Growing up as an only child in Augusta, Ga., I regularly spent time with my grandmother, the daughter of a share cropper who put eight daughters through college during the 1950's and 1960's. She revered Martin Luther King Jr. and Mahalia Jackson; she even had the infamous velvet wall hanging of them at the Last Supper on her dining room wall.
But one black person she never took pride in was Muhammad Ali. Even at age four, I was perplexed by this-why would a woman so proudly black dismiss such a celebrated figure in black history?
It was only later that I recognized she disliked Ali for his constant attacks on other black people. During his heyday in the 1970s, Ali called other fighters like Joe Frazier "black monkey" and "black and ugly." I realize now that Ali's comments must have reminded my grandmother of the names she was probably called while picking cotton in McBean, Ga.
A lot has changed since my grandmother's day-and I often wonder, now that's she gone, how she would react to rap songs that use the "N word" so freely. I also question what she would have made of the East coast/West coast war of words between rappers-a feud that six years ago left two of the most significant figures in rap, Tupac Shakur and Notorious B.I.G., dead. I suspect she would have thought that Muhammad Ali was bad enough, but that this new standard of behavior was even worse.
As a reporter writing about such issues, I work very hard to make sure my pieces give readers the full story. But I never act as a mouthpiece for someone else. When I talked with Suge Knight three weeks ago for a NEWSWEEK piece, he had plenty of demeaning things to say about his former partner, Dr. Dre, and about rapper Snoop Doggy Dogg. Between thoughtful comments about the music business, Knight attacked both Dre's sexuality (a major insult to a hip hop artist) and Snoop's manhood. I think my story (in the April 23 issue) gave the reader a complete portrait of Knight, who was recently released from prison, without needlessly disparaging his rivals.
Unfortunately, other publications and media outlets have barely-if at all-filtered Suge's opinions. Last week, Black Entertainment Television aired a 30-minute taped interview with Knight in which he accused Dre of "wanting to be white and marrying a white woman to have white kids." To provide balance, the network used a quote from Dr. Dre that had appeared in my story: "I've never felt the need to say anything bad about Suge. I've moved on." Then on Thursday morning, Don Imus aired conversations with Knight in which he again questioned Dre's sexuality for most of the show. Imus, who didn't return calls to talk about the segment, later did a song parody about Dre, based on Knight's comments.
Petty? Possibly, but dangerous, too. Six years ago, hip hop magazines had no problem hyping the ever-escalating East coast/West coast feud. Tupac was often quoted accusing Notorious B.I.G. of having him ambushed and shot (the first time) and boasted of having had sex with Biggie's wife. There was never any evidence to support these accusations-but that didn't prevent publications from printing them.
Back in the days of Muhammad Ali, insults were usually dismissed as ignorance by people like my grandmother.
Today, they lead to beatings and funerals. Young fans take the words of hip hop icons as gospel and believe whatever they read in print. Tupac and Biggie are dead for those very reasons. As journalists, we have a responsibility to cover famous and interesting people such as Suge Knight. But we also have to distinguish truth from hype and understand the consequences of printing and airing what's little more than trashtalk. Knight doesn't need an open platform to spew hate-and hip hop doesn't need another death.