Todd Boyd — Interviewed by Yusuf Nuruddin
Yusuf Nuruddin: I spent some time yesterday reading your book The New H.N.I.C.*: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, and I have a couple of questions about it. First of all, could you give me the kernel or nutshell of your thesis?
Todd Boyd: The title of the book sums up what the book is about: the death of civil rights and the reign of hip hop. In my mind, the Civil Rights generation, those African-Americans who came of age during the Civil Rights era—who were part of the Civil Rights era—have had a strong influence on African-American culture for quite some time now. And I think if we look at the way that things have changed—that society overall has changed and grown and evolved—a lot of the issues that defined that generation have been changed in nuance somewhat. I guess I find now a situation where that generation and their ideas are somewhat outdated and passé. It’s not to say that the pursuit of one’s civil rights is accomplished because I think that’s an ongoing struggle. But it is to say that the sort of ideas that defined and motivated the Civil Rights era come across somewhat differently in the present.
So when I look out and see what’s going on, I see hip hop as something that has connected a generation of people. Here’s something that started as just music, but from that music it has grown to encompass a whole culture, a lifestyle, an ideology, a point of view, points of view, if you will. And so for that reason, when I look at the present, I see that hip hop has much more influence now than does civil rights, even though many of these old Civil Rights figures still want to maintain a lock on what happens in the community. But I think times have changed and hip hop is this new formation, which is why I refer to it as the new head niggaz in charge—H.N.I.C. In terms of the controversy, that’s what it’s all about. I think the time has come for somebody to step up and say what needs to be said. I think there’s a lot of censorship that goes on in the Black community. There’s a lot of things that people can’t say, sacred cows that people can’t challenge, and I don’t think that’s progressive, and so I think it was time for somebody to step up and be real, and that’s where I see myself and my book fitting in.
Okay, now you said in your book that there was a transitional generation that talked about the New Black Aesthetic, for example Mark Anthony Neal, and that that was a bridge between what you call the Race Men of the Civil Rights generation and, I guess, niggaz of the hip hop generation. And I think you said you located yourself in that transitional generation although you tend to look to the hip hop generation because you think that the New Black Aesthetic generation was just transitional and really had no influence. Is that correct?
Somewhat. In my first book, Am I Black Enough For You?, I talked about what I saw as, not so much generations, but the three sort of transitional phases around identity. And I talked about the Race Man, I talked about the New Black Aesthetic, and then I talked about the emergence of the nigga. To me, the nigga is inherently part of hip hop culture. Of course, niggaz have been around for a long time, they didn’t just start with hip hop but hip hop gives it, I think, a different twist. I’m 39. When I was in tenth grade, Rapper’s Delight came out. I’m from Detroit, I’m not from New York, so I wasn’t fortunate enough to be in the South Bronx or Brooklyn or Harlem when hip hop was first coming out in the mid-‘70s. But by the late ‘70s, I was right there, when hip hop moved outside of New York and into other parts of the country. And still, by ’79, very, very few people are listening to hip hop. So, for me, it’s been a part of my life for quite a long time.
I think it’s hard to really define when a generation starts and when it ends precisely. But I guess I would say that, to me, the idea of a nigga, N-I-G-G-A, is an individual who fits comfortably in hip hop and who is not interested in necessarily appeasing the masses or fitting into anybody’s category, but instead is interested in doing things their own way in spite of the consequences. And this is one of the things about hip hop I’ve always found empowering. But I guess if I were talking about myself, I would say that I am a nigga, and I’m very much part of the hip hop generation and I don’t make any bones about it.
Some people are offended by that, others are confused and others don’t quite know what to do with it but to me this is who I am, so when I say that, it’s not to me a negative thing, it’s very much a sort of acknowledgement of the way I see myself and the way I relate to the world. The first time I went to Europe—and this is an experience that I think a lot of Black people who’ve been to Europe or other places have had—I think for the first time somebody called me an American. And I never thought of myself before that time as an American because to me American was another way of saying white. And I certainly wasn’t white so I didn’t think I was an American—What am I? Well, I’m a nigga. And I don’t have no problems with that. But I think something clicked in me. Well, I was born in America, I was raised in America, so to that extent I guess I am technically an American. But you can be in something but not be of it. And to me that’s what this whole thing is about. You’re in this culture and to some extent you’re a part of it but not fully, and hip hop, in the sense of being, gives you another option.
