Tuesday, February 5, 2008

Drugs, Basketball And Rap (Reup from 2006)

You either sling crack rock or you got a wicked jump shot © Notorious B.I.G.

Education has always been used as a tool to get ahead in America and for people to achieve success and improve themselves and their entire families station in life. Parents would work to provide for their children in the hopes that they do well in school and hopefully either learn a trade and begin working after high school or get into college and graduate so they can hopefully get a good paying job and be better able to provide for their families. However, the plague of prejudice and racism often kept people from getting work in their desired fields so they often had to take lower paying jobs in hopes that a better opportunity would open up one day.

In many instances, that day never came. These parents produced children that saw their parents beat down by the pressures of the outside world that seemed to limit their prospects just because of their pigment at birth and their station in life. These children often saw their parents abuse alcohol or drugs or just plain live with the pain of not being able to crack the system and follow their dreams. They instead sacrificed for that next generation like life was continuous loop of "A Raisin In The Sun" and "Good Times".

Growing up in the Reagan/Bush Administration during the 80s was hell on the inner city. There was urban decay and blight everywhere due to the governments absolute neglect of the poor and working class in America. Programs for youth and disadvantaged children were slashed and aid of any kind was scant. Schools in the city were ill equipped to teach the children and properly prepare them to seek opportunities or continued education in a hostile environment. 

The same landscape that helped birth and nurture the elements of hip hop culture were there when the Last Poets, Marvin Gaye, Stevie Wonder, James Brown and other groups and artists began talking about relevant issues, social change, self determination and speaking of consciousness and revolution.

The poor prospects they faced out in the real world, bleak visions of the future, deferred dreams, oppression and apathy young people felt was evident in the music and the films that were put out in the late 60's well into the 70's. The one thing that was a constant throughout all this time that Blacks/African Americans endured through these eras was that there were always three avenues that you could take to make money/become rich: crime, sports, or entertainment. 

The legends of gangsters, dope dealers, pushers, pimps, thieves , singers, musicians, and athletes were told and retold for generations. They were always treated well and they could achieve status at a time when few brown people were acknowledged as humans or even allowed privilege of any kind. This in turn, inspired scores of children to practice a sport, pick up an instrument or enter a gang or the world of crime in hopes they could improve their stations in life.

Right around the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy, young people slowly began to have little or no trust in the system and detested the idea that you had to work your fingers to the bone, spend 12-16 years in schools and then have to kiss ass or assimilate/change and then pray to be accepted.

 The pain of being the third, fourth or fifth generation of free people living hand to mouth in America began to grate at people. There had to be a way out, a change had to come. Hollywood and the recording industry caught wind of these changes and decided to make money by making films that spoke directly to this demographic and enlisted top level musicians of the time to craft the musical backdrops.

Thus began the era of so-called Blaxploitation films (a termed coined by the overzealous and hypercritical NAACP and not moviegoers, critics or the filmmakers themselves). They could be made for budgets less than a million dollars and make back between 10-20X it's initial investment. Black people were not only able to now write, direct, produce and star in their own films but they could hire their own and begin to mentor and inspire a new generation of filmmakers. In fact, many of the first times a Black man was featured in a film as a hero were Sweet Sweetback's Baaaadasss Song, Superfly, The Mack and Shaft.

One was the story of a man who worked outside of the regular work world who gets framed for a murder by racist cops and he ends up fighting back and winning. The other was another man who worked outside of the system and got rich selling drugs in a racist and oppressive society. The next was a man who worked outside of the system and became famous and rich by becoming a pimp. The last was seen as a superhero and a bit of fantasy, a Black man who works with the police, yet outside the system at the same time and protects the people of the inner city. 

The odd thing is that Superfly and The Mack were embraced much more than Shaft. Melvin Van Peebles' Sweetback inspired a new generation of young writers and directors to pursue their dreams, but instead it seemed like in the 70's everyone in the hood wanted to be either Ron O' Neal or Max Julien.

The idea of completely avoiding the system altogether and becoming rich and successful outside of it worked because of the lack of access to opportunities to achieve success through traditional means. The streets were flooded with marijuana and ravaged by heroin and later cocaine and even later crack. Drugs were something that was in demand, you could make easy and quick money selling it, and you could be successful and rich without any type of diploma...Voila! The drug dealer and the pimp become somewhat acceptable and viable options to achieving fame in the inner city. 

If it couldn't be achieved through traditional channels it had to be achieved somehow. Many youth turned to the streets and crime to provide money for their families to survive through harsh times in dangerous living conditions...many lost their lives and helped spread the plague of drugs throughout their own neighborhoods and cities, oftentimes even their own family members or friends became hooked on drugs. Sometimes, they even fell into the trap themselves.

Sports heroes achieved status that the average Black American could never even dream of. From Jack Johnson to Jesse Owens to Joe Louis, from Jackie Robertson to Floyd Patterson to Sugar Ray Robinson to Muhammad Ali. Even when we as a people were fighting for basic rights these men were respected and achieved greatness, fame and wealth. This inspired many more young people of color to dream of becoming wealthy through the medium of sports. 

The problem being that while it is almost a pipe dream to think that you can make it as a professional athlete due to the finite number of people that can even make it to the professional level in a particular sport is the chance of injury or failure. If you don't make it in that sport and you don't have a degree or any other skills/talents to fall back on then you're back at square one with everyone else. The most popular sports in the inner city are basketball and football.

