Jones, V. (25 April, 2007). “The Ghetto Culture Machine,” The Boston
Rodman, S. (25 April, 2007). “Policing Rap Lyrics is Near-Impossible Task,” The Boston Globe
By “ghetto culture,” Jones has in mind rising incidents of deliberate imitation, sometimes parody, of urban hip-hop culture. College and high school students throw “ghetto parties,” for example, and MTV shows such as “Pimp My Ride” put an urban attitude toward car-culture front and center in suburban living rooms.
Writer Cora Daniels calls the phenomenon “Ghettonation” – a “mindset that embraces and celebrates the worst” through the expanding currency of hip-hop music and lifestyle. By ‘worst’ one could point to violent and degrading rap lyrics, or the glorification of drug use. Snoop Dogg and rapper 50 Cent play these notes with great success. But the choice of terms is controversial. “Ghetto,” says William Cobb of SpelmanCollege, is “a loaded term, which doesn’t serve to denote anything except a stereotypical view of a certain people.” Worse, the use of such a term may carry racist baggage. When Paris Hilton, for example, describes a beat-up old truck as “so ghetto,” her phrase implicitly borrows on stereotypes to convey a point.
The concern of Jones’ article, then, is two-fold: First, the point is not that hip-hop culture has a far-reaching and complicated relationship to white consumer culture, but that the way we talk about, celebrate, or criticize this phenomenon may very well be racist. Second, the co-opting and repackaging of hip-hop art for mainstream consumers tends to isolate a ‘gangsta’ lifestyle that not only plays with race/class stereotypes, but inadvertently sustains them.
In some hip-hop circles the tag “ghetto” is a declaration of authenticity – you’re certifiably ghetto if you’ve been shot three times and landed a record contract. But in predominantly white suburbs “ghetto” can be a way of subtly mocking or ‘exoticizing’ black urban culture. If a rap video flashes rows of gold-toothed “grills” in a rather over-the-top way, the fashion statement becomes fair “ghetto” game for suburban party-goers.
When white radio host Don Imus uses the term “hos” on the air to refer to black female basketball players a storm of controversy erupts. The term may have been normalized by rap artists, but this doesn’t mean a white man has free access to it.
Professor Emmett Price at NortheasternUniversity tells Jones that when he tried to discuss “ghetto parties” in his classroom the white students took a “So what?” position – why shouldn’t they toy with an image that is already profiting in the public commercial domain. According to Daren Graves of SimmonsCollege, the marketing of a racial stereotype makes it all the more difficult for young people to recognize genuine racial problems in our social structures.
The question of appropriate rap lyrics and commercial moral influence are also the topic of Rodman’s editorial. In the wake of the Don Imus incident, notes Rodman, record company executives and leaders from the African-American community have met to discuss this difficult issue. Russell Simmons, cofounder of the Def Jam record label, has suggested a voluntary lyric ban on three offensive words.
However, counters Rodman, for a man who made his fortune marketing offensive rhymes, this offer is a bit disingenuous. And though Rodman wants something more substantial to be done, she also wonders how we might keep this from getting too arbitrary. “I personally find the constant references to alcoholic beverages like Cristal, Courvoisier and Bacardi incredibly irritating. Can we get rid of these too? How about crunkmeister Lil Jon’s relentless barking of “OK!”?
Rodman is very untrusting of boardroom ‘morality’, and concludes on a pragmatic note about the state of the problem. The desire to “have more civil discourse and imaginative entertainment is laudable” but ultimately the fate of rap lyrics is up to the market. The good news is that “the raw and violent strain” of hip-hop appears to be ebbing in sales.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion:
1. How does ‘racism’ appear in the situations described by this article?
2. What is the relationship between urban culture and hip-hop marketing?
3. Does the use of hip-hop slang by white celebrities qualify as racist? Why or why not?
4. Do you or teenagers you know pay attention to the lyrics of popular rap songs?
5. Should certain words be banned from such songs?
The article paints a disheartening picture of the relationship between music culture, race, and language. That the author herself holds a somewhat mixed view implies that there is no clear way to resolve the tensions. It is fair to expect that African-Americans do not want hip-hop culture to speak for them, or urban slang to enter the popular lexicon of today. It is also fair to assume that Paris Hilton and Don Imus are not seething racists when they borrow on unbecoming terms popularized by hip-hop icons. The article implies, sadly, that because the situation is so loaded with justifiable concerns about race, no honest dialogue on the matter is possible.
Christopher S. Yates cCYS