What option is that, and what is its vision? You said that there’s a whole new ideology, but what I found in your book—if I may be slightly critical—is that you talk a lot about the death of the Civil Rights movement and you do mention the Black Power movement, but only in passing, and you do say that hip hop is an outgrowth of the Black Power movement. I’m 53. I am someone who was nurtured in the Black Power movement, and I know that you said that there is a dichotomy in hip hop between people who see Black Power or Black Nationalism as the way to go and those who see Underworld Entrepreneurialism—or basically the idea that you have to go after capital—as the main thrust. That’s a big divide as far as I’m concerned and I don’t know if there’s any real unified vision in the hip hop community. For example, in the Black Power community, one of the things we wanted to do was to build alternative institutions. Is that part of the vision of hip hop?
Well, I think hip hop is an alternative institution. To me, the reason I made that point in the book—and I think you would feel me on this—is that a lot of people use civil rights to define the entirety of that era, but in my mind there’s a big difference between the Civil Rights movement and the Black Power movement, of Black nationalism. This is what Malcolm was talking about. And I think it’s important to separate those things. A lot of people would say we shouldn’t separate them—Dr. King and Malcolm were going for the same thing. I disagree with that, because I think one of the problems we still face as African-Americans is that people want to simplify us and sort of pigeonhole us. And I think it’s important to recognize that there are differences in thought, differences in philosophy and ideology between Malcolm and Martin Luther King, differences in ideology between Civil Rights and Black Power. That’s where I start—let’s recognize Black Power as distinct, and not a subset of Civil Rights, because it was something that came from a completely different place.
Now, I think that the sense of self-determination, the sense of independence and freedom, all this grows out of Black Nationalism, Black Power, and sort of seeps its way into subsequent generations. And to me, this is where hip hop came from, as opposed to coming out of Civil Rights. Now, I’m not somebody who looks at this as “there’s a right way and a wrong way,” because I think that ends the debate as opposed to expanding it. I think it’s up to the individual to choose what’s right and what’s wrong for them. In my mind, though, hip hop is an alternative institution. When hip hop started, these people were making beats and writing rhymes, and they were doing this for love, because they wanted to do it. It wasn’t necessarily about getting a record deal. Well, at a certain point, that became possible. So I come from the standpoint that the more capital one has, the more leverage they have, because as Barzini says in The Godfather, “After all, we are not Communists.”
So you recognize that there was never any intention whatsoever that a Black person in this society, especially a Black man, was supposed to make any money, and yet you see that here with this culture of hip hop you have a number of individuals who have been able to become quite viable financially. I think that financial viability is a good thing. I think it is progress because my knowledge of Black Nationalism, my knowledge of Black Power, had to do not just with creating alternative institutions but also with having something you could call your own. And it’s really impossible to have that in this society without having money because you don’t have any real leverage. That’s where I come from on that issue.
I agree with you there but I wonder about the emphasis on the individual as opposed to the collective or the communal sense of institutions.
Well, again, I think if you listen to hip hop, the communal is a very strong part of it. And I think one of the problems that we’ve had—one of the issues I keep coming up against since I’ve been talking about this book—is people still see politics in a very traditional way and I’m trying to get people to rethink how they see politics.
You’re talking about cultural politics, right?
To me, hip hop is very much about the community. People talk about my hood, my projects, my niggaz, my crew, my fam, my peeps. You get these communal references throughout hip hop. So in that way you look at one hip hop artist who might be successful. They’re artists, they’re on a record label, the record label’s trying to sell records. Yeah, they’re going to try to market the individual and that one individual is going to be the face that you see. But I think that each of these individuals—and I don’t know each and every case but that’s not really the point—is very much into a sense of the community. It may be their community, as opposed to the entirety of the Black race, but I think that sense of communalism is very strong. Maybe it functions differently than it did in the ‘60s and ‘70s, but that’s to be expected because we’re dealing with a new generation of individuals.
Is it a sense of the community or is it the sense of the gang or posse (I guess that posse is an outmoded word)? In the foreword to your book, you said that the “competitive spirit has always defined Black culture.” And you talked about wanting to go against Michael Eric Dyson or, in a more confrontational way, up against Spike Lee. You were saying that you were ready to take it to the streets. And I know that that’s a metaphor that a lot of people use in their dealing with other Black people and it seems to be confrontational and so I don’t know if it’s communal so much as a gang spirit—this crew of niggaz against that crew of niggaz.