Basketball is almost a rite of passage for some kids in the inner city. It's an economic sport. One ball per ten people. There are courts all over the city as well, most within walking distance. Oftentimes, neighborhood drug dealers and gangsters would either support the local star basketball players by taking care of their families or avoiding the courts or sponsoring basketball tournaments in the hood. These people were seen as hood stars or ghetto celebrities and people often hung on them in hopes that they can get a piece of the fortune or fame that could possibly achieve in the future. 

Not only could you go to college and get an education to your family otherwise couldn't afford, but you could possibly become a professional! The number of kids with a ball under their arms increased dramatically in the hood. If it can help you and your family get to a better station in life, you better believe that's gonna be the road most traveled by the multitude!

Rarely when I was growing up was it glorified in the hood if someone graduated from college and got a Master's or a Doctorate degree..at least not by the youth (the elders would be ecstatic). Why? Because they were looked at as abandoning the hood, forgetting where you came from and embracing the same system that had oppressed them and shut their parents, aunts, uncles and grandparents out because of the color of their skin.

Why would anyone fight so hard to be accepted in a system that seemingly doesn't want them or care to accept them with having them assimilate? Seeking employment through regular means and living from check to check just didn't appeal to the youth anymore in the 80's...even if you wore a suit and tie to work.

Inner city youth fed into having themselves and their entire existence be defined by phrases such as money, hoes and clothes. Sex, money and murder. Money, power and pussy or sex, money and drugs...and this was only if they didn't have all of the avenues available. THEN it was sports, drugs and entertainment or crime, sports and entertainment. Nothing is more disheartening than thinking that you, from birth, won't achieve anything in life unless it's through these methods...like Big Juss of Company Flow said in the song "8 Steps To Perfection"

We all can't be pimps and we all can't rap! © Bigg Juss

Right around 1972, a man from Jamaica who called himself Kool Herc and was known for throwing jams in the Bronx had his right hand man get on the mic while he spun Reggae, Calypso, Afro Jazz, Salsa, Meringue, Jazz, and Funk records to a group of young people. He often said a few lines that rhymed , did some call and response with the audience and he kept the crowd pumped up, his name was Coke La Rock and he was hip hop's first ever emcee. 

In the next three years, more and more DJ's began spinning all over New York City and these rappers or emcees starting coming out of the woodwork. Much like how back in the 50's and 60's there were Doo Wop groups on every corner practicing harmonies and singing songs, in the 70's and 80's there were rap groups or emcees on every corner practicing or performing routines for whoever would listen. This was just an exercise/labor of love until 1979 and the first rap records hit the air. After Rappers Delight became a worldwide hit and sold millions of copies the rap industry was born.

By 1983, Run DMC broke the color barrier on MTV and broke rap nationwide. In 1986, crack hit nationwide and once again changed the landscape of the nation and the music industry. The music took on a different feel, the subject matter switched from party rhymes to tales about selling drugs, drug abuse and extravagance and wealth even more than before. The imagery in the movie Scarface took on a whole new life now.

The Black American was making significant headway in the fields of education, culture, film, business, entertainment, and sports throughout the 1990's. Now in 2006, even though we have so many advantages that our parents and their parents didn't have we are still stuck in the same quagmire that they were then having this generation still think that they need to rely on entertainment as opposed to education to be successful. The crack rhymes are still popular 20 years later so much so that the words "triple beam", "fishscale" and references to baking soda and Pyrex cookware are even recognizable to small children as methods of making crack/drug paraphenalia. 

Any kid with a Young Jeezy album is an expert on selling snow now. With the recent problems of Jacob "The Jeweler" Arabo and Dallas Austin, casual observers would think that everyone involved with hip hop or the rap industry is somehow involved in the worlds of drugs or crime as well!

The CEO of Hip Hop himself, Jay-Z, is a former drug dealer and the current president of the Def Jam/Island Group. He is also part owner of a basketball team, the New Jersey Nets. With all of the cross promotion, corporate synergy and advertising the lines are blurring. Now, former drug dealer T.I. is now a top selling rapper, a label head (Grand Hustle) and a movie star with a hit film, ATL. Young Jeezy has a popular album, a "Snowman" T shirt and a clothing line. 

Many of the most popular hip hop albums in recent history were full of tales of crime, shootings and drug deals. Nowadays even in rap battles, emcees will threaten each other with physical harm, talk about how much head they get, how icy their necks and wrist are or how many packs they've moved.

This is a rap battle right? A test of lyrical skill and creativity, right? Then why should I care about how many drugs you sold? Can't you talk about how much more skilled you are than you're opponent in lyricism? Ask yourself that question next time you see a Smack DVD. All of these factors have helped to contribute to a continuing problem in our society. We have been narrowcast, misrepresented and stereotyped into fitting some mold that doesn't truly represent us for so long that it seems that we've finally become to accept it and far too many of us believe in it.

Ill finish by saying this: we as people, regardless of our backgrounds cannot let our brothers, sisters, nieces, nephews, cousins, sons or daughters think that their entire existence and reason for living boils down to a simple phrase or motto. We can achieve our dreams in so many ways and regardless what you're told you have a myriad of possibilities to explore in life. 

We are more than pimps, players, dope boys, and gangstas. We can do more than sing, rap, dance and tell jokes. We can do so much more than hit jumpers in traffic, make 720º dunks, do ill crossovers, make behind the back passes, run fast, hit homeruns and throw and catch touchdowns. As Talib Kweli said in the song of the same name, there is so much more to us than drugs, basketball and rap.

This entry was originally written for a now defunct online publication. I posted it on my MySpace blog on July 6th, 2006.



Anonymous said...

great post...been reading the site for a minute - keep it up

doctashock said...

Nice article. Followed one of your comments over at PotW here. I'll probably be forwarding this to a few friends of mine as well.

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