February 20, 2006
Popular culture is white culture. This isn't because of some anti-minority agenda. This isn't because TV and music executives aren't part of the community. It's because there are more white people than black people. Therefore, there is more advertising money in appealing to the pop culture sensibilities of white people. And yes, black people have different tastes than white people. They eat different foods, listen to different music, and use different hair care products. Bottom line: minorities tend to fall into different advertising niches than the dominant white market, with each minority group representing only a splinter of the overall market. Therefore, pop culture products aimed squarely at minority groups tends to have a smaller audience and corral less advertising dollars than more homogenous ( i.e. white) visions of American life. That's why mainstream TV and music have been slow to bring black faces into the fold.
The one place where we do tend to see more pop culture product aimed directly at minority audiences is with hip hop music. Hip hop gives us a compelling and uncompromised articulation of black alienation. In this sense, hip hop is political. It uses language as a weapon to push the urban experience into the mainstream. As hip hop pioneer Russell Simmons observed, "I see hip hop culture as the new American mainstream. We don't change for you; you adapt to us."
This is unique. Outside of hip hop culture there is an obvious lack of pop culture diversity. Outside of hop-hop, those minorities that do manage to break into mainstream music or TV tend to have straight hair, light skin and European features. This lack of diversity has had the effect of pushing the European aesthetic into the mainstream and making minorities feel marginalized for their unique physical and cultural attributes. Young people, who try desperately to be what the pop culture tells them they should be, respond by straightening their hair, or even hating their dark skin.
Hip hop presents an alternative. Hip Hop holds out in the face of assimilation. Hip hop refuses to trot out the black faces we see in mainstream. Hip hop does not give us black characters dressed up as parables of white middle class guilt. Hip hop does not give us black images designed to crossover to black and white audiences. Hip Hop keeps it real.
For this reason, a lot of people say hip hop is an integral part of the civil rights movement. "I would suggest that you might get a better read of what's going on in the world of Black people today by listening to DMX on It's Dark and Hell is Hot than by listening to repeated broadcasts of Martin Luther King speeches," writes author Todd Boyd in his book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop.
But there is a dark side to packaging black rage as entertainment, let alone as an engine of civil rights. Hip hop celebrates some of the absolute worst in our community: thugged out gansta violence. We explain away this aspect of hip hop music by saying, hey, they're just keeping it real. Meanwhile our children stare at hip hop sociopaths with adoring eyes. They emulate their mean sense of entitlement, their broken English, and their violence, because this is what the popular culture tells us it means to be black. By empathizing and making excuses for the thuggish behavior of certain black athletes, musicians and actors, we train our children to be just like them.
In this sense, hip hop is more than a raw depiction of black urban life. It's the commercialization of gangsta life. Ultimately this is no better than the simplistic images of black life that we've seen for so long in the pop culture. Our willingness to uncritically embrace hip hop is dangerous because what we really need to be doing is challenging simplistic and destructive media depictions of black life, not rallying around them.
Armstrong Williams is a widely-syndicated columnist, CEO of the Graham Williams Group, and hosts the Armstrong Williams Show.