I guess that’s one way to look at it. When I was growing up, we played at dozens. Dozens was very competitive. It didn’t have anything to do with you having animosity towards the person you were going against; it was part of the culture. When we played basketball, it was very competitive. And when the game was over, you walked off the court, shook hands and went your separate ways. There were times when people crossed the line, yeah. But I don’t think competition has to be violent. I think that sense of competition is what has, up to this point, made a basketball player like Michael Jordan great. So it doesn’t have to be negative.
But at another point in your book you said that Martin Luther King’s ethos was to be judged by the content of our character and not by the color of our skin but the ethos of this hip hop generation is to rather be judged by twelve than carried out by six—which seems to me to be confrontational.
Well, I think that’s real. I don’t think there’s any stretch when you talk about the way in which violence sometimes unfortunately has a prominent place in our culture and society at large. That’s very unfortunate. I guess what I’m saying is I don’t think competition is inherently negative, that there are ways in which competition can be positive and progressive. To me, when two emcees battle, they’re fighting for stylistic superiority. That doesn’t have to be violent. When two great basketball players face off, when two boxers face off, it doesn’t have to be negative. It is competitive. I’m trying to find a way to take what’s positive out of that sense of competition and apply it to this game, as a matter of fact, writing and debating issues. So when I say I want to take on Dyson, it’s like, okay let’s argue it out.
And maybe let’s bring in some of the elements of the street. We don’t have to bring in every element of the street. We’re not in the street. But my point is that so many times people dis the streets or dismiss it, they think everything about it is negative. I don’t think so. I think there’s some elements of that that are good and I want to bring that into this environment that I’m in because a lot of what I learned I learned there, arguing with brothers about a range of topics. And they weren’t violent arguments that meant if you lost the argument you were going to die. It was people expressing their point of view with a passion. It’s like if you’ve ever been in a barber shop. That’s why I thought that whole controversy about the film [“The Barber Shop”] last year was ridiculous because any Black man that’s ever been in a barber shop, if you’ve been there long enough, you heard people argue and say some of the most off-the-wall things in the world. But that doesn’t have to be negative. I want people to maybe try and see that in a different way.
That brings up two points from your book. You talked about your father getting together with other men on Saturdays or Sundays for breakfast and how that was one of the arenas where they could feel free to express their feelings, express how they feel about white people, express how they feel about politics without having to worry about what the white man thinks. You said how those conversations used to be private in your father’s generation but now hip hop makes those conversations public. But then there’s also this concept in the book about playaz and playa-haters and so I know that a lot of hip hop is about one rapper dissing another rapper; do you see that just as healthy competition?
I do. I don’t think it’s any different than…
And the deaths that have happened in the hip hop community, how do you contextualize those, the deaths of Tupac and Biggie?
Here’s the thing. There are people who cross the line. And I think that if you’re not careful, things can be taken out of context; things can be misinterpreted. Again, I go back to that example of the Dozens. There was a point when it could be fair competition and there’s another point when somebody might cross the line, when they might say the wrong thing. And that could be potential for drama. I don’t think you can blame the death of Tupac and Biggie on hip hop, any more than you can blame the death of any other young Black man on hip hop. We live in a society that’s still very racist and has been that way for some time and unfortunately, one of the ways that that racism has visited itself upon young African-American men is either they end up in the penitentiary or they end up dead. And that’s very unfortunate and something that’s constantly in need of address. It didn’t start with hip hop. Biggie and Tupac are not the first two Black men to have words between each other and somebody dies. It doesn’t make it right or wrong but I think it’s part of the process, it’s part of the culture. The Nation killed Malcolm X. We have to look at the fact that these issues are present and this was simply another manifestation of it.
How much of the culture of hip hop do you think emanates from the penitentiary? I didn’t see much of that in the book.
I think a lot of it emanates from the penitentiary. I talk about that in the book, for instance, in terms of style; that’s one obvious way, the way people wear their pants, cornrows and the whole bit. But I think the penitentiary is a reality for a lot of young black men unfortunately, and the penitentiary has had a very big hand in shaping ghetto communities for a long time but especially the last twenty years. So, just as the penitentiary has had a profound impact on lower-class African-Americans, it’s had an extremely profound impact on hip hop. And again some people use that as a way of exposing and revealing the prison-industrial complex, which I think is a discussion that almost started in hip hop. So I think the penitentiary has had a profound influence. In some ways, that influence has been positive; in other ways, it’s been negative.
