"Is Rap tomorrow's Jazz?"
By Thaddeus Russell
THADDEUS RUSSELL is a professor of history and American studies at Barnard College.
August 16, 2005
A LEADING African American newspaper published a series of articles assailing black musicians for holding back the race. The music "is killing some people," the paper claimed. "Some are going insane; others are losing their religion." The artists under attack were not rappers such as 50 Cent or Ludacris but Fats Waller, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington. "The young girls and boys who constantly take jazz every day and night are absolutely becoming bad, and some criminals," the (New York) Amsterdam News wrote in 1925.
There is a long but little-known history of African American leaders denouncing black popular music as self-destructive and an impediment to integration, a history that continues in the current campaign against rap. This is unfortunate because rap, like older forms of black popular music now considered to be "America's classical music," is distinctive and important because it differs from the norms of "respectable" culture.
Last month, when Lil' Kim was sentenced to prison for lying to a grand jury about a shooting, her raps were also indicted as an obstacle to black progress. "Her music is laced with lyrics that glorify promiscuous sex and gratuitous violence," wrote DeWayne Wickham, a nationally syndicated columnist and former president of the National Assn. of Black Journalists. "She is a Pied Piper of the worst kind — a diva of smut."
The criticisms of Lil' Kim were launched amid an anti-rap movement that began in March, soon after shots were fired by the rival entourages of 50 Cent and the Game outside a New York radio station. Al Sharpton demanded that the Federal Communications Commission ban violent rappers from radio and television, and he launched a boycott against Universal Music Group, which he accused of "peddling racist and misogynistic black stereotypes" through rap music. Sharpton expressed special concern about white perceptions of African Americans. Rappers and their corporate supporters "make it easy for black culture to be dismissed by the majority," he said, and the large white fan base "has learned through rap images to identify black male culture with a culture of violence."
Jesse Jackson's Rainbow/PUSH Coalition signed on to the boycott, as did Princeton professor Cornel West, who issued a statement claiming that music companies and rappers made it easy for whites to "view black bodies and black souls as less moral, oversexed and less intelligent."
These critics argue that the "damaging" images of African Americans in rap discourage whites from opening the door to full citizenship. Yet a consideration of the troubled relationship between civil rights leaders and black popular music in the past might give pause to the opponents of contemporary rap, and, for that matter, to the proponents of integration. In fact, blues, jazz, rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues were all denounced by advocates for racial integration, and for the same reasons rap is now under attack.
In the 1920s, several civil rights leaders were so concerned about the sexual and violent content of popular blues and jazz songs that they established a record company to "undertake the job of elevating the musical taste of the race." Promoted by W.E.B. DuBois and A. Philip Randolph, two of the most important civil rights leaders of the 20th century, Black Swan Records pledged to distribute "the Better Class of Records by Colored Artists," which meant recordings of "respectable" European classical music.
Civil rights leaders similarly opposed the next creations of African American musicians: rock 'n' roll and rhythm and blues. In the 1950s, Martin Luther King Jr. told African Americans to shun the new music, which, he said, "plunges men's minds into degrading and immoral depths." Likewise, Randolph's Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, which produced a great portion of the civil rights leadership, condemned rock and R&B for their overt sexuality and their "degrading portrayal of Negro womanhood."
This history suggests that the cause of integration has always been at odds with what is now widely hailed as America's most important contribution to world culture. Many scholars argue that the creators of jazz, blues, rock and R&B were great because of their willingness and ability to work outside European cultural forms and to speak about elements of the human condition that white artists would not, such as sex and violence.
Those who attack the latest form of black popular music for the sake of racial unity and "respectability" might stop to consider which side, in the history that will be written of this time, they wish to be on.