Go Less Dumb 

Does hyphy promote a "culture of death," or help combat it?

Perhaps we shouldn't take everything E-40 says so literally. "In the Bay Area, there is a deliberate attempt by rappers to promote a 'hyphie [sic] movement' that includes 'going dumb' and 'going stupid,'" explained David Muhammad in a March op-ed piece at NewAmericaMedia.org. "Going dumb or stupid, which is quite literal, is a way you dance while thizzing (using the drug Ecstasy), smoking purp (marijuana), and sipping bo (Robitussin cough syrup with codeine)."

Very helpful. Muhammad — the 32-year-old director of the Oakland-based Mentoring Center, which helps to transition youths coming out of the juvenile justice system — began the piece by declaring that "It's Hard Out Here for a Pimp," the infamous Oscar-winning Three 6 Mafia song, promoted a "culture of death." He went on to make some broad generalizations about rap music, saying that it had become "an embarrassing bastion of filth — promoting violence, drugs, irresponsible sex, excessive materialism, and delinquent behavior." The Afrocentric righteousness of the "Fight the Power" era, he argued, had been replaced by "bling bling" and the b-word. Muhammad's historical accuracy may be somewhat colored by nostalgia (both NWA and Too $hort toured with Public Enemy back in the day), yet his point, while unoriginal, does contain grains of truth.

But Muhammad didn't stop there. The "hyphie movement," he continued, was part of a "deliberate attempt" to "promote a culture of death in order to make money in the industry." Not only that, but "liquor stores have become the depots of the culture of death," selling not only alcohol, but cigar wrappers and "T-shirts with horrific messages on them." Moreover, "outside of the liquor stores is often where you find the illegal drugs being peddled." Muhammad also called today's rappers "New Age sellouts," while conceding some concern he himself might be called that for attacking rap.

Is he a sellout? Not really — Muhammad's intent is to effect positive change and stop the cycle of incarceration. His efforts are commendable. And he's on point when he takes large corporations to task for promoting violent, sexist content, not to mention radio stations that "constantly air the vilest lyrics while ignoring an entire group of 'positive' rappers." Yet while he admits his ambivalent feelings for Jay-Z, he neglects to mention any "positive" rap artists by name. Moreover, he's way off target when he attempts to lump in what can be easily seen as positive forms of youthful expression (hyphy's preoccupation with dancing, for example) with his "culture of death."

Earlier this month, Muhammad followed up his diatribe in an interview with Sheerly Avni for TruthDig.com, in which he basically blamed rap music for furthering preexisting social conditions. "I really can't help but see a correlation," he said when asked about a possible connection between the hyphy movement and Oakland's rising murder rate. The music wasn't exclusively at fault, he explained: "Blight, poverty, high unemployment, a liquor store on every corner, substandard education, drugs readily available, and guns easily accessible" were all "factors that have all been in place for a long time." Yet he claims the music "drives the crime spikes," without offering any substantive proof or factual evidence to back it up.

When Avni suggested that rap music might simply be a reflection of the reality for today's youth, Muhammad vehemently disagreed, though he allowed that "the music did not create the situation." However, he said, "The music has made it worse. It has exacerbated the problems, and it has promoted insane and destructive beliefs and attitudes in the country's most vulnerable communities."

By portraying rap music and hip-hop culture as part of the problem without offering any concrete solutions, Muhammad has done nothing more than rehash an already tired argument. Such hyperbole has much in common with the hardline stance of Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown. But then, attacking sideshows and youth culture without overtly playing the race card is one way to frame yourself as the tough-on-crime candidate for California attorney general.

Muhammad should avoid falling into the same hypocritical trap. If he's so concerned, he'd better address the problem by opening up a dialogue with hyphy artists. He might learn that E-40 isn't just a rapper with a hot-selling album, but a role model for fiscal responsibility. Or that F.A.B. volunteers weekly at East Oakland's Youth Uprising community center, MCing turf-dancing classes in a controlled, safe environment. Or that a few months back, many members of the hyphy movement — including Keak da Sneak, Frontline, EA-Ski, F.A.B., San Quinn, and Too $hort — donated their time and energy for a benefit concert helping Hurricane Katrina victims. These examples prove that if anything, hyphy represents a celebration of life, and that if a culture of death does exist in America today, it's a far bigger issue, and has causes much more complicated than hip-hop.


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