Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now!
We’re on the move!
Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now!
We’ve got the groove!
—From the 1979 chart-topping album “Ain’t No Stoppin Us Now,” by the Philly Disco songwriting team, McFadden & Whitehead.
With Jordan Peele winning the Oscar for Best Original Screenplay (“Get Out”) and Kobe Bryant for Best Animated Short (“Dear Basketball”), the Academy Awards may be icing on the cake for the latest crop of African American image makers.
The success of “Black Panther” is but the most outstanding example of Afro-centric entertainment filling the coffers of the tinsel town piggy bank. Prepping the way prior to its release were a plethora of movies and television shows by Black creators or about Black people have been released which explore the pain and pleasure of Africa’s children in the New World. More than just entertainment, their content projects authentic observations and questions about race, possibly the telling sign of great art.
Regardless of who took home the statutes on Sunday, Black culture is entering into a golden (or at least gilded) age. Afro-influenced music is now a global influence, as youth near and fair use its infectious beats as the foundation for their own tales of frustration and discontent. Performers of color are thusly heralded globally, as they showcase their magic on the court, playing field, recording studio, and on the large and small screen.
Here at home especially, the profile of America’s athletes and entertainers of color continue to rise. Be-that-as-it-may, the communities from which this excellence emerges still suffer from the maladies of crime, poverty, mass incarceration, substance abuse, and other ills identified in the middle of the 20th century. As various learned academics, political tacticians, think tanks, and others grapple with solutions that remain elusive well into the present century. So as these celebrated icons return to their mansions with their multiple accolades, awards and material fruits of their rarified status, the source of this unparalleled windfall remains mired in the morass of instability and privation.
Pinpointing a sickness
“The dark ghetto is institutionalized pathology; it is chronic, self-perpetuating pathology; and it is the futile attempt by those with power to confine that pathology so as to prevent the spread of its contagion to the “larger community.” -from “Dark Ghetto: Dilemma’s of Social Power,” by psychologist and educator Kenneth B. Clark, 1989.
Scholars have a particular place in the civilized world. Perched in ivory towers, they are charged with analyzing societies ills and suggesting ways to correct them. On the positive side, they all have back-stories that began before they reached the hallowed grounds of academia, and those experiences, for better or worse, shape their scholarly approach.
Over the past decades a sizable faction of them have presented or embraced the idea that dysfunction lies at the root of poor achievement on the ‘hood. More then a few of them (like Dr. Clark, quoted above) ironically, are Black. Given the platform of educational publications and independent media, they along with concerned celebrities have debated the underlying causes of the malaise that impacts bergs like Miami’s Liberty City to Hunter’s Point in San Francisco. Among them, Bill Cosby (an important voice in the discussion who has been silenced due to ongoing legal problems) and psychiatrist Alvin Poussin, waxed in 2007’s “Come On People: On the Path from Victims to Victors,” passionately that the convenient excuses of dysfunction and pathology have on some levels crippled these communities as an expedient “cop out.”
The most prominent, and possibly most convenient thing to hang the blame on is music.
As mentioned above, professional scholars come from a variety of backgrounds, bringing with them an assortment of viewpoints, and an indirect argument for the values of diversity. Now an associate professor at UCLA’s Department of African-American Studies, Scot Brown had the advantage of an up bringing in upstate New York, then pursued his higher education in that same local. This gave him a unique vantage point during the gestation of rap southward in New York City.
Like most Americans whose coming of age had its own individual soundtrack, his youthful tastes ran to the likes of the Fatback Band.
Brown remembers the transition from instrumentally based groups to emergence of rappers supported by an assortment of turntables and the like. This transition was abetted by the advent of Ronald Reagan’s presidency, which as Brown notes, dried up funding for the arts, and the supply of musical instruments in the inner city.
The economic build down
The fortunes of the Black community (as are all neighborhoods) are influenced by outside forces beyond their control. Scores of aficionados and critics have traced the birth of rap to the down turn caused by “Reaganomics” (alternatively dubbed “voodoo economics”), the drastic cutting of taxes (to theoretically to drive up revenues), thus facilitating the shift from instrument driven popular music.
