On his 2000 Black On Both Sides,
emcee Mos Def declared that “You know what’s gonna happen with Hip Hop?
Whatever’s happening with us. If we smoked out, Hip Hop is gonna be smoked
out. If we doin alright, Hip Hop is gonna be doin alright…Hip Hop is goin
where we goin.”
Profound words. And for a long time I repeated them when I was often asked what I thought could be done about the state of Hip Hop. I would say if people want Hip Hop to change they had to demand better music. People had to support artists who put out better music, and not purchase albums of artists they found detrimental to Hip Hop overall. Change in the art would come, when a change in demand was made.
However, by his second album The New Danger in 2004, Mos Def’s tone had changed. Gone were the mantras that Hip Hop’s rebirth was going to be pushed along merely by a moral uplift in the people. Instead, the forces arrayed against the art form’s future are more sinister—” Old white men is runnin’ this rap sh*t! Corporate forces runnin’ this rap sh*t!”
Some scoff when it is put forward that much of the derogatory rap lyrics and video they see today is pushed by the industry. They label it a conspiracy theory and assert that artists who make a lot of money are hardly victims, but should instead take personal responsibility. I once thought along these lines. What I didn’t understand, what I could not connect, was that the same forces that limit Hip Hop to one dimensional themes of sex and violence are the very ones that threaten media overall.
It is no conspiracy, but the way an institutionalized system that works for corporate profit rather than the public good operates. It is what happens when you stifle diversity and instead pander to expectations. And until this is understood, acknowledged and challenged, changing the face of Hip Hop will remain beyond our grasp. But rap music is not alone. A more popular form of expression has found itself stifled by the same dynamics—journalism. I offer the following analogy in three parts.
The Rise & Fall of the Fairness Doctrine
In 1949, the FCC adopted what came to be known as the Fairness Doctrine, a policy that designated station licensees as “public trustees,” responsible for addressing controversial and contrasting issues of public importance. The key requirement of the Fairness Doctrine was that stations allowed opportunity for discussion of differing points of view, for the necessity of furthering the public good. For instance, if a radio station wanted to present conservative commentary, the Fairness Doctrine required they give equal and fair time to progressive/liberal commentary. Political candidates could demand equal time from radio and television.
The Fairness Doctrine also worked as one of the checks against big media consolidation, recognizing that the airwaves belong to the people, not to corporate interests. This placed the Fairness Doctrine at continual odds with media broadcasters who sought to do away with government regulation, so that they would be beholden only to profit and not the public. As the saying goes, business is in the business of making money.
In the 1980s came the Reagan Revolution, and a major push for deregulation that would take the government out of the way of the broadcasters. Reagan’s FCC chair, Mark S. Fowler, was one such advocate. A former broadcast industry lawyer, Fowler had long made public his belief that broadcasters had no special responsibilities to democratic discourse or the public good. Instead, Fowler believed broadcasters should be concerned with the bottom line. “The perception of broadcasters as community trustees should be replaced by a view of broadcasters as marketplace participants,” he would state. By placing a broadcast industry lawyer in charge of the FCC, it was not long before courts found that the Fairness Doctrine did not need to be enforced. In a hurried attempt to save what some defined as “a struggle for nothing less than possession of the First Amendment: Who gets to have and express opinions in America,” the Congress passed a bill to make the Fairness Doctrine into law. However, President Reagan vetoed the legislation. A similar veto threat doomed another attempt under George H.W. Bush in 1991.
How a Shift in the Media Helped Shift Public Opinion
The results of the repeal of the Fairness Doctrine were stunning. Already not enforced since the mid 1980s by an FCC in the pocket of big media, with the doctrine out of the way broadcasters found themselves free to do with the airwaves much as they pleased. By the 1990s a series of laws allowing for media consolidation placed much of what we hear or see into the hands of fewer owners. Alongside all of this was the rise of right-wing conservative radio. As Jeffrey Chester, executive director of the Center for Digital Democracy, noted:
Big news media became a willing tool of the White House, offering little in the way of journalistic criticism. During the lead up to the invasion of Iraq, the media practically “rolled over” for the Bush administration, becoming a mouth-piece in making the case for war. It was not that “alternative” voices didn’t exist.On independent and underground news sources, everything from the charge of WMDs to the claims of a Saddam Hussein-Al-Qaeda link was challenged and even disproved. Tens and hundreds of thousands marched in the streets against impending war. Yet from FOX News to CNN to the NY Times, the face of mainstream media was either indifferent to these voices or decidedly pro-war. Anti-war journalism and activists were either marginalized or shut out altogether from the discussion. Not surprisingly, the majority of the American public—with limited diverse options in the way of information—turned pro-war, with some 3 out of 4 supporting military action against Iraq. Those that were fed a diet of strict conservative media like FOX News were the most prone to believe, falsely, that Iraq and 9/11 were linked. It was only after Iraq turned disastrous, and the mainstream news media was opened up to more diverse opinions, that a shift in portrayal of the war took place. Consequently, another vast shift in American popular opinion began to take place, this time more to the center and left, resulting in plummeting poll numbers for the Bush White House, a change of control in Congress and a solid majority who not only think the war was a mistake, but now want it to end.
The experience of the news media under media consolidation bears similarities to Hip Hop’s current one-dimensional state. The rise of “thug” rap coincided neatly with the increase of control by major corporations. Pushing exploitative tales of the “ghetto,” and laced with sex and violence—that indulge heavily in racial stereotypes—media termed “gangsta” rap became commercially viable to corporations more concerned with the bottom line than with art. With such financial success, and racial expectations, this one-dimensional face of Hip Hop became marketed as mainstream. The continued consolidation of media slowly strangled any form of diversity. As Professor Akilah Folami noted in a March 2007 article:
Today activists for diversity in journalism are increasingly pushing to limit further media consolidation and for some reintroduction of the Fairness Doctrine, so that news is made available in varied formats. In the wake of the Don Imus controversy, there is even fear in conservative and right-wing radio, television and print journalism, that a return to the Fairness Doctrine is on the horizon. In reality, the Democratic Congress is not poised to take up the issue, and there will have to be many more campaigns, rallies and more before it appears on their radar. Nevertheless, the momentum is there. A similar movement to end the one-dimensional depictions in Hip Hop is needed, where something akin to a Fairness Doctrine can be implemented on the corporate distributors and broadcasters of black entertainment media. Otherwise we will continue to have a music industry that merely manufactures consent and dictates the face of black culture.
[Released: April 26th, 2007]