A Rap Thing*
"You remind me of my jeep,
I wanna wax you, baby!
"You remind me of my bank account,
I wanna spend you, baby!"
That's from "You Remind Me of Something" by R. Kelly. The song is smooth, with a funky bottom, and a sexy lead vocalist. Why does it grit my teeth every time I hear it?
It's not because I'm, as one of my sons puts it, an "old man" who just can't interpret the young "whipper snappers"!
That said, I must admit I'm more at home with R&B, with the soft significance of an Anita Baker, or even Brownstone, singers like Sade, and yes, y'all—Whitney.
I also enjoy much of rap, for its vitality, its rawness, its irreverence and its creativity.
Rap is an authentic descendant of a people with ancient African oral traditions, from griots who sang praise songs to their kings, to bluesmen who transmuted their pain into art.
For a generation born into America's chilling waters of discontent, into the '70s and '80s, into periods of denial, cutbacks and emergent white supremacy, one must understand how love songs sound false and discordant, out of tune with their gritty, survivalist realities.
When their mothers and fathers were teenagers, Curtis Mayfield sang "We're winners! And never let anybody say that you can't make it, 'cuz them people's mind is in yo' way! We're movin' on up!"; Earth, Wind and Fire, in exquisite harmony, "Keep Your Head to the Sky!"; and Bob Marley and the Wailers thundered, over a rolling bass line, "Get up, stand up! Stand up for ya' rights!"
The hip-hop generation came into consciousness on Tina Turner's "What's Love Got to Do With It?", or an egocentric mix that glorified materialism, like Run-DMC's "My Adidas", about a pair of sneakers, or Whodini's "Friends"—how no one can be trusted.
Their parents grew up in the midst of hope and black liberation's consciousness; the youth grew in a milieu of dog-eat-dog-ism, of America's retreat from its promises, of Reagansim and white right-wing resurgence.
In that sense, rap's harshness merely reflects a harsher reality, of lives lived amidst broken promises.
How could it be otherwise?
At its heart, though, rap is a multi-billion dollar business, permeating America's commercial culture, and influencing millions of minds. It is that all-American corporationism that transforms rap's grittiness into the gutter of materialism: a woman, a living being, reminds a man of a thing—a car.
That, to me, is more perverse than the much-criticized "bitches and 'hos" comments.
This is especially objectionable when one notes that in America, in the last century, in the eyes of the law, blacks were property—chattel, things... like wagons, owned by whites.
That a black man, some three generations later, could sing that a black woman, his God-given mate, his female self, "could remind me of my jeep," amazes me.
This isn't, nor could it be, a condemnation of rap.
Tupac Shakur's "Dear Mama" and "Keep Your Head Up" are shining examples of artistic expressions of loving oneness with one's family and people.
Creative, moving, loving, funky, angry and real are that late young man's works, as is a fair amount of the genre.
Like any art form in America, it is also a business with the influences of the market place impacting upon its production. The more conscious its artists, the more conscious the art.
Keep ya' head up. From Death Row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.
*Recorded by Prison Radio (www.prisonradio.org); thanks to Noelle Hanrahan for permission to publish.