Bling, Bling, Bia, Bia!: How Hip-Hop Can Survive Beyond Black History Month

Every year, I look forward to Black History Month. Personally speaking, 12 years of public school attendance during the month of February taught me so much: an appreciation for my ebony brethren, a thorough review of their tribulation-ridden history, and a complete undressing of the centuries-long prejudicial cloak wrapped around our society. That I think of George Washington Carver, a black man, every time I twist open a jar of Jif, that I have black friends in my MySpace circle (6.5, not counting E-40 and Fatlip, both of whom I have never met in person), and that I work with many persons of African descent are sure signs that Black History Month is, like, the best thing evar for social progress. Some might even call it a runaway success.

Pay no mind that peanut butter is not included as one of Carver’s 300 peanut uses. And ignore the fact that I have close to 100 friends on MySpace, making my black contingent a mere 6.5 percent of my total friend population, a hair less than the 12 percent in the US population. Lastly, forget that the vast majority of minorities at my work are in service positions (though many are unionized!). Still, Awareness/History Months are better than gifts from Santa Claus, the Easter Bunny, and the Hanukkah Bush combined.

Sorry, it’s been a few years since I’ve gone hardbody with the sarcasm or irony, so I have to break voice at the jump.

As another February has reached its end, I am reminded that Black History Month, and all the other flavors of the rainbow coalition Augustan calendar, often feels like four weeks of missed learning opportunities. Don’t get me wrong: I am not trying to dismiss Black History Month, or any month dedicated to raising consciousness of our societal divides. Rather, I am criticizing the public media’s response to Black History Month for two reasons (besides the conspiratorial shortest-month-of-the-year-to-discuss-a-history-slash-culture-slash-dynamic-that-is-in-fact-present-and-vibrant-in-the-past-and-current-and-foreseeable-future-American-fabric theory, because Carter Woodson’s Negro History Week, the event that began in 1926 and eventually inspired Black History Month, was deliberately set in February to coincide with Marcus Garvey and Abraham Lincoln’s birthdays and appeal to both blacks and whites). The first is for the superficial educational content. As much as I enjoy reciting factoids, like how the Boondocks owes more to Asian culture than just Japanimation nods, but its very namesake which is taken from the Tagalog “bundok”, meaning “mountain” (more fun facts at Mad Asian), I’d have to be chug-a-lugging the Kool-Aid to think that the trivia will set us free.

Second, most of the media analysis during February is mildly retarded shortsighted. Case in point: shows like Boulevard of Broken Dreams: Destiny’s Child magically appear this time of the year and are replayed numerous times throughout the month. Admittedly, I have not seen this special and perhaps should give Ms. Knowles and co. the benefit of the doubt that their road to success reads like a ragged page torn from the great African-American Storybook (or, at least tap dances on the back of oppressors, like litigious ex-member LaTavia Roberson). However, I’m not retarded shortsighted and refuse to smoke from that pipe. The greatest-hits-of-history approach minimizes the impact of process by suggesting that a single icon or celebrity makes “it” (whatever that may be) happen. Besides, fixing the masses’ attention on past accomplishments and pretty icons keeps them from considering how to act in the present.

Don’t get me wrong: this is no fault of the month of February. February is a fine month. My father was born in February. I was supposed to be born in February, until my delivery date rolled around and I decided to extend my stay for another week. Have you felt how cold it is during February? W.E.B. DuBois was born in February. In fact, the day I am writing this is his birthday. And he was…well, you get the point. The beef is not with the idea of a Fill-In-The-Blank History/Awareness Month, but with how the conversation is handled during these opportunities.

This year has been an exception, largely because of a couple discussions on television: Byron Hurt’s Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes and Raquel Cepeda’s Bling’d: Blood, Diamonds and Hip Hop. Neither are exceptional films: they channel Ken Burns’s sentimentality, echo Michael Moore’s did-I-say-that candor, and use some decent soundtracks. And, because of their connection and treatment of hip-hop, are rather myopically plugged into the “Black History” category by their marketing hosts. Yet, both are made with enough care and craft to spark some pertinent critiques of hip-hop and (what I hope to be) a broader conversation about the American state.

Now, before waving the conspiracy why-does-the-annual-shitting-on-hip-hop-“coincidentally”-happen-during-Black-History-Month — doesn’t this happen all year ’round? — flag again, consider this: if hip-hop is an art, or a larger entity such as a culture, then we must be able to assess it. No body survives unchecked, so what sets hip-hop apart? As its producers and participants, fans and Stans, we must be able to navigate conversations about our actions. And what better way to do it than from an informed, insider’s perspective.

