Monday, May 12, 2008

Hip Hop vs. America Part 2: Oprah Winfrey, Ice Cube and Corporate Hip Hop


by Dr. Boyce Watkins

Some people think I hate Oprah Winfrey. I don’t. Actually, I love Oprah. Not the way my grandmother loves her, for that would be technically defined as cult worship. I love her the way I love Black Enterprise Magazine or really good Chinese food. Oprah inspires me, intimidates me and makes me really curious about the benefits of good, strong Tupperware.

The reason some people think I dislike Oprah is because I felt the need to critique her. Being engaged in critical social commentary in a media of black and white is like being an abstract artist in a comic book club. If you criticize someone, you are officially defined as a critic. You don’t dare use terms like “but on the other hand….”, for that’s the part of the tape that gets played during the commercial break. I even critique my mother, and I really love my mama. There is a ying-yang in everything, and Oprah is no exception. Remember: Her name is Oprah Winfrey, not Jesus Winfrey, but my grandmother might not agree.

The source of my Oprah critique came during her “Town Hall Meeting” on Hip Hop. On this particular show, Winfrey decided to assault gangster rap for its sexist imagery and violent lyrical content. I know gangster rap well, as the rapper Ice Cube (Co-founder of the group NWA) was my own personal Oprah Winfrey during high school and college. Everybody needs an Oprah, especially angry black men. There was something about the energy of NWA’s music that made me feel strong and liberated. Ice Cube’s song “F*ck the Police” was the most notorious of his collection, describing anger in LA about police brutality. With Rodney King happening just 3 years later, the song turned out to be downright prophetic.

But Ice Cube has some other work that is not so cool. Yes, he was young, but there is no excuse for the sexist content of some of his music. Years later, after Cube’s family movies have made him into an Crip-walking Bill Cosby, Oprah still has a legitimate grudge against him for songs he made 15 years ago. Ice Cube’s nasty response to Oprah, as well as backing from his gangster rap grandchild 50 Cent, led to Oprah’s Town Hall Meeting on Hip Hop.

During her attack on gangster rap, The Almighty Oprah chose to structure the judge and jury in her own psychological image. Not one guest in this so-called dialogue on gangster rap was actually a gangster rapper. The rapper “Common” was invited, but that’s like inviting Winny the Pooh to represent the Legion of Grizzly Bears. The conversation was rigged and counter-productive from the start. As a fan and critic of Hip Hop, I was disappointed. As a finance professor, I was annoyed that everyone seemed to forget that Hip Hop, in the form seen by most of America, is a corporate phenomenon. In this game, the “playas” are actually the ones getting played. One can’t discuss the War on Terror without mentioning President Bush, and one can’t discuss the challenge to gangster rap without mentioning the labels that provide financing, marketing, packaging and distribution of the final product. Without corporate America “slanging” the product or suburban kids clamoring for it like dope addicts, commercialized gangster rap would be about as socially significant as MC Hammer’s little brother.

Here are some points on what Oprah “Jesus” Winfrey was missing in her Town Hall Meeting on Hip Hop. First, commercialized Hip Hop is not the same as Hip Hop itself. Connecting the two is like comparing Hollywood blockbusters with Broadway Theatre. Sylvester Stallone couldn’t find his way to Broadway with a GPS, but he did quite well in Hollywood. The same is true for some rappers who experience commercial success with music that is about as entertaining as an actual commercial. Many such artists do not, for one second, reflect the essence of Hip Hop music.

Secondly, Oprah is a capitalist. She knows full well that the most visible face is not the most powerful one. To think that the nature of commercialized Hip Hop is controlled by rappers is to assume that record label executives aren’t standing behind the rapper with a machete over his head. Any rapper who deviates from corporate expectations will be replaced by someone who follows the company line. There are a slew of positive artists trying to get record deals, and they aren’t getting signed. The rapper E-40 said it best with his song “They’ll Find a New N*gger Next Year”. In this song, he explained that when artists get out of line, they get replaced. Perhaps Oprah should “get crunk” and listen to more E-40, he’s really good.

