Saturday, June 24, 2006
Letter to the President
“The hip-hop generation and culture by…traditional mainstream America has been talked down, and it’s only viewed in a very narrow scope as people who disrespect women, who don’t go to school, who sell dope…which is ignorant.”
--Kwame Kilpatrick; Mayor, Detroit, MI
My long-time pal, Moses, who has turned me on to some incredible hip-hop over the years, dropped a DVD in my lap several months back called “Letter to the President.” Written and directed by Thomas Gibson and narrated by Snoop Dogg, the documentary provides a history of hip-hop through the eyes of activists, scholars, and indeed some of the hip-hop community’s most vibrant actors*. I highly recommend this film for anyone who even thinks they know something about the story of hip-hop and the contemporary history of African Americans in these United States.
The story begins in the 1980s Reagan/Bush America as lyrical masterminds like Grandmaster Flash utilized poetic wordplay to paint a picture of the socio-economic climate of that era. As many of us are already aware, the policies of the Reagan/Bush movement hit the working class and people of color the hardest, all while seeking to dismantle the gains of the Civil Rights era. The children and grandchildren of the people who led Civil Rights struggles of the 1950-60s, increasingly feeling the brunt of this assault, utilized the environments and resources they had at their disposal to speak out and fight back.
Ironically, the practices and perspectives of this youth-centered movement often brought them into direct conflict with the old guard of the Civil Rights era. Take this exchange between Civil Rights activist Calvin Butts and hip-hop legend KRS-ONE:
“This generation was empowered by the Civil Rights generation; our picketing, our protesting gave this generation the ability to express themselves, to be arrogant, to stand up and to face authority…” Reverend Dr. Calvin Butts, Abyssinian Baptist Church, New York, NY
“The difference with the Sixties generation is that they wanted to be part of America; we said ‘fuck America.’” KRS-ONE
The documentary also discusses the roots of the crack epidemic in the U.S. and its devastating effects on urban communities, as well as its alleged government connections, including extensive interviews with recently-deceased journalist Gary Webb, author of Dark Alliance. Both the crack phenomenon as well as the government’s incredibly punitive response had powerful and long-lasting effects on both people of color and the development of hip-hop. “Letter to the President” also details the hip-hop community’s responses to related social ills such as racial profiling, mandatory minimum sentencing, police brutality, and the prison industrial complex.
Finally, “Letter to the President” discusses a newly revitalized political and “conscious” hip-hop in the dark days of the Bush II/post-September 11th era. Modern hip-hop artists grapple with issues such as a PATRIOT Act security culture, covert surveillance of hip-hop artists, and the Iraq war. These artists continue the hip-hop community’s long-standing interest in political critique and action, including the unprecedented participation of the hip-hop generation in the 2004 elections.
A weakness of the film is that it does effectively gloss over much of the legitimate criticism of hip-hop’s misogyny and homophobia, as heard even in the lyrics of “conscious” rappers such as Dead Prez. Even the line-up of talking heads in the film reflects this, being comprised almost entirely of men. Where’s the voice of someone such as Sarah Jones, for instance? The closest that the film actually comes to a real critique of hip-hop culture is in its discussion of hip-hop’s commercialization and the racist censorship of the entertainment industry.
Finally, as a teacher friend has pointed out to me, the film is decidedly aimed at "the chorus," and doesn't do such a great job of really introducing the issues it discusses to folks who aren't already on-board. Hence in her particular case she decided that it probably wasn't appropriate for her white, upper-class college students.
I’ll leave you with these two quotes, both from rapper Saigon, and hope that you’ll check out the film for yourself. It can be purchased online, or hopefully rented at your local video store; but for anyone who can’t afford it, holler at me when I get back to the States and I’ll try to burn you a copy.
“I got a prediction: 20 years from now, the rappers that right now with the pimp hat and the pimp cup, they’re gonna look just like those people who used to dance around in blackface.” Saigon
“Hip-hop is a weapon, and it’s the most powerful weapon we ever, ever had. What else could we do that touches so many people to where people all around the world are trying to dress like us, they’re trying to talk like us, or trying to emulate us?” Saigon
*Featuring commentary by: Davey D., Sonya Sanchez, James Bernard (founding editor of “The Source” magazine), Mystic, Common, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, Jeff Chang (author of “Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation”), Chuck D., M1, Quincy Jones, Michael Eric Dyson, KRS-ONE, Kool Moe Dee, 50 Cent, Notorious B.I.G., Dick Gregory, Immortal Technique, Jay-Z, Ice T, Russell Simmons, Ghostface Killah, Ice Cube, Tavis Smiley, Luther “Luke Skywalker” Campbell, Eazy-E, Method Man, Mario Africa, Wyclef Jean, Amiri Baraka, Slick Rick, Larry Flynt, and yes, even MC Hammer, among others.