Are you aware at all of the work of Dr. Maulana Karenga who’s out on the West Coast with you? In one of his earlier books, Kawaida Theory: An Introductory Outline, he talks about the difference between what he calls a national culture and a popular culture. He defines this popular culture as having what he calls lumpen values, which I suppose would be the same street/ghetto values, penitentiary values, etc. And he says that the main crisis in the Black community is a crisis of culture. Now you’re talking about cultural politics. Here’s a Black Nationalist ethos that would be opposed to what they call a lumpen ideology which I guess you would call a hip hop ideology. Your defense?
Well, again, I talk about the profound impact of the lumpenproletariat on contemporary Black culture and hip hop in my first book, Am I Black Enough For You? To me there has always been something that emerged from the Lumpen that a lot of more middle-class or bourgeois-minded African-Americans don’t really want to deal with. I think there’s value that comes out of the streets. Not everything that comes out of the streets is of value; of course not. For instance, I listen to somebody like Jay-Z who—in spite of the fact that a lot of people criticize him as being too pop—says some very real things. (You should listen to his albums—not the radio songs, the singles, but the albums.) So I’m listening to his last record, The Gift and the Curse, and Jay-Z says, “Bin Laden been happenin’ in Manhattan / Crack was Anthrax back then / Back when, Police was Al’Qaeda to Black men.” To me, that’s real. It didn’t come out of the mouth of a Black Nationalist, it came out of the mouth of a rapper. Am I to dismiss it because it came out of the mouth of a rapper? Or am I to look at the fact that here’s someone speaking from a particular perspective and in my mind said some of the realest things that have been said about 9/11 and its pertinence to Black people; things that a lot of other people were, for whatever reason, unwilling to or didn’t say. So if it comes from hip hop, I shouldn’t just dismiss it because that’s where it comes from. It’s real.
So to me, there’s a perspective that the Lumpen provides that a lot of times gets overlooked. And again, I think it’s like anything else, you take what’s useful to you and discard the rest. But I think that a lot of middle-class, sort of bourgeois-minded Black people, have spent all their life trying to be accepted by white people, they’ve spent all their life trying to be accepted in white institutions, and here come these niggaz straight off the street talking shit and not only are they making money, but they’re influencing the culture at large. And so naturally, these gatekeepers of the community are upset because they wanted to be the ones in that position and they’re not, because they were trying so hard to appease white people and appease the system that they lost their identity and their effect in the process. What I love about hip hop is that it says, look, this is who we are, take it or leave it. We didn’t cross over. As Jay-Z says again, “we brought the suburbs to the hood.” So, to me, there’s something that can be learned from the Lumpen and a lot of times in the Black community, we ignore that but there’s something to learn from it. There are other things that are not useful, so I think you have to be vigilant in discerning what’s useful and embrace it, and what’s not and discard it.
Some people would say that the brothers from the hood really are not influencing the culture, that it’s really the record companies—the multi-billionaire record industry—that decides what kind of hip hop is going to be played and, in that sense, that the hip hop artists themselves are pawns in the game.
Well, if they’re pawns in the game, so were James Brown and Curtis Mayfield and Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye and Aretha Franklin and Donnie Hathaway. Do you know what I’m saying? Do I need to go on? The record industry didn’t just come up with hip hop. Yeah, the record industry sells records. They’re interested in making money and selling products. That allows people the opportunity to be heard by large numbers of people, and that’s the agreement you make when you want to produce culture and you want people to hear it.
Well, let me just finish. I guess you’ve heard this a thousand times already, but of course from the Civil Rights generation’s perspective, I suppose that they would see this as some kind of conspiracy by the White record companies to perpetuate some kind of culture that’s basically self-destructive, dysfunctional.
Well, it’s funny because I do hear this a lot. As somebody who’s studied the record industry and who knows it intimately, the record industry is interested in one thing, making money. They have no other interest beyond that. So, again, if you go back to Public Enemy, everybody loves Public Enemy. The same record company that sold Public Enemy is still in existence and they’re still selling hip hop. You know what I’m saying? Yeah, so were they perpetrating a negative image of Black people when they were selling Brand Nubian and KRS1 and Public Enemy? No. People didn’t say that then. They said it when it changed. So, you’ve got to look at that issue and be honest about it. I mean, the record companies are interested in making money and they will sell whatever people will buy to make that money. They will even sell something that calls for their destruction if it will make them money. They don’t care. They’re not in the business of civil rights. They’re not in the business of Black nationalism. They’re in the business of making money.
