Friday, February 6, 2009

African American Leadership in Academia: Dr Marc Lamont Hill


Dr. Marc Lamont Hill is a noted author, columnist, professor and member of the growing body of “Hip-Hop Intellectuals” in the country today. Giving voice to topics ranging from hip hop culture, politics, religion, sexuality and education, Dr Hill has become a much needed voice and representative for the African American community. His series of articles, ‘ Why Hip-Hop Sucks’ have sparked healthy debate within the hip hop community, holding a mirror up to music artists and consumers in attempts to improve our current state. Named as one of America’s top 30 Black Leaders Under 30 years old byEbony Magazine, Dr. Marc Lamont Hill is indeed an intelligent, powerful figure with purpose and reason, the makings of a great leader.

Q: You consider yourself to be a Hip-Hop intellectual, what does that mean?
For me, the term “hip-hop intellectual” means several things. First, it means that my intellectual calling is prompted by the particular and often unique conditions faced by the hip-hop generation. Also, the term reflects my desire to link hip-hop culture, which is often seen as anti-intellectual, to a long and deep tradition of engaged intellectual activity. Finally, the term speaks to the ways in which hip-hop language, aesthetics, and values shape the way I approach my work.

Q: The Hip Hop generation has often been referred to as the “Lost Generation.” Do you believe this is true?
Oh God no! As every generation reaches maturity, there are people who talk about how corrupt, unmotivated, anti-intellectual, and hopeless the next generation is. Nevertheless, in spite of all the moral panic, that next generation manages to thrive and advance our struggle. The hip-hop generation is no different. Do we have our issues? No doubt. Do we have shortcomings? Of course. But those issues and shortcomings don’t mark our inferiority. Instead, they spotlight our humanity and define our agenda.

Q: Has Hip Hop become a scapegoat for many of the social problems that have arisen within the Black community?
No doubt. Every time a social issue gets raised, particularly one that implicates White people, hip-hop gets thrown into the mix. Don Imus disrespects the Rutgers girls and everyone is talking about Snoop. Dog Chapman uses the N-word and media commentators are bringing up 50 Cent. This is not to say that we shouldn’t challenge hip-hop artists to do better. On the contrary, we must demand that the hip-hop community set a better example for ourselves. Nevertheless, it is both naïve and disingenuous to suggest that the evils of the world start and end with hip-hop. For example, it’s safe to say that Don Imus didn’t get the term “nappy headed hoes” from watching BET. That type of hatred comes from a deeply racist worldview that existed before hip-hop was conceived. At the same time, we need to demand that BET stop calling us “nappy headed hoes”

Q: The Hip Hop community often perpetuates the stereotypes that we are continuously fighting against. Where does this stem from? Is it a lack of education, rebellion or claiming ownership over what is negative in an attempt to make it positive? For example, the use of “N” word.
It is important to remember that Black people have always struggled to reclaim, reshape, and rearticulate the things that have been so viciously used to undermine our existence. For example, Black people have always used the N-word in ways that were deliberate, thoughtful, and redemptive. The problem, however, is that our culture has been bought and sold in the open market. As a result, much of the complexity and nuance that used to accompany our use of “nigger” or a conversation about “snitching” have been reduced to sound bites and slogans. Such a space dilutes the conversation into something that is politically impotent or, in the case of the n-word, counter-productive and dangerous. This circumstance isn’t the result of Black ignorance, but an inevitable part of contemporary capitalist culture, which reduces everything and everyone to dollars and cents.

Q: There is a saying that goes “we should not follow the bouncing ball, but look at the one throwing it.” Should Hip Hop take the blame for disparaging remarks made by people such as Don Imus, Michael Richards and Duane “Dog” Chapman?
Yes and No. Whenever Black people have moral authority, we are better equipped to challenge the evils of the world. If we demonstrate self-love and an ethic of responsibility, it is considerably easier to challenge White supremacy and the things that emerge from it. Nevertheless, we are fooling ourselves to believe that racism can be eliminated from society if Black people “just act right.” After all, it wasn’t good behavior that ended slavery, Jim Crow, or Apartheid. Why? Because those things didn’t start because of bad behavior. This is why I get so frustrated when people suggest that hip-hop “confuses” White people into thinking that they can call me a “nigger.” If White people are that confused by hip-hop’s use of the n-word, why don’t they take note that Eminem, the pre-eminent White rapper of the day, never uses the n-word in his music?.” In reality, Imus, Richards, and Chapman knew quite well that Black people would be offended by their remarks. They also know that there’s a tradition of racism in this country that would protect them by allowing them to blame Jay-Z or Souljah Boy for their remarks. Still, I’m not trying to say that black people shouldn’t take responsibility for their own behavior. For me, the answer is for Black people to continuously challenge ourselves to do better at the same time that we acknowledge the pervasiveness of anti-Black racism in America. From this position, we can demand the best from our people without taking the blame for White misdeeds.

