Rap And Race

With Bill Clinton attacking Sister Souljah, and Dan Quayle joining the police of America in condemning Ice-T, pop music careered into national politics last week. And it did so as a stand-in for an inconvenient topic that had been looming over the campaign all along: race. If the politicians weren't ready to get dirty on the subject, the music sure was. While plain talk about race and our real racial divisions has been absent from the campaign, it has become the rhetorical center of pop music. After nearly three decades of reflecting the promises of integration, pop music--from country to hard-core rap--has become our most pointed metaphor for volatile racial polarization. Whether the candidates get it or not, we've moved past the warm and fuzzy age of "We Are the World."

Clinton tagged the previously little-known Sister Souljah (Lisa Williamson) at the Rev. Jesse Jackson's Rainbow Coalition Leadership Summit. Chiding the coalition for inviting her to speak, Clinton said, "She told The Washington Post..."If black people kill black people every day, why not take a week and kill white people?'...If you took the words "white' and "black' and reversed them, you might think David Duke was giving that speech." Angry black leaders attacked him for, in Jackson's words, exploiting her "purely to appeal to conservative whites." Clinton defended his remarks: "I called for an end to division, which I've been calling for since I first began this race." Sister Souljah last week explained that her inflammatory nonsense hadn't been a call to violence: "I was just telling the writer that...if a person would kill their own brother, or a baby in a drive-by, or a grandmother, what would make white people think that [he] wouldn't kill them too?" But her reasoning didn't much matter. She and Clinton, the sax player in shades, were singing different songs. While pols cling to nice talk about a harmonious society that's just a social program away, musicians and fans, black and white, are declaring the massive schism between the races--consuming the rift as entertainment, a world view and a beat you can dance to.

It's been a rough month for rap. Police organizations around the country called for a boycott of Time Warner over a song called "Cop Killer," by the Warner Records rapper Ice-T and his heavy-metal band, Body Count. The song includes the lyrics "I'm 'bout to bust some shots off/I'm 'bout to dust some cops off " and a chant, "Die, Die, Die Pig, Die!" On June 5 a Macomb County, Mich., prosecutor warned local record stores about selling albums by Houston rappers the Geto Boys, which "satisfy the [criminal] obscenity definition." Bill Adler, a rap publicist and longtime defender of the music, last week published an 83-page booklet denouncing anti-Semitism in the rap community. He singled out Ice Cube for touting the Nation of Islam's inflammatory text "The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews," which blames the slave trade on Jews. And a commentary in Billboard, written by punky white folk singer Michelle Shocked and her fiance, writer Bart Bull, dismissed hard-edged rap as a new species of blackface minstrelsy: "The chicken-thieving, razor-toting 'coon' of the 1890s is the drug-dealing, Uzi-toting 'nigga' of today ... [The mostly white) audience will eventually feel justified in all manner of acts of racism, predicated on Zip Coon stereotypes sold with the enthusiastic support of the entertainment industry."

For anyone with a sense of recent history, all this handwringing ought to look familiar. The volatility of rap, both in it's creative brio and its ability to alienate, feels like rock and roll all over again. Popular music is now reflecting deep changes in American society better than any other form of public discussion-just as it did 30 years ago. When Los Angeles boiled over in response to the Rodney King verdict in April, the last people surprised were the fans of rap music, black and white.

F --- the police, coming straight from the underground A young nigger got it bad 'cause I'm brown And not the other color. Some police think They have the authority to kill the minority ...

These words, from the notorious "- tha Police," by the equally notorious Compton, Calif, rap crew N.W.A (it stands for Niggers With Attitude), are already almost four years old, from an album that sold close to 2 million copies. As Ice-T, whose music covers similar turf, says, "People ask me, 'What about the riot?' Well, refer to album three, track one. Or,'What about the cops?'Refer to album four, track 15 ... I've already explained it."

If the heart of the culture in the '60s was a fascination with youth, the heart now is a fascination with race. Race has replaced the generation gap as the determining force not just in what music says and sounds like but in how it is promoted, and what it means to different listeners. Just a decade ago, when Michael Jackson began veering toward racial ambiguity with the aid of plastic surgery, he became the most popular singer the world had ever known. This year, when he argued on his latest album, "It don't matter if you're black or white," he became a national joke. A new orthodoxy has set in, racially charged and financially very profitable. The key strands of pop-music culture-questions of identity, community, authenticity, language, fashion-all now filter through notions of race.

