Tuesday, April 17, 2007

The Whole Don Imus Mess

Don Imus deserved to get fired, but not for what he said just this one time. He's been an asshole for years and finally got his comeuppance. The latent misogyny and racial insensitivity of his comments are not the worst he has ever uttered. What's gotten me about the situation is the apparent unwillingness or inability of black America to examine the nature of the situation. That the comments are only offensive if uttered by a white man reveals some of the more obtuse tendencies in African-American culture. The black vernacular is copied by mainstream America eventually. Just look at the slang words for things and you'll see they many of them originate from the mouths of black youth culture.

I often think of the Michael Bolton character in Office Space. He is singing hardcore rap in his car: "Damn It Feels Good to Be a Gangster" by Ghetto Boyz, and "No Tears" by Scarface, and yet he rolls his car window up when a black man approaches him. He wants to belong to a culture of hyper-machismo, of over-inflated egos, of braggadocio, but when he is confronted with someone of this world that he longs to belong to, he cowers in fear; he is like Caray Grant in Rear Window; he is the voyeur titillated by the danger and potential reward (money, sex, power, sans responsibilities or consequences--other than a possibly violent unexpected death); he is the guy that wants to sound tough by imitating those people that our culture and media portray as inherently tough. Gangsters are tough because they carry weapons and hang in groups. Think of Danny Glover's dialogue with the street tough harassing Kevin Kline in Grand Canyon. The kid asks Glover if he wouldn't respect him if he didn't have the weapon; Glover's response is telling "You don't have that pistol, we ain't havin' this conversation."

Usage of the gangster terminology for things has become part of the youth vernacular. For a particularly humorous intrusion of this world into WASPy Mormon culture, check out this video:

Trebek was right to josh Jennings a little about that. It is through his exposure to gangster lexicon that he answered "ho" or "hoe" when asked about an immoral pleasure seaker. He equated the standard word "ho" (for 'whore' in case you live on Mars) with a woman that wants sex. The old double standard about sexual desire rears its ugly head here. I remember N.W.A.'s existential paean to gansta culture in "Life Ain't Nothin' But Bitches and Money." I can always count on Jay-Z's "99 Problems But a Bitch Ain't One" to put me in the right frame of mind about my relationship with my wife. And then who can forget FilthyCent's declaration of love to his sexual partner with such lines as "I'm into havin' sex, I ain't into makin' love, so come give me a hug if you're into gettin' rubbed." I could go on and on and on. Naughty by Nature "You try to act like something really big is missin', even though my love's graffitti's written on your kitten"; Snoop Dogg and Dr. Dre's warning against unprotected sex:

But, uh, back to the lecture at hand
Perfection is perfected, so I'm 'a let 'em understand
From a young G's perspective
And before me dig out a bitch I have ta' find a contraceptive
You never know she could be earnin' her man,
And learnin' her man, and at the same time burnin' her man
Now you know I ain't wit that shit, Lieutenant
Ain't no pussy good enough to get burnt while I'm up in it

And the list goes on and on. Rusell Simmons tried to defend these actions but placing the hip-hop artists under the fig leaf of artistic expression and agents for social change:

"HSAN believes in freedom of artistic expression. We also believe, with that freedom, comes responsibility. Don Imus is not a hip-hop artist or a poet.Hip-hop artists rap about what they see, hear and feel around them, their experience of the world. Like the artists throughout history, their messages are a mirror of what is right and wrong with society. Sometimes their observations or the way in which they choose to express their art may be uncomfortable for some to hear, but our job is not to silence or censor that expression. Our job is to be an inclusive voice for the hip-hop community and to help create an environment that encourages the positive growth of hip-hop. Language can be a powerful tool. That is why one's intention, when using the power of language, should be made clear. Comparing Don Imus' language with hip-hop artists' poetic expression is misguided and inaccurate and feeds into a mindset that can be a catalyst for unwarranted, rampant censorship."

As if any of the artists I quoted were really thinking of social problems when they wrote those songs. If Musiq Soulchild, A Tribe Called Quest, or De La Soul had written them, I might go for it, but Snoop Dogg is not an agent for social change. He makes porn films, advocates drug use, etc. If hip-hop artists were so concerned about social ills, would they try and change their own culture for the better, instead of glorifying its weaknesses and downfalls? Am I wrong here? It's one thing to document social problems, sing songs about them, but I feel that hip-hop specifically markets to increase the hyper-machismo that its songs portray. For instance, rap artists all create clothing lines to sell overpriced clothing to their audience who often can nay afford to purchase them. These funds are not reinvested in the communities. They buy to toys of the nouveau-riche people that market them.

I just can't defend the freedom of speech under the guise that Simmons wants us to buy. I agree that they should be free to say what they do, but I don't think that Imus should be more severely punished because he isn't an artist. Who says?

Previous to Imus's asinine remarks, South Park in an episode where Stan's dad, Randy, says something really really really stupid on national television. If you haven't seen the episode, you should. It is a perfect encapsulation of the entire Imus situation.

The thing we should all learn from this is that you never know what discrimination feels like until you have been the victim. When Stan tries to tell the only black kid at school, Token, that "it's cool now because my dad apologized to Jesse Jackson," Token screams back "Jesse Jackson is not the emperor of black people!" And even though Stan mutters "but he told my dad he was", the audience knows that a feigned, or even sincere, apology on television can never make up for the word loosed upon someone. The cartoon has Randy Marsh literally kiss Jackson on the bare-buttocks, in homage to the oft-repeated comeback to racial comments "Kiss my black ass." Apologies are nice, but it's better to have never said it. That doesn't mean that people can't or shouldn't be forgiven, it just means that your intentions will always be suspect. How Strom Thurmond ever turned around his political image is beyond me. Please let me also say that this criticism isn't solely leveled at black artists, Eminem is just as bad as the lot of them.

Snoop Dogg defends his word choice thusly:

Rappers are not talking about no collegiate basketball girls who have made it to the next level in education and sports. We're talking about ho's that's in the 'hood that ain't doing sh--, that's trying to get a n---a for his money. These are two separate things. First of all, we ain't no old-ass white men that sit up on MSNBC going hard on black girls, we are rappers that have these songs coming from our minds and our souls that are relevant to what we feel. I will not let them mutha----as say we in the same league as him.

Ahh, the coincidence of things sometimes astounds me:

The rap star's response to the Imus controversy came a day before he pleaded no contest to felony weapons and drug charges in a Los Angeles court.

Mote and beam Snoop, mote and beam.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I enjoyed this nuanced jeremiad more than normal, Mac.

I don't understand, though, why you think Trebek was right to josh. It seems to me that either answer would have been correct there. Is the distinction that "rake" has been an accepted part of English vernacular for centuries and "ho" is fairly recent?

I also find Simmons comments to be transparently self-serving. What I think he means to say is that he makes a lot of money off of questionable lyrics, and for reasons he doesn't understand, those questionable lyrics are unobjectionable so long as they "come from the street" (whatever the hell that means), but so long as that distinction remains, he's able to make a lot of money.