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Bad Rap 

The death of the civil-rights movement is greatly exaggerated--as is the importance of hip-hop.

The morning after rap pioneer Jam Master Jay was gunned down in New York City, there arrived in my mailbox a book for me to peruse and perhaps to review. I receive books in this manner, unsolicited, from time to time. Most are pretty bad, the kind that would make most writers think to themselves, "This guy gets a book published and I can't even get my manuscript looked at?!" (Of course, for me, the thought is, "Wow, this guy stinks, so if I ever get off my lazy butt and write something longer than a cover story, I've got a chance.")

The book, by USC professor Todd Boyd, is entitled The New HNIC (Head Nigga In Charge): The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip-Hop. I thought, Wow, I really have to read this! I didn't even know that civil rights were dead. I heard about black people having to show two forms of ID at the polls in Arkansas, but I thought that was just an aberration. Now, I find out that not only is one of the most important social movements in history dead and gone, it has been replaced by bad music and over-priced clothes. Where was I when this was going on? It must have been announced on Fox-TV during the World Series; that's why nobody knows about it.

First off, we can now see why USC is universally acclaimed as an outstanding institution of higher education: The school has a Professor of Hip-Hop. What's next? Is some rich alum going to come along and endow a Chair in Jackie Chan movies?

Boyd claims that the civil rights movement has grown bloated and inconsequential. He then adds that "hip-hop has displaced the pious, sanctimonious nature of civil rights as the defining moment of Blackness."

First of all, you can't judge a movement by those who claim to be its leaders. To be sure, Jesse Jackson has become bloated and inconsequential, while Al Sharpton actually started out bloated and inconsequential and just got worse from there. But the civil rights movement isn't about a couple guys seeking self-aggrandizement and a quick buck.

I lived through the Civil Rights movement. I was just a kid, but I saw the purposefulness in people's eyes, I heard the conviction in their voices and I saw the unwavering sense of righteousness in their step. The fight for civil rights is not something people dabbled in and then moved on. The movement will forever be a part of their lives and a significant trait in our country's collective character.

I watched as people agonized over their plight, and at how they struggled with the inner battle being waged between their hearts and heads that wanted to find the strength to be peaceful like Dr. King and the aching in their guts that told them that there was something to what Malcolm X was saying, as well. But now, apparently, that's all passé. We no longer honor those who gave their lives for what they believed in. These days we're supposed to look up to a shit-talker from St. Louis who wears 10 pounds of gold and sports a Band-Aid under his eye to show his solidarity with his homies in prison.

I'll be the first to admit that I didn't think rap and hip-hop would last as long as they have. I thought they'd be blips on the radar screen like punk and glitter. I still think that at least part of the reason they're still going strong is that nothing else of value has come along to nudge them aside. What else is there? Boy bands? Get serious. Madonna and her spawn? Talentless hoochies. Kurt Cobain? Yeah right, a guy for whom suicide was a great career move and really his only option after heroin could no longer drown out Courtney Love. By comparison, LL Cool J is absolutely profound.

Over the years, I've made every effort to get into the music, but it's as soulless as Bush's Cabinet. While its practitioners liberally steal from existing music, it remains oddly a music form without any sense of history, not even its own. If you had mentioned Jam Master Jay and Run-DMC to any rap fan the day before Jay was killed, you probably would have elicited a derisive laugh.

As an art form, hip-hop may not be dead, but it's certainly lifeless. Rap lacks the passion of the blues, the style of R&B, and the sweaty sexiness of funk. The difference between rap and soul is like the difference between rape and lovemaking. It's all battery without even the courtesy of assault.

It was in this milieu of misogyny, money worship and street credibility earned through casual acts of violence that Jam Master Jay was murdered. At press time, there was no word on who killed him. It wouldn't be surprising if it turns out to be an up-and-coming "record executive" who just a few weeks ago was working as a bouncer in a club and a few months from now will be somebody's bitch up in Ossining.

Of course, we still don't know who killed the Notorious B.I.G. and only have an unsubstantiated hunch as to who did Tupac Shakur in. A friend of mine suggests that the cops don't try too hard to solve these crimes, but they neglect to mention that they're all black-on-black crimes, not unlike the types that are glorified in hip-hop music.

Boyd claims that the strength of hip-hop is that it "didn't need to be repackaged in Whiteface to be consumed by the masses." He claims that it has created a common ground for disaffected youths of all colors. Of course, he never once mentions how this is or will become a social force. Are these people ever going to stop getting high and talking about bling-bling long enough to vote? Doubtful. Are they going to improve the schools? Oh, sure. Are they even adding to popular culture? Not really.

About all I've seen of this "common ground" is that white trash can, under certain circumstances, hang out with black trash and act stupid together. And if brown trash wants to come, that's cool... but they might get shot.

This isn't so much a social movement as a bowel movement.

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