But are they in the business of oppression?
I don’t think they’re in the business of oppression any more than any other institution or entity in American society is. If they are, then so is the American Government and people could make that argument. But if Jay-Z’s wrong for being on a major record label, then Maxine Waters is wrong for being in the U.S. Congress. Where are we going to draw the line? You know what I’m saying? They’re all part of the same larger American system of institutions—if we want to get specific about it—I think the record companies are in the business of making money. Now, does that mean that the record companies are without guilt? No, but they’re going to sell whatever makes money, and if it’s Public Enemy with Black Steel in the Hour or Chaos, they’ll sell it. If it’s Nellie, they’ll sell it. They don’t care; they want to make money. And I think people who understood the record industry better would know that there’s not a bunch of people sitting in a room, smoking cigars, saying “we want to destroy these Black people.” That’s counter to making money. That might have been the case at one point but I don’t think it’s the case now at all.
Some people would argue that the Black Power movement threatened internal security in the United States at some point…
…and COINTELPRO and other government agencies and police actions—agents provocateurs and so forth—came in and destroyed that movement, and part of the destruction of that movement is to create a decadent culture where you have this friction among different posses of Black people rather than a unity. I’m sure you heard this thinking before. But I wanted to go to another question, and that’s the issue of generational playa-hating. You talked about the whole issue about Rosa Parks, and you said she was—her people were—very arrogant for wanting to have control over her name when it was used by OutKast. Was that right?
Do you want to elaborate on that? Is the Civil Rights generation the generation that are the playa-haters, basically. Is that what you’re saying? Playa-haters against…
I think the Civil Rights generation does a lot of playa-hating. I don’t know if I’d call each and every individual in the generation a playa-hater, but I think that that generation has certainly done a lot of playa-hating, and Rosa Parks is just one example. I just don’t believe Rosa Parks sat down and listened to OutKast. And if she did, I can’t see how she’d be offended because the song—of all songs to be critical of—is about as innocuous as possible. You know what I’m saying? If she sat down and listened to that song, I can’t imagine anybody being offended because it doesn’t say anything about her. It really just uses her name as a metaphor. I think that’s arrogant, myself. I think it’s arrogant when somebody would dare stand up and say a movie studio should re-edit this movie and delete the scene that criticizes Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks. To me, that’s censorship. And when Time-Warner stood up and said they were no longer going to distribute Ice-T’s Cop Killer, that was censorship. It is the same thing when African-Americans say you should re-edit a movie so it doesn’t include this commentary about Dr. King and Rosa Parks. To me, what point does that serve? That’s censorship. It doesn’t make any difference if it’s coming from somebody White or somebody Black. It’s still the same thing.
Well, you say that this generation should not be held hostage to the Civil Rights movement…
...but we haven’t yet talked at all about Afrocentricity. How does Afrocentricity permeate this context now when we talk about respect for the elders and respect for tradition and respect for a history that has come before?
I would never be one to advocate not respecting your history. First of all, you need to be knowledgeable of your history before you can move forward. That’s your base; that’s your foundation. I would never suggest that anybody disrespect history, but, at the same time, you can’t be a prisoner of history; you can’t be a hostage to it. You can’t be so bound to Civil Rights that you can never move forward. That was the point I was trying to make there. We can’t—every time something goes a different way—jump up and impose some sort of Civil Rights idea on it. Things change. And I understand, the Civil Rights generation really were the first African-Americans to experience social mobility and have some sense of power in larger numbers. They’ve gotten used to being on top and they don’t want to relinquish it. That makes sense to me but be honest about it. That’s what I was saying in terms of that issue.
But do you see the Civil Rights generation as being unique or do you see the Civil Rights generation as being linked to, say, Garvey’s generation or generations before it which were also fighting the battle against racial oppression?
Of course, things connect through history. Sure.
Then how, specifically, does the hip hop generation connect to that long stream of history (not just to the Civil Rights generation)?
You can connect through history, but I think Marcus Garvey’s times were different than Martin Luther King’s. I think the ‘20s in America were different than the ‘60s. Now, maybe they were still fighting for the same issue, but they had to do it in a different way because times were different and we can’t deny the fact that things change, things evolve and some things stay the same. The ‘60s is not the ‘20s, the ‘90s is not the ‘60s. So, I think hip hop is connected to Civil Rights; Civil Rights is connected to the New Negro, that earlier era, the Harlem Renaissance, however you want to define it, that post-World War II generation and pre-World War II generation. They’re all connected, but at the same time, they’re all different because they came about at different times so maybe they represent themselves in different ways. I would never say that Civil Rights has no connection to hip hop. I’m just saying that that era is past and people need to accept that and act accordingly.
