Black Boys in Crisis: Avoiding the Entertainment Trap

In this series, appropriately titled “Black Boys in Crisis,” I highlight the problems facing black boys in education today, as well as provide clear steps that will lead us out of the crisis.

As they have in sports, African Americans have had an outsized impact on the American entertainment industry. Much of what we currently recognize as popular music stems directly from African-American roots: from blues, gospel, and jazz emerged rock ‘n’ roll, disco, and everything in between. In fact, many of the early popular music legends, including Elvis Presley and Led Zeppelin, were co-opting African-American musicians’ work.

The rise of Motown as a musical genre and industry in the 1960s and ’70s brought black artists into the mainstream in unprecedented numbers. Acts such as the Supremes, the Jacksons, Stevie Wonder, and Marvin Gaye took the music world by storm. The Motown label had seventy-nine top Billboard top ten records during the sixties, and scores more the following decade. By the mid-eighties, Michael Jackson had become the biggest pop star in the world, and other Motown-spawned artists such as Lionel Richie also strode atop the charts.

Even as Motown was surging, a new genre, hip hop, was gaining traction in the inner cities. Hip hop was at some level a reaction to the sanitized, watered-down entity disco had become. Hip hop was brash, talky, jerky, and abrasive; in short, it was electrifying. It provided a vehicle and creative outlet for inner-city voices that had previously been unheard, most of them young black men.

One of the many strands to emerge from hip hop was so-called gangsta rap, which echoed and detailed the violence and abuse rife in the impoverished inner cities. N.W.A.’s single “Fuck tha Police” epitomized the early years of the genre. With a bluntness the American public had not heard before, the song discussed police brutality and racial profiling, with lyrics that still resonate today:

“Fuck the police coming straight from the underground

A young nigga got it bad cause I’m brown

And not the other color, so police think

They have the authority to kill a minority . . .”

There was an immediate and prolonged backlash against gangsta rap from the mainstream, and presidents George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton both decried the genre from their political pulpits. Though many in the establishment tried to shut down the genre and ban albums such as Body Count, these efforts largely failed, and in fact tended to boost the credentials (and sales) of the artists. Even African-American luminaries such as jazz musician Wynton Marsalis and author Stanley Crouch lambasted the genre. In a widely read opinion piece for the New York Post, Crouch decried hip hop as “cultural pollution that is too often excused because of the wealth it brings to knuckleheads and amoral executives.”

Though current gangsta or hardcore rappers such as Lil Wayne and Young Thug consistently reference violence and drug use and denigrate women, I do not concur with those mainstream writers who suggest that “rap music” is destroying young black men. I incline, rather, toward the analysis of sociologist Michael Eric Dyson of Georgetown University, who says, “Hip hop music is important precisely because it sheds light on contemporary politics, history, and race. At its best, hip-hop gives voice to the marginal black youth we are not used to hearing from on such topics.”

What rappers such as Lil Wayne are doing is holding up a mirror to their culture. “Look,” they say, “this is what life is really like where I grew up.” These cultural entities should be listened to and preserved: in the future, we’ll look back on them with interest, and view them not as the progenitors of black violence and anti-intellectualism, but as creative prodigies and truthful commentators on a fraught period in America’s history.

I am not claiming that there is not a problem with idolizing musicians, however. Similar to sports figures, wealthy rappers are worshiped with a near-religious fervor. Young black boys watching music videos think, “Hey, look at those cars, those women that lifestyle . . . all I need is just one record deal, and I’ve got it all!” So they hunker down, churn out a few beats and rhymes with their friends, and pin their hopes on striking gold. However, just as with sports, a vanishingly small percentage of aspiring rappers and musicians actually end up making a living from their art.

Musicians like Jay-Z, Sean Combs (P. Diddy), and Dr. Dre are idolized for their quick rise to wealth. Yes, Jay-Z is an innovator who is rightly regarded for his business acumen, but the emphasis on his monetary worth often overshadows his actual accomplishments. Instead of a cultural acknowledgment of the way Jay-Z used his intellectualism to grow his brand and company smartly, the belief that all it takes is the ability to rap and “one record deal” to achieve extreme wealth and prestige is attached to his story. That theory bases its validity on luck and fate and “being in the right place at the right time.” This does not create a thirst for knowledge or a genuine love of creativity, but a desire for dollar signs.

The trappings of the entertainment industry are obvious to most. However, directly pointing this out to black boys may not be the best course of action. Remember, when adults are against something, it only makes teenagers gravitate to it even more. With this in mind, how do we convince black boys from blindly placing all of their eggs in the entertainment basket?

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