Rappers are the musicians leading the change. " It took white groups to take rock and roll to the max," says composer-producer Quincy Jones, 59. In the early days of rock, Jones wrote arrangements for songs that were recorded by black singers for the black or "race" market, then by white singers-"diluted a little bit"--for the white market. "This time the creators are staying in control of their culture for the first time," says Jones. "Young black males are speaking the truth at the most dramatic and theatrical level. It's a swagger that from young black males has always threatened America. " But rap acts and entrepreneurs are finding that it doesn't just threaten. It attracts.

"We're marketing black culture to white people," says Andre Brown, a.k.a. Doctor Dre. Brown, 28, is the jocular cohost of the daily video program "Yo! MTV Raps," one of the most popular programs on the cable music channel. For a half hour each weeknight and one hour on Saturdays, MTV's largely white viewership can tune in to what Saturday host Fab 5 Freddy has called "the cutting edge of black culture." In rap, MTV has found a music equal to its visual jump-cutting rhythms; and in MTV, rap-which has long been shunned by black radio-has finally found a home.

Because of its emphasis on visual style, MTV has intensified pop music's fascination with race. When the channel first went on the air, 1 1 years ago, it was almost closed to black performers. Of the first 750 clips shown, fewer than two dozen were by black acts. The black jazz musician Herbie Hancock, who scored a pop hit in 1983 with the song "Rockit," kept his face out of his own video in order to get airplay. When Michael Jackson's album "Thriller" and single "Billie Jean" topped the charts in 1983, MTV still rejected his video. It was only after Jackson's next single, " Beat It," went No. 1 that the network relented.

Once MTV became integrated, the medium's promise was clear: pop stars were free to invent themselves. Identity was not bound by sexuality or ethnicity. The new stars created by the network-Boy George, Prince, George Michael, Madonna and the light-skinned, post-op Michael Jackson-all made a virtue of ambiguity. They weren't authentic; they were brilliantly made up. While Jackson lightened his skin and George Michael learned to rap, Prince, in the loosely autobiographical 1984 film "Purple Rain," made his roots ambiguous, inventing for himself a white mother. The next year, 45 of America's biggest pop stars, black and white, joined in the triumphant anthem "We Are the World" to benefit Ethiopian-famine relief. "We Are the World," which was the best-selling single of all time, was a massive symbolic victory over racial difference: our identities lay not in our genes but in our big, loving arms.

Rap hit this celebration of racial melding broadside. Typically, when any genre music wants to "cross over" to a broader audience, it becomes softened in the process. Motown creator Berry Gordy, for example, set up a charm school for his acts, to make them more palatable to white America. Rap was different. "Forget about watering down," says Bill Stephney, a rap entrepreneur and cofounder of the group Public Enemy. "I think there's dehydration. Not only are we not going to add water, we're going to take water out. In many respects, that was done on purpose ... to curry favor with a white audience by showing rebellion." The plan worked. The harder the music got, the more white audiences bought in.

Public Enemy, a mostly middle-class rap group from suburban Long Island, N.Y., carried this strategy the farthest. In its imagery, sound and lyrics, the band was pure confrontation. Tapping the potential of video, Public Enemy created and marketed an entire band around the concept of racial warriors. The group's logo showed a black youth in the cross hairs of a rifle sight; each song dramatized racial conflict.

Embraced from the start by white audiences as well as black, Public Enemy replaced the racial indeterminacy of Michael Jackson and Prince with hard-core determinism-the "blacker" the better. The group's 1987 single, "Bring the Noise," began with a recording of Malcolm X's voice saying, "Too black, too strong." This snippet-half self-promotion, half challenge--defined the new direction of rap boasting. "Blackness," suddenly, was what distinguished the real from the fake, the significant from the inconsequential.

This "realness," or authenticity, was a conceit, like any other on MTV. From Bruce Springsteen's faded blue jeans to Public Enemy's pose of "pure blackness," pop's gifts-even at their most heartfelt and moving-are images and stances, not flesh and blood. But, like the past conceit of racial ambiguity, this racial purism was a conceit that caught on. Says Stephney, production supervisor on "Bring the Noise," "From this [song], an orthodoxy developed of certain polities you can have, a certain look, a certain way that you refer to women, to whites, to homosexuals, a certain way that you comport yourself"-all based on macho aggression. "There's definitely a religion that has developed out of this."

