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We have never let the media define us, so why are we doing that now? - Talib Kweli, hip-hop artist  


A hand flips through CDs in a record store
"It’s like now HOT 97 is 'the station where hip-hop lives,' so we hear that and we don’t understand that it’s some corporation owned by people that don’t got nothing to do with hip-hop, who’re just trying to cash in." (2:09)

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WARNING! This video contains strong language.

A young black man in a crowd talks to the camera
"They don’t want you to see that we're good fathers. They don’t want you to see that we're good businessmen. We don’t just sells drugs. I sold water last summer!" (2:32)

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  Magazine covers with photographs of a shirtless, muscular Nas and 50 Cent - Media Literacy

Music lyrics have been blamed for everything from teen suicide and school shootings to racism, sexism and immorality. But who’s really to blame—the artists, the audiences, the industry or all three?

The Shift
Hip-hop lovers reminisce about the “golden era” of hip-hop in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when a diversity of music makers included conscious rappers, party rappers, gangster rappers and more. But today, with the onslaught of media conglomeration and hip-hop’s full establishment into the mainstream, commercial rap’s lyrical content has grown increasingly limited and one-dimensional. Hip-hop, which began as a form of cultural expression in marginalized communities and was once poised to become a vehicle for African American empowerment and political activism, is today stereotyped as misogynistic and homophobic, glorifying violence and racist caricature.

One explanation might be that labels simply refuse to put out anything else—commercial rap simply sells more, especially now that media corporations are involved. Former Def Jam label president Carmen Ashhurst says, “The time when we switched to gangsta music is the same time that the majors bought up all the labels. I don’t think that’s a coincidence…. We went to Columbia, then the next thing I know, our producers for Public Enemy were over producing an Ice Cube album and then… we’re pushing a group called Bitches with Problems.”

Money Talks

So what sells? What do people want to hear? To what extent are artists and music companies merely satisfying commercial needs and consumer desires? According to rapper Jadakiss, people want stars like 50 Cent: “It’s good music, but kind of light behind

A young black man wearing a blue cap smiles and holds up bundles of money

Many aspiring rappers feel that the road to success is to perpetuate common stereotypes

the content. It’s selling like… hot flowers.” One catch-22 behind rappers like 50 Cent selling more records is that it raises the expectations within the music industry. In order to be successful, rappers must act a certain way, perpetuating the limited expression found in commercial rap. Writer Mark Anthony Neal explains that for many young rappers, the most important thing is to land a record deal: “What they are hearing from the record companies and what the record companies are hearing from these video stations is that there are only certain examples of blackness that we are going to let flow through this space. And when it comes to hip-hop, there are certain conventions that we want to see. We want to see kind of the hard core thug performing hip-hop, we want to see booties shaking in the background, and when hip-hop videos don’t fit into those conventions, they don’t get played.”

Another explanation of the commercial palatability of conventional hip-hop is that it plays into stereotypes of race, gender and class. White consumers—who make up the majority of commercial hip-hop consumers—buy into stereotypes of blackness based on violence and caricature, while people of color also consume images of black manhood commodified as one-dimensional and devoid of social responsibility. Activist and educator Jackson Katz says, “If the KKK was smart enough, they would’ve created gangsta rap because it’s such a caricature of black culture and black masculinity. Yet young people of color are being presented with this idea that somehow these people represent us, and they’re cool and they’re going to stand in for ‘us’ against the white power structure, while they’re completely subservient to that white power structure. It’s really an ironic, sad reality.”

In 2003, the Federal Communications Commission voted to lift bans on media deregulation, paving the way for media corporations to own multiple radio stations, television networks and other sources of entertainment and news within the same market. The result has been catastrophic in further limiting the diversity of commercial media, making it more difficult to create and disseminate alternative forms of information.

Jackson Katz asks, “Who's making the decisions about what people see? Who's making the decisions about what gets the multi-million-dollar contracts? … Overwhelmingly it's white men in suits who are making those decisions and they're deciding, you know, ‘This makes money, I'm gonna sell it. I don't care if it's hurting people.’ It's a business decision, right?” One place to counteract this is from within the industry itself. While white record executives might not be too open to releasing music that critiques the status quo, it might be, as Michael Dyson says, “the job of… black record executives to speak up articulately.”

A young white man with beefy arms sits behind the wheel of an SUV, wearing sunglasses

Paul Moody is one of millions of white fans who buy the bulk of commercial hip-hop albums

Yet the responsibility cannot fall entirely on the record industry itself. Music consumers must learn to read lyrics and images intelligently, as well as challenge those that they disagree with. As Minister Conrad Tillard explains, “We, as a community, (must) challenge this notion that it's okay for black males to die early, that this is a natural part of life… as though your life doesn't really mean anything.”

Most importantly, perhaps, is the need to keep creating media that counteracts commercial representation. BET, Clear Channel-owned radio and corporate record labels are not the only sources of hip-hop. By supporting independent music labels, music lovers can support a diverse array of music producers, artists and content.

Learn about hypermasculinity and violence in hip-hop »
Take a look at hip-hop lyrics and tell us what you think »

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