Talking heads replace hip-hop heads as lyricists of our times

Monday, November 9, 2009 | 12:03 p.m. CST; updated 12:06 p.m. CST, Friday, November 13, 2009

Speaking to a packed auditorium at MU in September, television journalist Lisa Ling had this to say about the state of the news business:

“It’s tragic when the highest-rated news shows are old white guys telling you what to think,” Ling said. “It makes me enraged.”

No doubt Ling was referring to a generation of media personalities who no longer need a first name: Beck, Hannity, O’Reilly, Dobbs and Olbermann on the tube; Limbaugh, Savage and Hannity redux on the dial. Many of their viewers and listeners, myself included, tune in for the same reason fans attend hockey games — to catch a good fight. And for a sizable segment of that audience, what comes out of their mouths is not just one way of getting news; it’s the only way.

Though some view the domination of opinion media as a sign of the apocalypse, I take a different tack. It might seem a strange leap at first, but “old white guys” have taken the helm of social commentary once held by, of all people, hip-hop musicians.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, before rap music fixated on bling and booty-shaking, the genre specialized in scathing societal critiques. Age-old icons from Public Enemy to Brand Nubian raged against racism and revived black nationalism, while female icons like Queen Latifah challenged sexism and male braggadocio. An entire demographic of marginalized citizens suddenly had a public forum, or as Chuck D once declared, “Hip-hop is black folks’ CNN.”

In 2009, while it would be a stretch to say that white men are marginalized, they've certainly taken a lump or two. White men over 55 had a record 6.5 percent unemployment in the second quarter, according to USA Today.

Hence we have the talking heads of our times, free to spout off on radio and television their brand of political incorrectness that would get many of us fired if we dared to voice such sentiments at the water cooler. What musical genre was once known to offer the same appeal? Hip-hop.

Need examples? Let’s break it down:

(1) Both mediums thrive on inflammatory statements, from Glenn Beck suggesting of Iran that America should “nuke the bastards” to Ice-T's warning that he was "'Bout to dust some cops off" due to unwarranted harassment in the infamous song "Cop Killer."

(2) Both genres have been accused of demeaning women. In media, Bill O’Reilly had to cough up a cash amount believed to be in the millions to settle a sexual harassment suit, while Rush Limbaugh labeled feminists “feminazis.” Hip-hop, which features virtually no female MCs nowadays, best illustrates its attitude toward women via the Nelly video “Tip Drill,” in which he slides an ATM card between a woman’s buttocks.

(3) Performers in both industries have brushed with the law. Limbaugh — my favorite guinea pig — was arrested for illegally obtaining prescription painkillers. Hip-hop, which views prison time more as a rite of passage than a symbol of wrongdoing, has a number of artists currently behind bars or recently released, including Lil’ Kim, Mystikal and Da Brat.

(4) And for the ultimate fusion of microphones, watch Oklahoma’s DJ Clayvis drop “The Audacity for Nope.” Words won’t do justice. Just click the link:

Loath as I am to generalize about race, I’ve earned the right to generalize about my own. There’s no other way to say it: Being white just ain’t what it used to be. 

The Republican Party that conservative media represents has tapped into this reality without ever calling it so, through a barrage of thinly veiled tirades that purport to stand up for the little guy while demonizing the government.

For me to disagree with nearly everything I hear from right-wing talk show hosts but still tune in to their programming is testimony to their mastery of the medium. The other day, I laughed out loud after hearing Rush Limbaugh call himself the “Chief Waga-Waga El Rushbo of the El Conservo Tribe.”

Now that’s a flow that would make any hip-hop artist proud.

Brian Jarvis is a journalism graduate student at MU and producer of the radio show Global Journalist.




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