The religion is racial authenticity. You gotta have it. The white rapper Vanilla Ice, whose 1990 "Ice Ice Baby" made him the first rap act ever to top the pop singles charts, felt compelled to invent fraudulent "black" roots for himself, such as having grown up in a black neighborhood and having attended a black high school, to seem closely connected to "authentic" black experience. It didn't matter if a rapper's roots were real or not: N.W.A from the ghetto of Compton, sells the same pop conceit of authenticity. Peppering their raps with tales of gang brutality and misogyny, N.W.A members pitch themselves-to a largely white audience-as "Real Niggaz." Anything less brutal, the thinking goes, is racially adulterated, and therefore inauthentic. The conceit has worked. N.W.A's "NIGGAZ4LIFE" became the top album in the country within two weeks of its release last summer, eventually selling nearly 2 million copies.

The adorable Atlanta rap duo Kris Kross, currently the No. 2 act in the country, best illustrates how the conceit of authenticity shapes pop identities. Both just 13 years old, the rappers get more identity from rap than they give to it. As schoolboys they are Chris Kelly and Chris Smith. As rappers, they are Mack Daddy and Daddy Mack. A mack daddy, from the French maquereau, is a pimp. As ludicrous poses of authenticity go, this is topped only by that of Seattle rapper Sir Mix-A-Lot, whose salacious top-10 pop single "Baby Got Back" argues for black supremacy on the basis of rear-end size.

The push to use race to sell records isn't limited to rap. Seven years ago black Svengali Maurice Starr created the biggest sensation in pop music by teaching five white teenagers how to dance and sing "black," and selling them to heartland America as the New Kids on the Block. This year New Kid Donnie Wahlberg's brother, the dance-club performer Marky Mark, has outstripped his brother's act by surrounding himself with black faces. The rapper KRS-One identifies the market force: "Right now everybody needs the 'pure black' to help them feel relaxed."

Not everyone. The biggest music story of the last two years has been the rise of country. And one reason for this rise has been rap. " Every morning," says Jimmy Bowen, head of Liberty Records, " I get up and thank God for rap music, 'cause it runs people to country." Bowen's label is home to Garth Brooks, lately the most popular singer in America. The country boom reflects the erosion of melody on hit radio, but also the unease of white baby boomers with a pop world that reflects James Brown's 1960s more than the Beatles'. Still, it would be naive to think Bowen is talking only esthetics when he says, "That's what inner-city life is: it's hell, it's gangs, lack of self-esteem, crime, rage, murder-it's all of the things in [rap] music." He's talking race.

Like any story of race in America, rap's trip to the white mainstream comes with contradictions and anxieties. As Ice-T puts it, "People always ask me, 'How do you feel about dancing for the white people? You dance for them and they cheer. And then they walk out of here and they just talk about niggers'. . . At this point, man, I can't really care. Thirty years ago we were still in the back of the bus, so what makes me think it's going to end in my lifetime?" There is nothing new about white people embracing African-American styles. Since the blackface minstrel shows of the 19th century, race has been the great conundrum at the core of American music. It is both our music's original sin and its creative juice, an ever-changing formula of fascination and fear.

What is new is the conceit-sometimes borne out, sometimes pure marketing-that rap isn't just entertainment, it's reportage. Chuck D has called rap Black America's CNN, the documentary news service the inner cities have never had. The curiosity rap sparks outside the inner cities, he believes, is not just natural but part of the music's huge appeal. " You tell me how a white kid in Indiana is going to pick up a slice of black life if not from a video or a rap record," he asks. "Not from the school system. Not on the news. Not in his household. And he's not going to go into the neighborhood himself to get a face-to-face confrontation with some s-t that could be termed dangerous."

For more than 30 years, one of the promises of pop music has been to bring white and black people together, at least on the dance floor. Rap cuts into this equation, offering interaction with music and videos in place of interaction with actual people. Ed Eckstine president of Mercury Records and son of the great jazz singer Billy Eckstine, calls this simply "minstrelism of a different order. You can hear [ghetto violence], see it, feel it, blast it in your car. But when it comes to doing something about it, [white fans] don't want to come near it."

During periods of integration, when the focus of racial insecurities was miscegenation-sex-the common ground shared by white and black listeners was rock and roll, a euphemism for the sex act. Now, as we pull apart, and our insecurities focus more and more on violence, the shared ground is the often violent frontier of rap. The music that once drew people together now mediates between them, providing a metaphor for the separation. This explains the white fetish for the most extreme rap: it's the most extreme measure of the division between the races. It also explains the overreactions to rap and its lyrics: when art stands in for life, it's easy to confuse the two.

