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Tuesday, September 4, 2007

No sag zone: Taking up the slack between Civil Rights and hip-hop

Last Thursday a bit of conversation overheard in Earwax Records crystallized the debate revolving around Atlanta City Council's proposed "no sagging pants" legislation.

Two men, both black, leaned on opposing sides of the counter at the city's biggest independently owned urban record store talking about music. You could guess their ages by the respective crowns they wore. One had a head full of white hair; the other sported a fitted baseball cap.

And neither agreed on the issue of sagging pants.

“You used to wear your pants like that?” the older gentleman asked.

“I came up in that environment. That shit goes all the way back to the ’90s,” the younger one, who looked to be in his late 20s or early 30s responded, sounding reluctant to engage in a full-blown conversation with his elder. “It’s about expressing your character.”

“You think letting your pants hang off your butt shows character?”

While the “no sagging pants” legislation proposed by Atlanta City Councilman C.T. Martin has stirred up talk about the possibility of racial profiling, the root of the issue is not interracial at all, but intergenerational and intra-cultural. Strange to think that the rift has come to a head all because of the offhand racist remarks made most recently by Don Imus and nearly a year ago by stand-up comic Michael "Kramer" Richards.

But in the wake of such diarrhea-of-the-mouth moments, many African-Americans — particularly older African-Americans — have grappled with the racist double standard that has persisted through the N-word-laced, misogynistic, often degrading lyrics heard in commercial hip-hop.

It's nothing new. Many of rap’s most vocal opponents have always come from within the black community. The only thing that’s new about the recent response to raging rap lyrics, sagging pants and other such cultural byproducts is the tactic the older generation is now utilizing to curb the behavior.

In June 1993, the Rev. Calvin Butts of New York's Abyssinian Baptist Church set out to steamroll "offensive" rap CDs made by artists like Tupac Shakur, but ended up calling the display until off so he could speak with the rappers directly. In August 2007, the Rev. Al Sharpton steamrolled his way straight to the labels that actually market and distribute rap CDs. His "Decency Initiative" was launched to convince states like New York to redirect state pension funds from music conglomerates like Time Warner and BMG until such companies discontinue the promotion and distribution of CDs peppered with degrading words like "nigga," "bitch" and "ho."

In an interview with, Mississippi-bred rapper/producer David Banner (a Southern University graduate and former SGA president) responded to Sharpton's initiative by calling him a "permed-out pimp" and throwing a mouthful of suggestive expletives his way. The two went tit for tat, with a Sharpton representative firing back in a crafted response that used Banner's words against him with the intent of making him sound gay.

Banner, who is 19 years younger than Sharpton, returned the favor with a diss rap of all things, titled "So Special," in which he included Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey in his verbal attack. He also wrote an open letter that read in part:

In the young black community, there is a growing level of resentment toward the ‘so called leaders’ because you guys DON’T WANT TO REALLY FIX OUR PROBLEMS. You guys don’t really want to be on our side fighting for better school systems, more after school programs, more money for college funding!

Obviously, African-Americans are no more monolithic than any other racial construct on the planet. But for a race that has long espoused unity as the greatest weapon to fight social degradation, the widening gap between the Civil Rights generation and the hip-hop generation is revealing.

Rappers like Banner are pissed off because they view the actions of Sharpton as a threat to their larger-than-life lifestyle. But many young people, rappers included, are also upset because their elders feel it necessary to legislate morality versus attempting to talk with them directly.

In April, Oprah Winfrey broadcasted a special two-day town hall episode revolving around hip-hop's denigrating lyrics. Guests included Sharpton, hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons (who turns 50 next month), writer Stanley Crouch, India.Arie, Atlantic Records exec. Kevin Liles, two former Essence magazine editors, and a group of students from Atlanta's Spelman College.

The lone rapper to join the panel was Common — widely regaled as one of hip-hop's most "conscious" MCs for his uplifting rhymes.

None of the rappers who actually create the type of lyrical content in question were invited to defend themselves or their words. The last thing Oprah wanted to do was give a rapper like Snoop Dogg a captive audience of millions to expand his already massive platform. But it's kinda hard to save lost sheep when you're busy preaching to the choir.

Of course, rap's beef with Oprah has been well-documented. 50 Cent, Ice Cube, Snoop Dogg, Ludacris and Killer Mike have all expressed how they feel about the richest black woman in America being too good to be down with them.

Ludacris' best response came in the form of "Runaway Love," the Grammy-winning song he made featuring Mary J. Blige. It was his way of proving hip-hop content isn't limited to spitting about "bitches" and "hoes."

Atlanta rapper Killer Mike's late-2006 response, on the other hand, was less diplomatic. Not only did "That's Life" criticize Oprah for putting "Superhead" hip-hop groupie/tell-all author Karrine Steffans on her show while refusing to provide a platform for the rap artists' whose respective "heads" Steffans gained fame blowing, he also blamed poverty, not prison, for the proliferation of young men wearing sagging pants, adding that because the African-American middle- and upper class has deserted its lower-class "cousins," they have little grounds to criticize them, as Bill Cosby was busy doing at the time.

It happens with each generation. Competing world views. Differing value systems. Still, everybody wants respect. And in a world that hasn't always been respectful of the race, black America primarily seeks it from within. To many, the generational disconnect characterized by the anti-sagging pants proposition is monumental because for the first time, one segment of African Americans is asking the powers-that-be (i.e. the government, corporate interests, The Man) to police the other. Meanwhile, youngsters continue to disrespect their elders with curse words veiled in rap lyrics, and elders diss the youngsters by continuing to talk about them versus to them.

Perhaps it's an ironic sign of progress. In America, you have truly entered the mainstream when your intra-cultural debates are no longer closed-door affairs but are played out in plain view for the world to see. Unfortunately, society-at-large tends to be a lot less forgiving of slack behavior.

Now is not the time for patronizing cries of unity in the community, but a bit of understanding from both sides couldn't hurt. Maybe the rappers could put down their mics and the politicos could put down their press releases for a moment of straight-up, face-to-face dialog — just like the kind overheard in Earwax Records.

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