Economics encouraged the embrace of the microphone and turntable in myriad ways. Due to the exclusivity of venues like Studio 54, Black and Latino youth found themselves priced out of the Disco craze. The urge for recreational fulfillment literally forced these minions to “take it to the streets.”
The proletarians of these already marginalized areas turned to electrical outlets in abandoned buildings and streetlights to power their impromptu parties. For lyrical content, they turned to the issues of oppression, police brutality, and above all, racism, subjects they were most acquainted with. In this way, hip-hop was politicized literally from the ground up.
As Brown points out, the act of plugging extension cords, microphones, mixers, turntables, and other equipment into the power lines (for free electricity) was in itself a political act.
Along the way, they covered a common topic in pop music: the frustrations of romance, and relations between men and women. For
whatever reason, in this genre the regular sugary love songs took a darker turn towards exploitation and victimization.
For Carolyn West, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Washington (Tacoma), this phenomenon is a corner stone of her research on the intersection of sex and violence in interpersonal relationships.
For West, sex and violence are intertwined, especially when the potent elixir of commercialism is combined. To explore these beliefs she’s penned articles like “The Serialization of Girls” for the American Psychiatric Association (APA).
In a 2008 volume titled “Lectures on the psychology of women,” she contributed a chapter with the provocative heading “ Mammy, Jezebel, Sapphire, and Their Home girls: Developing an ‘Op positional Gaze’ Towards the Images of Black Women.”
‘Serialization’ of media
West holds that these insulting terms are stereotypes from the 19th century and picked up by the now misogynistic rap culture.
Acknowledging the damage caused to the psyche of impressionable listeners to this art form, she shuns the convenient tendency to hang societies ills on the influences of recreational amusements (a ploy attempted with comic books and Elvis Presley’s grinding hips in the 1950s.
West, who’s own adolescent musical interests started with the Sugar Hill Gang (ire., “Rapper’s Delight”) believes that it is “…too simplistic to generalize all of hip-hop as a negative influence.”
The real source of these perceived “problems” stem from the overall “serialization” of media in general, not just rap.
Contemporary fears of provocative listening are rooted in the seeds of internalized racism, compounded by the traditions of time-honored phobias within the American psyche.
She observes that “…it’s easier to vilify Black men.” Going on she points to the influence of televised entertainment like Bet’s “Uncut” and, in her terms, the “Personified” media in general. All kids are susceptible to media influences, good or bad.
“Media can shape who we are and, what others perceive us to be,” she says.
To refrain from what can be a distorted view of sexuality, she insists there be a balance to negative imagery like 2016s award-winning film “Hidden Figures.”
In turn this balance can come from within the genre itself. She lauds a recent Huff Post article where Rick Ross praised Afro-Caribbean rapper Cardin B as an inspiration for her fans.
Interviewed at the Grammy Awards, he declared, “…she really inspired — had to be — millions of little girls around the world. We can make this happen, and it’s not out of reach.”
Fifty years since the launch of “The Great Society” and the debate rages on. Perhaps through all of this, the only forth-coming answer is that the problems do exist.
After 16 years with UCLA, Brown remains optimistic.
“I don’t think there are pathologist in our neighborhoods. I think there’s more poverty in our neighborhoods,” told Our Weekly.
“Pathology, on the other hand, rests with the super rich and concentrated wealth that make decisions based on short term profits,” he continues.
The end result, he suggests, comes “…at the expense of the quality of life for most people on the planet and the environment.”
The solution may come in the continued push towards shift towards social and political awareness.
“In spite of that poverty, African American communities are still the cultural breadbasket of the world,” Brown says, hoping that fruits of the harvest circle back to the source from which they sprouted.
“The struggle is to direct the wealth generated by these cultural resources to the communities that create the culture at the grassroots level.