What do you think about the struggle for reparations, and does hip hop have anything to do with that?
One of the first groups of people I heard talk about reparations were hip hop artists back in the ‘80s. I look at it this way, again I quote Barzini, “After all, we’re not Communists.” America recognizes the dollar bill; they recognize cash; they recognize money. To pay a debt financially is significant within the way America does things. There are a million and one people who talk about what are they going to do and how are they going to do it. That’s irrelevant. Deal with that after the fact. But the point is, hip hop has been dealing with that issue like it’s been dealing with police brutality and the prison industrial complex and other issues for a long time. Again I quote Jay-Z who says, “we’re overcharging niggaz for what you did to the Cold Crush / Pay us like you owe us for all them years that you hold us / we can talk but money talks so talk mo’ bucks.” That’s reparations to me. The Cold Crush brothers got beat. They didn’t make any money in hip hop, but Jay-Z does. So he’s like hey “pay us like you owe us for all them years you hold us, we can talk but money talks so talk mo’ bucks.” So to me, yeah, that sense is alive and well and has always been alive and well in hip hop.
Now, you say over again that we’re not Communists. I am a socialist so, but anyway…
No disrespect, brother.
…but what I want to ask is, what is your vision of how hip hop ultimately will transform this society. I know it’s in transformation now and I’m not saying that you’re a prophet with a crystal ball or anything like that, but what direction are we going in with this hip hop transformation? How, ideally, do you see things shifting in terms of these cultural politics?
Well one of the ways that I talk about in the book that we’ve seen now and that as time passes will be more and more obvious¾is that, going back to the Black Power movement, Civil Rights movement, these people, in my mind, wanted access—access that had been denied. Particularly, I was listening recently to Malcolm’s speech The Message to the Grass Roots. Malcolm, in this speech, talks about nationalism and he says nationalism is based on land. How do you get it? Bloodshed. I think about land. Land is the basis of independence. Land can be metaphorical. It can be symbolic and it can also be quite real. What do you want that land for? So you can build something on it. You want to build your own institutions; you want to control your own capital; you want self-determination. To me, when I look at hip hop, I see a version of that.
Now, where it will go in the future, who knows? All I know, as someone who encounters a lot of young people (not all of whom are African-Americans, most of whom are not), is that with this generation of people outside the Black community there is a different sort of understanding than among the previous generation of White people or others, and the reason I think this present generation of young people has a different sense about race has to do with hip hop. They’ve grown up with hip hop as very much a part of their life and it’s not been off limits to them, it’s not been foreign or alien or exotic to them. It’s been very much a part of their life. And I think as time passes, you’re going to have a generation of people who have a better sense of Black people and African-American culture because—they’re going to be at least open to it because—hip hop has had such a profound impact on their life. And I think this is the piece that a lot of people are missing because they’re looking at it in a very ‘60s- or ‘70s-style way. They’re looking at it in a sort of old-school way. But to me, before anything ever changes, people’s minds have to be changed. And culture has always been one of the ways that people’s minds have been changed. You look at somebody like Muhammad Ali, who in the ‘60s and early ‘70s was one of the most hated people in America, and now I think he’s probably the greatest American living hero, embraced by some of the same people who twenty, thirty, forty years ago, dissed him. So things do change.
To elaborate on that, you talked about Eminem, Slim Shady, and his acceptance as a brother or whatever—as a part of the hip hop community—and you also talked about how you were almost embarrassed because some of the old guard Civil Rights Negroes did not want to support a Mexican-American, a Chicano, who was running for political office in California…
Mayor of L.A.
….so how do you see these coalition politics to elaborate on what you were starting to talk about?
In the mayoral election of 2001 in L.A., you had a white candidate, James Hahn, who eventually won the election, whose father had been one of these white politicians back in the ‘60s who was elected in a Black district, and he was well loved by the people in that district at a time when it was impossible for a Black person to run for that sort of office. I think his father was commissioner or something. And so now his son comes along and he’s sort of running on his father’s legacy. A lot of prominent L.A. niggaz were supporting him, very visible, and very much saying “yeah we know his father, his father was cool with us, so we’ll vote for him too.” They wouldn’t even consider Antonio Villaraigosa who I think represents the fact that we live in a city whose majority population is Latino.