Q: When asked about the lyrical content of some of her songs, female rapper, Remy Ma said “I’m not here to raise anybody’s children”. We’ve gone from it takes a village to raise a child to disclaiming all responsibility. Is there such a thing as having free creative expression that is not offensive?
The question for me isn’t “should artists be able to make offensive music?” but “should artists want to make offensive music?” I have no desire to censor artists. After all, they have always told the most important, profound, and unwelcome truths within the public conversation. To me, the goal is to create a world where the degradation and destruction of Black people is no longer entertaining or profitable. This type of project is far different than censoring language or begging artists to be role models. What I’m talking about is the complete reconfiguration of a world that views Black bodies as inferior, worthless, and disposable. That said, Remy Ma and others must acknowledge that their work affects the values, beliefs, and self-esteem and millions of people around the world. To ignore that reality, even if they don’t like it, is to jeopardize the lives of the very people who make them who they are.

Q: Let’s talk about the images of women in Hip Hop. How do we, as a community, go about reinforcing positive images of women?
For me, the key to constructing positive images about women is to acknowledge their complexity. Instead of locking women into the “Bitch/Queen” binary, where every women is either hoe of the year or the Virgin Mary, we must acknowledge that women have legitimate perspectives, interest, and desires that must be taken seriously. On a concrete level, we must stop supporting television, radio, and magazine outlets that project dangerous images of women. Again, we must take the profitability out of degradation.

Q: Some people believe that Hip Hop culture is not Black culture. Rather it’s a street culture. Do you believe this, and if so, do you feel that the Black community has been wrongly targeted?
Hip-hop culture is a quintessentially Black culture: it emerged from the rubble of oppression and marginality and, without any help, fashioned itself into something that changed the face of American society. Now that very thing is being sold back to us and used to justify our suffering. If that isn’t a Black thing, I don’t know what is. Of course, there is more to Black culture than hip-hop. We can also look to a million other places, such as the church and gay ballroom scene, for other representations of Black culture.

Q: Is there a “street” element to hip-hop?
Of course. In many ways, this is what gives hip-hop its distinctive character. It is a culture created by people from the bottom of society. Unfortunately, many Blacks resist this association because they fear that it represents and reinforces the most vicious stereotypes about Black people that have operated against our interests. While I’m sensitive to this concern, I refuse to be prisoner to it, particularly because it is rooted in an unhealthy preoccupation with the perceptions of White people. Instead I accept hip-hop as quintessentially Black. This doesn’t mean that I don’t critique it. By the same token, I don’t allow the sexism, homophobia, and growing consumerism of the Black church to stop me from embracing it as part of our culture.

Q: There has been a shift in values over the last fifty years. The African- American family’s traditional values have been based on working hard, keeping family together and having a strong religious backbone, however in this day and age we have adapted a “get-over” approach in order to get rich quick. Do think this is one of the reasons Hip Hop is in a state of distress?
Again, I think that it is dangerous to link this description to Black people exclusively. In reality, all of America is divorced, in debt, increasingly secular, and obsessed with a “get rich or die trying” ethic. In many ways, hip-hop does reflect this sensibility in the same way that mainstream reality television or Paris Hilton does. At the same time, we cannot allow this to be an excuse for avoiding the hard work of making music that uplifts our condition rather than exacerbates our misery. Black people weren’t in great shape during Jim Crow or slavery, yet our music was much different. It’s not that we didn’t discuss, critique, or reflect our situation back then. But our dominant impulse wasn’t to glamorize the very things that were holding us down. Unfortunately, the combination of White supremacy and market forces are so overwhelming that Black suffering is a billion dollar industry. As a result, much of the quality music that gets made is limited to the underground or completely ignored. It is within this space that hip-hop suffers the most.

Q: Lastly, there have been many debates over the issue of snitching. Is the Hip Hop community valid in honoring the street code of not saying anything?
For me, the key is to make a distinction between snitching and witnessing. In an era of increased police terrorism, mandatory minimums, and judicial corruption, the hip-hop community is absolutely right to warn against snitching. For example, if a prosecutor encourages a convicted felon to trade information for a reduced sentence, that felon is likely to lie in order to better his or her position. This is snitching. This is what the “Stop Snitching” movement was about. At the same time, children are being raped or murdered in the streets, the person who reports good information isn’t a snitch, but a civically responsible witness. Unfortunately, once this system got reduced to a t-shirt and a slogan, it lost its complexity. As a result, we are now reinforcing an agenda that operates against our community in lethal ways.

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