I listened to Jay-Z on Oprah a few weeks ago. You should know that I’m a Jay-Z fan from way back.
I was struck by his defense of using the n word to defuse its power. He talked about how kids that look up to, idolize rap stars, African American sports icons won’t grow up to be racist.
Sadly, not true. And this why history needs to be taught more aggressively.
I think that hip hop is nearing the same point that jazz reached decades ago. The rhythms of le jazz hot captured a generation. Its innovators — Trane, Dizzy, Ella, Armstrong, Miles, Billie — transformed not just popular music but classical music, literature, dance and visual art. It touched extraordinary artists from Bartok to Ailey.
Legions of fans crossed into interracial relationships (sexual and platonic) with jazz as their soundtrack.
Then things changed. Those fans grew up and moved on. And sometimes they not only walked away from the music but walked away from their embrace of negritude.
You can love Bill Cosby but still stereotype and discriminate against black people as a group.
And privilege and power are not easy to give up. They may seem immaterial at 20 but having a family, building a business, creating order out of the sometimes chaos of the world often sends people back to their roots and those roots are often very conservative.
It’s a funny thing. African American music has been the backdrop for American romance for a long time. When it shifted from alluding to sex to portraying it graphically, from sweetness to aggression, I wonder if it ceded its moral authority and power. I hope that hip hop isn’t a metaphor for where we’re headed — with a few prospering and the many failing.
In any case, I hope hip hop artists realize the moment. A young hip hop artist recently noted that a lot of rap albums only have 2-3 good songs and asked who is going to spend their hard earned money on that? I said to myself. It’s a different day children.