Rap taps racial insecurities, soothing them with the promise that one can experience "real" black life vicariously through records-but it stokes the insecurities, too. Look at the titles: Public Enemy's "Fear of a Black Planet," Ice Cube's "The Nigga You Love to Hate." Both were enormously popular with white audiences. Rap is locating white insecurity about race--and black insecurity about class-and selling it back as entertainment. As a tidy projection of the messy fears people live under, rap gives its white audience a chance to explore-or ignore-them.

For black audiences, even violent rap can send a different set of messages. One of the contradictions most often overlooked in rap is that it is a radical voice with an often conservative agenda. Public Enemy's last album is largely a rant against black vice. Ice Cube's "Death Certificate" builds, through a series of images of white devils and black gangbangers, to the self-critical song "Us": "And all you dope dealers/You're as bad as the police 'cause you kill us ... Sometimes I believe the hype, man/We mess it up ourselves and blame the whiteman. "This has always been a secret undercurrent of rap: beneath the sometimes harsh imagery, it embraces very old-fashioned social norms (even, in its take on gender roles and homosexuality, primitive norms). "[Rap] represents the self-determining practices some of these black conservatives always talk about," says Stephney. "Here were people who couldn't get their music on the radio, so they said, 'Screw it, we'll create our own mini radio stations in parks, our own lingo, our own code of behavior and dress.' The schools had all dropped their music programs, so they invented a music played on turntables. Isn't that the self-sufficiency that Thomas Sowell and Clarence Thomas and Bush prescribe?"

As Cornel West, director of Princeton's Afro-American Studies program, notes, "Rap is an attempt to socialize black children by young black artists. When KRS-One talks about 'edutainment,' and Public Enemy speak of themselves as a cable channel for the black community, they are saying that we will socialize, acculturize ourselves, given the breakdown in the black family, community and nurturing system ... It sounds bad, but look at the job the mamas and the daddies have done." For more than four years before the Los Angeles riots, rap had anticipated the rage that ultimately boiled over on April 29. And it had done so in the most graphic images of gangbangers, dead police and civil war. But all along, the music also held to other values: nurturing, education, self-sufficiency. These are some of the forces that must come together to rebuild Los Angeles and the country. However modestly, rap has hinted at a way to that regeneration, too.

"3 Years, 5 Months & 2 Days in the Life of..." Collegiate in its outlook, gospel in its inspiration, this softly melodic album replaces rage with measured calls to arms.

"Dead Serious" A sundae of adolescent hormones, with boasting, loving and their stiggedy-style of sliggedy-slang.

"Totally Krossed Out" Kid duo with an edge. With nods to school, gunplay and violence, they sell themselves as the "Lil' Boys in da Hood:'

"Mr. Scarface Is Back" The new hard line: "Dad said, always look a man in the eye before you kill him:'

"Ooooooohhh ... on the TLC Tip" Three women wearing condoms as accessories talk about sex that's safe, exuberant and lightly funky.

I am not Murphy Brown," Sister Souljah told reporters last week, after Bill Clinton's attack on her at the Rainbow Coalition Leadership Summit. "I am very, very well prepared to defend myself and my people."

And she is. Born Lisa Williamson in the Bronx, N.Y., Sister Souljah, now in her mid-20s, has been a prominent community activist and, more recently, a less-than-prominent rapper with an explosive message: "Souljah was not born to make white people feel comfortable," she raps,"...And if my survival means your total destruction, then so be it." Her wrathful video, "The Final Solution: Slavery's Back in Effect," imagines a police state where blacks fight the reinstitution of slavery (it was rejected by MTV). In both her music and her activism, she uses the same messianic rhetoric. "I reserve the right to put pressure on white America, to be angry with white America and to organize against white supremacy and racism," she says. Powerful as a public speaker, she hasn't attracted audience as a rapper. Her one album, "360 Degrees of Power," includes rants against "honkies" and white feminists who "give you 500 reasons why you should leave your Black man/And let them eat your p---y." The week Clinton made her a national figure, it fell of the Billboard charts, never having cracked the pop top 200.

Raised by a single mother, Williamson grew up in housing projects, on and off welfare. She was a political activist at Rutgers University and ran a camp in North Carolina for children of homeless families. She says she has lectured in the former Soviet Union and Europe, as well as at Harvard and Berkeley. She got into music when, after a lecture in Queens, N.Y., Public Enemy's Chuck D invited her to rap on a record. A formidable ego, she is undaunted by her lack of musical success. "African people don't love me because I'm a recording artist; they love me because of my work." A music fan can only hope so.