Hurt, a life-long hip-hop fan, demonstrates admirable knowledge by interviewing a broad range of artists, including Fat Joe, Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, and Jadakiss. However, he also applies his anti-sexism advocacy experience (check out his previous documentary on black masculinity I Am a Man) to explore questions of misogyny and homophobia in hip-hop with the help of Sarah Jones, Dr. Jelani Cobb, Michael Eric Dyson, and Dr. Beverly Guy-Sheftall. Cepeda, former editor-in-chief of Russell Simmons’s OneWorld Magazine and editor of an anthology of hip-hop journalism called And It Don’t Stop!, appropriately takes a journalistic approach and focuses on narrative, documenting three rappers’ and one former child soldier’s travels through Sierra Leone to learn about the country’s civil war and its impact on the diamond industry. Quite a contrast to the more familiar Paula Zahn, voice-of-authority, WTF-is-this-poisonhip-hop approach from such non-hip-hop outlets as, uh, CNN (Chuck, you called it). As insiders their approach is not as threatening as that of an outsider looking in, but Cepeda and Hurt are critical enough to dissuade fears of lax self-monitoring. Here are two films made by fans for fans and non-fans. And the filmmakers’ aspiration to bring various interest groups to the table and discuss divisive, even painful topics opens doors.

Hurt unifies his base by connecting hip-hop with a larger pop consciousness. He makes clear that hip-hop artists are no different than other pop culture icons in that art is their business and their job is to entertain. Jadakiss makes this connection and Hurt directs our attention to other familiar sex and violence culprits, such as Hollywood and the George W. Bush smiling, “We’re gonna smoke ’em out!” However, without pointing fingers, Hurt maintains hip-hop as simply one style within the greater pop culture fashion. As much as we love to get stuck on the realness, thinking hip-hop reflects a true image of society, we should not be so surprised when the poetic crooks are not as crooked as we imagine them to be; sometimes, they even plain ol’ shook. In a humorous but revealing moment of candor, Fat Joe illustrates this blurry line between entertainment and reality, or work and play, by wondering why everyone — artists and consumers alike — put on airs and front in a hip-hop club instead of simply “smiling at each other”. This perceived hardness/machismo of hip-hop makes the rapper chuckle, calling it “a flaw”. Yet, as artists-qua-entertainers, they’re just giving us what we want and we readily recycle what we consume. When Hurt interviews aspiring rappers across the country and isolates the hyper-masculine, violent current running through their freestyles, they describe these tropes as what record companies find marketable and what listeners want to hear. Although a section of Beyond traces the roots of hyper-masculinity to the emasculation and criminalization of the black male in America, the film makes clear how forces across society, particularly the seemingly neutral and/or absent record companies, play a role in shaping hip-hop’s identity. And if we think of hip-hop as being sexist, violent, and homophobic, what does that say about us?

Cepeda takes another route to connect hip-hop with the “everyperson” by focusing on the transformative experience of specific subjects. Although the film makes an obvious concession to the hip-hop generation, taking its name from Lil’ Wayne’s prescient expression and featuring three high profile rap and reggaetón artists Raekwon, Paul Wall, and Tego Calderón, its message could have been delivered by Fall Out Boy, Carrie Underwood, or any other celebrity of the moment. Aside from a casual mention of each man’s significance to the project (Raekwon popularized the term “ice” to describe diamond jewelry with his song “Ice Cream”; Paul Wall, along with business partner/jewelry designer “TV” Johnny Dang who also embarks on this trip, supply “grills”, or custom fitted diamond mouthpieces, for the vast majority of hip-hop celebrities; and Tego, well, Tego is there for the reggaetón demographic and sporadic sobering commentary, for all I can tell) and a brief trip to a club, Cepeda focuses more on each artist’s response to the country, its civil war, and diamond mining practices and aftermaths, rather than their celebrity. Although the expense of diamond jewelry makes the subject of purchasing decisions a concern for a segment of society, diamonds’ undeniable visibility in popular culture allows the Sierra Leone plight welcome access to civil society’s consciousness. In a word, she effectively uses familiar faces to expose the horrific provenance of a multi-million dollar industry — by the way, guess which company experienced a 32 percent profit increase from the previous year and earned $730 million last year alone?

Cepeda’s and Hurt’s approaches are encouraging achievements in establishing negotiable, public conversations. In both instances, hip-hop is not singled out as the red-headed problem child, but its responsibility and culpability in the public sphere is made clear. Admittedly, I take exception to the marketing of these films. Beyond has been written up to the point that Joe Know-No-Hip-Hop would (understandably) believe sexism and homophobia to be hip-hop’s top two M.O.s, dead or alive. Meanwhile, the premise of Bling’d benefits from three blissfully ignorant rappers and furtively suggests that hip-hop has heretofore been the principle condoner of the blood-smeared diamond trade. However, upon watching and questioning, these films raise topics pertinent to both the hip-hop generation and those who do not identify as such. Additionally, that both films are tied with but not exclusive to African diaspora history, they make for excellent conversation jump-offs. As a culture with complete, top-down influence — from celebrity visibility to business wealth to civil society expression — hip-hop can continue to be used in such innovative ways and lead relevant conversations about our society. Now, ain’t that a helluva way to shine?

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Postscript: Please do yourself a favor and read more from the Sierra Leonean former child soldier in Bling’d, Ishmael Beah. He is now a writer who resides in Brooklyn, NY.