can do is collaborate with hip-hop culture to make sure young people do not “fall through the cracks” of society.
Blake, R. (2003). Beyond the bling: A look at hip-hop, African American leadership & the Black church: Implications to African-American youth development, Journal of Urban Youth Culture, 1, [Electronic version] http://www.juyc.org/current/0302/blake.html
Carmichael, S., & Hamilton, C. V. (1967). Black power: The politics of liberation in America. New York: Vintage.
Davey D. (1984). What is hip-hop? Retrieved online August 9, 2003 from http://www.daveyd.com/whatishipdav.html
Dyson, M. E. (1993). Reflecting Black: African-American cultural criticism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press.
Hubbard, L. (2002). The hip-hop generation's own Black history. Retrieved online August 9, 2003 from http://www.altemet.org/print.html?StorylD=12441
Potter, R. A. (1995). Spectacular vernaculars: Hip-hop and the politics of postmodernism Albany, NY: State University of New York Press.
"Cuttin'" and "Scratchin"' are elements of a deejay's repertoire where he or she, through the use of a record turntable and audio mixer, intersperses various beats, sounds, and music to elicit a crowd response (dance, verbal response, etc.). Davey D adds that deejaying [cuttin' and scratchin'] "is the manipulation of a record over a particular groove so it produces strange sounds. This technique was invented by either Grand Master Flash or Grand Wizard Theodore, two popular disc jockeys from the Bronx. Herbie Hancock with his song 'Rock It' and Malcolm MacLaren's 'Buffalo Gals' has helped make this art form popular outside the New York City area."