As demographics change, Black people become more of a minority than they’ve ever been. Latinos become a larger group of people, and in the process they become more viable. I think for a long time, Black people had the minority card locked up. But a lot of people are freaking out because they don’t know what to do now that a lot of Black people have become middle class and, in addition, the numbers of Black people have sort of stayed the same whereas the Latino population has grown in leaps and bounds to the point that California is supposedly going to be majority non-white in seven or eight years.
My point was this: when I ride down the streets of L.A., if I’m in what used to be a Black community, I don’t see no signs in Ebonics, but I see a lot of signs in Spanish. And that tells me something. It tells me that demographics are changing and Black people are going to have to redefine the way they think about themselves and they’re going to need to build coalitions with other people who are sympathetic because Black people alone are not going to be able to do things the way that they’ve done in the past because the world is just a very different place. I had a conversation with someone who was telling me about how James Hahn came to speak at this big Black church in L.A., and I said, “what about Villaraigosa?” And he goes, “Oh well I have not heard any of the prominent elected Black officials mention Villaraigosa so he must not be that important.” And I thought, well, first of all, why are you waiting on some Black official to tell you who you should or shouldn’t embrace, and secondly you know nothing about him but you’re going to embrace this other character because he came to your church and spoke. What kind of shit is that?
It reminded me of Bill Clinton throughout his presidency who would go and sit in the Black church and sing hymns and clap his hands and Black people loved him. To me, that’s not going to get it. It’s about more than that. But I do think that Black people have to recognize that they won’t be able to function in the same way that they did in the ‘60s. Black people in the ‘60s were able to appeal to the conscience of America in a way that they won’t continue to be able to do, because population demographics have changed. So we have to look at what is our relationship to the Latino community, the Asian-American community, the progressive White community, the Gay and Lesbian community, the Muslim community. There are all sorts of constituencies of people who I think agree in principle on a lot of issues, but a lot of times I find African-Americans have these boundaries built up and they’re not going to even entertain the possibility that a link can be made with another group because it’s so much about being Black, which I understand, but you’ve got to look at that in light of what’s happening now.
Two more questions. One is about how you said how hip hop has become global so that any other ethnic group can and does adopt hip hop and what that means.
Well, I was in Tokyo once and I was in this club where they were playing Biggie Smalls. And I look out and I see a lot of Japanese people who are really into this music, dancing and getting into the groove, so to speak. And I notice one particular young lady who knows every word of a particular Biggie Smalls song. This is kind of fascinating to me. So afterwards, I go up to her and as I try to talk to her, it’s immediately obvious that she doesn’t speak English; she says, “I’m sorry I can’t speak English.” And I thought, this is fascinating. She knows every word to Biggie Smalls but she doesn’t speak English. So I started to think about how, as American culture gets transmitted throughout the globe, what does it mean for someone in Japan or Turkey or Croatia or Brazil or Sweden to hear hip hop and that be their introduction to the English language, that be their introduction to America? It gives you a different spin than if you’re reading textbooks from an American high school.
To me, what has happened is you now have hip hop, this culture which is about free expression that can be shaped and molded to fit any community and any experience. So hip hop gives people the opportunity to represent themselves in their own way. I have a number of students who have, over the years, given me CDs of Croatian hip hop or hip hop from Thailand, all over the world. People trying to express themselves. And hip hop is the venue that gives them that opportunity. And so, in that way, I think the global possibilities are already something that’s very important and will continue to be so.
My other question is about the role of women in hip hop (you spoke about Mary J. Blige and the Coca-Cola commercial); and that’s one of the most controversial areas too because of calling them bitches and hos¾the whole misogyny that exists.
It’s funny again, people ask that a lot. And it’s almost like the word bitch and the word ho were invented by hip hop, and that’s not true. And then I remember that famous Huey Newton quote about a place for Black women in the movement was prone.
That actually was Stokely Carmichael.
It was Stokely Carmichael. I’m sorry, I said Huey, it was Stokely. Hip hop didn’t invent sexism or misogyny. It doesn’t mean that there aren’t many instances: in many cases hip hop is sexist and misogynist; that’s not something to treat lightly or dismiss. But hip hop is real and I think it exposes that people have those attitudes. It’s also interesting to me—and this is something that really gets me in trouble because people don’t want to deal with this, but I’m going to try to keep it real that when I look out, I see a lot of African-American women who are very, very, very successful, financially speaking; they’re visible in the culture; they’re quite prominent. Terry McMillan, as an author, has made a lot of money dissing Black men. Oprah Winfrey has one of the most popular shows on television and you can count the Black men who are on that show. And when they’re on that show, with a few exceptions, they are of a particular type. To me, that’s cool. When you look at Black literature, for instance, it’s dominated by Black women. You look at other areas of the culture—dominated by Black women. Hip hop is different in that it’s dominated by Black men, so what’s the deal? Why is that a problem?
