Middle age has been disturbing for people of the baby-boomer rock-and-roll generation, waiting with dread for the day when Mick Jagger wanders on stage with a walker. Rock music of the Rolling Stones vintage is now in danger of being seen as Muzak for retirees. You can certainly hear it at the supermarket.
Rap music and the hip-hop culture is about 25 years younger than rock, and believe it or not, it's happening there, too. Today's children are now beginning to look askance at their parents for liking "old school" rap rather than today's truly toxic stuff. The Washington Post captured a bit of this horror from Generation X when Post reporter Lonnae O'Neal Parker wrote a piece for the Sunday "Outlook" section titled "Why I Gave Up on Hip-Hop."
Born in 1967 in the middle-class southern suburbs of Chicago, Parker described the liberating nature of the early rap tunes for young blacks. She recalled getting in a musical shouting match on the school bus with the white students, "transfixed by our newfound ability to drown out their nullification." At first it was a vehicle for racial pride, but then it all changed. Rap was transformed into a musical ghetto for gangsters and pimps, and Parker sadly concluded, " I could no longer nod my head to the misogyny or keep time to the vapid materialism of another rap song."
In raising her two daughters, Parker had one very definitive image in mind capturing what's wrong with today's dominant trend in hip hop. At the 2003 MTV Video Music Awards, rappers Snoop Dogg and 50 Cent added pomp to the song "P.I.M.P." by featuring black women on leashes being walked onstage. This past August, she added, MTV-2 aired an episode of the cartoon "Where My Dogs At," which had Snoop Dogg again leading two black bikini-clad women around on leashes. She explained: "They squatted on their hands and knees, scratched themselves and defecated. The president of the network, a black woman, defended this as satire."
And the audience, mostly teenaged boys and girls, thought this was wonderful.
To protest the glamorization of the gangsta, itching to kill, loaded with bling, and treating every woman like a subhuman plaything, Parker and her friends protested, including the printing of T-shirts for girls with messages like "You look better without the bullet holes" and "Put the guns down" and "You want this? Graduate!"
It's easy for parents to get discouraged. But in an online discussion on washingtonpost.com, Parker argued that her loving, determined, "old school" parental pressure on her daughters is more than a match for peer pressure and the popular culture. "I just keep playing my music, reinforcing my lessons, repeating my rhymes. My kids will hear whatever on the streets, but not in their momma's house. Ultimately, it's my voice they'll hear in their heads until they grow old. Ultimately it's my voice that's more powerful."
A few days later, the Post added another reporter's voice to the mix, another example of a black woman who loves the music, but rejects the reigning message. But Natalie Hopkinson saw it in a different, more racially conspiratorial light. She wrote about how she reacted in horror when a middle-aged white female professor of hers said her five-year-old son Maverick was a fine boy and added, "I just can't wait to watch him grow up and see his wonderful career as a rap star."
The horror was understandable, but the edge of paranoia creeped into the article. Hopkinson didn't think the remark was innocent, but "confirmation" of a "conspiracy to destroy black boys," citing an author named Jawanza Kunjufu. (His book by that title is harsher. He calls it "genocide.")
Seeing in a seemingly innocent and admiring remark a desire to keep black men oppressed - or worse, dead - is jaw-dropping. Like Parker, Hopkinson wants to do a balancing act, to raise her son to be proud of black culture without buying "the Foul-Mouth Hip Hop Star CD." But her hostility against whites is nothing like Parker's acknowledgment of a cultural problem raging across the races. Parker noted that white children are just as likely to subsidize and memorize the fouler brands of today's hip-hop.
It might be controversial for mothers to fight for their daughters and their sons from a culture that glamorizes garbage. But fighting against the grain of music that places the stamp of "cool" on violent crime, greed, and misogyny is laudable work for mothers and fathers, black and white.