Conservatives were outraged at my article, Bill O’Reilly Is Wrong: Jay-Z Is Worthy of America’s Respect, published earlier this week. While hip-hop transcends cultural, racial, ethnic, social and class lines, it hasn’t yet transcended political lines. Conservatives have little understanding of what hip-hop is and the tremendous impact this powerful movement has had upon popular culture. Worse is that they condemn it without knowing anything about it.
At CPAC this month, former Republican National Committee Chairman Ed Gillespie, who is running for Senate in Virginia, spoke of the need to reach out to minorities and other groups instead of letting the left “fill that vacuum.” He claimed, “I do think we have huge opportunities here to make gains with young voters.” However, consider the recent blanket condemnations of Jay-Z, the greatest rapper alive and one of the greatest artists of all time. How can one even begin to think that the Right is even remotely inclusive or that anyone in the communities that love hip-hop — black, white, young and not-so-young — would ever vote for a conservative?
Forty-four-year-old family man Jay-Z is absolutely not a gangster rapper. For Bill O’Reilly to selectively criticize hip-hop, saying that young males idolize “these guys with the hats on backwards” and “terrible rap lyrics,” and that these “gangsta rappers” and “tattoo guys” need to speak to kids and tell them that they’ve “got to stop the disruptive behavior or you’re going to wind up in a morgue or in prison” is a double standard. What does wearing a hat backwards have to do with anything? Why not mention Marc Zuckerberg’s hood? What makes these “gangsta rappers” different from actors in violent movies like Vin Diesel or Jason Statham? Or someone with offensive speech like Howard Stern?
If conservatives hope to succeed in reaching the minds – and votes – of an enormous segment of society that crosses all American boundaries, they need to better understand hip-hop. News flash: The majority of hip-hop consumers aren’t black, and hip-hop reflects the mosaic that represents this great country. While there are countless terrible things that are indefensible about the hip-hop industry, many of these problems are shared by the likes of Madonna, Lady Gaga, Brittney Spears, Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber and other popular white performers.
Moreover, the reality is that so much of hip-hop is uplifting and positive. Countless movies, video games and other forms of entertainment unfortunately celebrate bad behavior – yet conservative media targets hip-hop. This double standard should come to an end.
Bill O’Reilly claimed Beyoncé is not a good role model for young girls, stating,
“She puts out a new album with a video that glorifies having sex in the back of a limousine. Teenage girls look up to Beyoncé, particularly girls of color. … Why on earth would this woman do that?”
Why didn’t O’Reilly ask this question during the many years of the amazingly successful cable series “Sex in the City,” which glorified sex among single women? (Beyoncé at least is married.) As David Letterman rightly noted, why didn’t O’Reilly comment on Miley Cyrus swinging nude on a wrecking ball or her “twerking” Robin Thicke at an awards show watched by teenagers? O’Reilly said, “I missed that. I don’t know how.” Selective commentary – even if his statements are right.
Conservatives should spend more time listening to hip-hop and making an effort to understand urban culture. (Hint: Accentuate the positive.) Like the music or not, hip-hop is the most popular form of music today and it isn’t going anywhere. It’s a new way of thinking, which crosses racial and demographic boundaries. Kids today in Scarsdale dress the same as kids in Harlem, and South Central doesn’t look that different style-wise than Beverly Hills. (This white, 39-year-old PR firm owner listens to hip-hop daily – and so do people older and younger, in every state in the nation, of every color of skin.)
Hip-hop moguls like Jay-Z, Sean Combs, and Usher are people who have that hip-hop spirit – there’s nothing getting in my way, nothing stopping me from getting where I want to go. Hip-hop is about ownership, about self-reliance, and empowerment. What could be more conservative than that? Conservatives are hypocritical when attacking the capitalist business of hip-hop. Hip-hop and the urban culture has helped to create an entire new area of economic opportunity for people who were generally outside of the system. How many millionaires have been created because of this industry? How many jobs?
Hip-hop is about creation — owning something. Is that not the story of this great country? And is not the cultural significance of that – particularly for the underprivileged and immigrants amongst us – something conservatives must celebrate? At some point, people of the hip-hop world, who have mostly been locked out, should be heard by conservatives in the land of opportunity. Even if certain attributes of the hip-hop business aren’t good, one must not throw the baby out with the bathwater.
Recently, I went shopping without a watch while wearing a sweat suit. The store was empty, but still I had to wait a long time for one of the countless salespeople to come over to see what I wanted. I asked to see an expensive watch, and the clerk asked me, with a straight face, if I was a construction worker before he took the piece out of the case. That “language” certainly sent me a message – if you aren’t dressed our way we don’t think you can buy from us. It also sent me away. They ignored the fact that I could easily afford the uber-expensive watch.
In many ways, the message the watch store sent me is the message conservatives are sending hip-hop fans. Tattoos and hats on backwards don’t define a person. Hip-hop culture is bigger than the Beatles – it has impacted culture indefinitely and isn’t going anywhere. Youth culture is always revolutionary and wants to do things differently – from Elvis’s swiveling hips to Madonna in the ‘80s.
The Right’s attacks on hip-hop are wrong and misguided. When we conservatives proclaim our desire to be inclusive, how can we have so little tolerance and understanding of a phenomenon as popular and American as hip-hop? Hip-hop crosses over boundaries – now conservatives need to let them in.
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