The other thing is, when I listen to hip hop, I often hear people talk about how much love they have for their mother. Whereas, they also talk in hip hop, in many cases, about how much hatred they have for their father. So you’ve got to look at this issue for what it is. Hip hop did not start sexism or misogyny. People have been saying bitches and hos for a long time. I heard those words well before I heard a hip hop record. And again, you sort of have to look at that for what it is. What I do is, instead of saying hip hop is incomplete in this way, I look at the culture as a whole and I think you’ve always found that Black women have found places in the culture where they’ve expressed themselves and Black men have found places in the culture where they are able to express themselves. They’re often not the same place. I don’t see that as a problem. I see it just as a result of the fact that people express themselves in different ways based on the context. In that way hip hop is not off the hook, because it certainly is at times sexist and quite misogynist and that’s, I think, very unfortunate. But I think it’s also reflective of some larger issues that people sometimes don’t want to talk about.
Let me ask you one final question. I’d like to pursue that some more but I know we’re down to the last few minutes. Your own background: you say in your book that you flunked out of the University of Florida when you were 21; by 32 you were a tenured professor. Reflections on your transition and how that connects to this whole hip hop vision?
I went to college and my friends in college were the guys on the football team and the basketball team. These were my friends, this was my crew. One of the places on a college campus where you can find a direct connection to the street is in the athletic department because we know the role that these athletes serve in these major universities. But this was my experience. I got a real good street education. I didn’t get a very good formal education because I didn’t spend much time studying and applying myself. I was studying and applying myself to different things. And that information was quite valuable to me. I woke up one day and I was 21 and I was a young Black man in Detroit who didn’t have a college degree and didn’t have much of a direction in life and, I think, realized for the first time that I could end up on the street, I could end up in the joint, I could end up dead, I could end up like a lot of other Black men had ended up. And I didn’t want to do that.
Around that same time, my father turned me on to The Autobiography of Malcolm X and again, like a lot of young brothers, I read The Autobiography of Malcolm X and it changed my life. I saw how Malcolm had come from the street but he was not going to let that hold him back. He taught himself to read while he was in the penitentiary by reading the dictionary from cover to cover. He read all these texts from all over the world; he didn’t just read texts on Black issues. Malcolm was so serious and so intelligent but at the same time, he could relate to a cat on the street just as well as he could relate to the most educated individual in the world. And I really, in my mind, saw that as something I wanted to be able to do but I had to raise my game. At this point I got serious and finished college, went to graduate school and got a Ph.D. by the time I was 27. I was on a mission. I wanted to make up for lost time and I wanted to prove to all those people who doubted me that they had made a big mistake and I have been on that mission ever since. I’ve got five books, a hit movie, tenured professor at the number one film school in the world, I’ve been quoted in every major media outlet in this country—newspaper, magazine, television, radio. And there’s a whole lot more to do.
I mention all that only to say that that sense of competition we were talking about earlier has inspired me and motivated me to do big things because I want to have an impact on people’s minds. But it all goes back for me to that turning point in my life when I was just really just down on my ass and I encountered Malcolm. It really transformed my thinking. And I’ve often found some of the same experiences in hip hop. To me, a lot of hip hop is about social mobility, about moving up, about raising your game, about pulling yourself up, about doing it, doing the damn thing because otherwise you can just be another number. And so I find the expression of all those things in hip hop and it sort of parallels my life. That’s my story; everybody’s story is different. It’s like Biggie said, “Birthdays was the worst days / Now we sip champagne when we thirsty / Damn right I like the life I live / ’Cause I went from negative to positive / And it’s all good.” So when I hear that, and when I hear Jay-Z say, “I ran errands for the bosses / ‘til I became one / now I got linen in the closet”¾that inspired me. It continues to inspire me because in my own life I found similarities and I take again what’s useful and discard that which is not.
Thank you very much, Dr. Boyd. It’s been a pleasure.
*[Ed. Note: H.N.I.C.: “head niggaz in charge.”]