Again, I am not here to beat down Oprah, as some thought I was doing on CNN. I must confess that Oprah has done a lot more for the world than Ice Cube or 50 Cent. At the same time, Oprah’s anger at the sexist lyrical content of rap artists should not lead to a blanket indictment of the genre, nor should it mute the rights to cultural expression of gangster rappers. The same way that Oprah’s story is one of abuse, challenges and triumphs, the same is true for the rapper 50 Cent. Both stories are products of the black experience, and both stories deserve to be told.

The attack on gangster rap reminds me a lot of the War on Drugs during the horrific years of the Reagan Administration. There is a difference between really wanting to solve a problem vs. venting your frustrations and pretending to solve the problem. Reagan’s decision to arrest tens of thousands of black men while allowing the CIA to let drugs into the country through the back door was a vent. Oprah’s decision to go after rappers without having the courage to go to the source of the problem is like beating up the smallest kid in the class because the biggest kid took your lunch money. Although record labels control the marketing, content, distribution and production of gangster rap, Oprah wouldn’t dare go after the labels themselves. The very same corporations that own the rappers also own a piece of Oprah and the kids who buy the music on i-tunes are the children of her soccer mom audience.

Don’t get it twisted, everybody’s a slave in the rap game. Oprah hasn’t yet begun to open this Pandora’s Box.

Dr. Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “Financial Lovemaking 101: Merging Assets with Your Partner in ways that feel good.” For more information, please visit


Professor Tom Mengesha said...

Well stated as always!

braziliababy said...

I am so tired of people in the black community,as well as others,bashing and being so critical of the hip hop community. We are supposed to expect that from our counterparts,but not from our own. A wealth of good has come out of the hip hop culture-millions of dollars=jobs for thousands,maybe even millions;outlet into the media and t.v./film indusrty;fashion labels;various entrepreneurships which have enable people like Nelly and Russell Simmons and others to give back to our poor and indegent neighborhoods. But all the positives are extremely overshadowed by the few negatives that can be corrected if people work together and stop judging.While you're being so critical of the hip hop artists...what are you doing to improve your neighborhood or a neaby neighborhood/neighbor that needs help? C'mon black folk,we as a people have to stop having that crab mentality!When you're pointing the finger at someone there three others pointed back at you..Hence if you're not a part of the solution you are what?! A part of the problem! Stop helping the vanilla people to defeat us take away our creativity and accomplishments.Necesity brings on creativity-the drug dealers,hustlers,gang bangers,and other unsavory elements came off the street and started singing about the life that they live in the ghetto,tha hood,in urban america ,if you will. What do you want?! Would you rather them go back to their exclusive lives of crime or sing about it?And if you don't like how it sounds on a cd..imagine what it's like for them to live it.Be glad that they have an outlet to vent the frustration of being black-poor,unedcucated,disadvantaged,unfree,hungry,hustling for the right to live in this america..that they are by enlarge not still out on the street taking out their pain and anger on society;no our neighborhoods,our own people;better yet,one another.If the lyrical content sounds harsh,try living it for a day,an hour...Contrary to popular jargain stating that they're glamorizing it by singing about it:it is very far removed from being glamorous. Standing on a corner all day seeling drugs rain,sleet,snow.Hustling for everything you need-the very air you breathe.Ther is a lot beauty in our people;in our ability to adapt and conquer.We need to embrace that! Stop getting it twisted black people.White america controls what is brought to the public!The companies have the ultimate say so of what is put out,not the artist!It's about dollars and cents/sense!Ultimately it's the artist who is still being exploited!White america want their cake,the ingredients and the afterparty too.They want to make the money-all the money..but they want their children to be influence by the black culture.And while eveybody is all on hip hop..what about the music that's still out there that's satanistic,with hidden messages and all thatA?Music causing people literally to kill themselves and other people...ain't nobody talking 'bout that.I forgot that's cause it's white so it must be right. And to those people offended by the bitch word...are you so removed from your culture that you've forgotten or don't know that like nigga,bitch is one of those words that is socially acceptable in certain settings in some black communities;that it may not necesarily be a bad thing when used.I'm not saying that I agree,nor should you but that's just the way it is.Ther again it's all about education,giving back;teaching pride and self worth where there may be none.Remember it takes a village....