Friday, July 11, 2008

Always BET On Black

WARNING: This week's songs contain naughty words and roughly 400 repetitions of the racially-charged "N" word. Listener discretion is advised.

I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga - Public Enemy (mp3)
Dignity - The Heavy (mp3)
Blackjack - Everclear (mp3)

Few things are less wise than for a pasty white boy to dare get mixed up in opinionating on something like the Black Entertainment Network. The minute a pasty white boy throws his opinion out into the world, it can be sliced and diced, critiqued and lambasted, because it's as pure a Catch 22 as you can get. Fortunately, this pasty white boy's opinion only goes out to a small handful of people who already know better than to pay attention to his rants, so hopefully I'm in a relatively safe harbor.

If you didn't know, a number of corporations including GM and Pepsi have pulled their ads from BET's afternoon programs. Their action is the result of protests, chiefly from a group called Enough is Enough that is trying to fight the negative stereotyping of African-Americans in our media. There's more sex, booty-shakin' and gangsta threads in two hours of afternoon BET programming than there are holes in George Bush's logic.

Enough is Enough makes an admirable gesture made all the more admirable for their willingness to take on one of their own in the BET. Although Viacom-owned (read: overseen by rich honkeys), the folks at the top of the BET ladder are most decidedly black and have been the target of some scathing critiques, including Aaron McGruder, creator of The Boondocks (early part of the linked YouTube clip includes an example of this).

(Side Note: Aaron McGruder's sense of humor is so harsh it makes late-model Bloom County and Outland read like Family Circus. Boondocks can be so harsh, in fact, that it's often just not funny. But I admire the dude for channeling some serious and righteous fury into a cartoon.)

The damned if ya do or don't part of this is, BET isn't losing any of the advertising from these corporations. They're still paying BET exactly the same amounts as before, but their ads are now going to different time slots. Why the half-assed protest? Because the minute these big white corporations pull all their money from Black Entertainment Television -- no matter that they would claim it's in the interest of quashing stereotypes, no matter that a group of black activists are in full support -- they're opening themselves up to accusations of racism.

So BET isn't losing a penny in this, and they'll never have to face the level of scrutiny for their misdeeds that Don Imus in his goober cowboy hat will receive for his comments, in spite of the fact that, without question, the shit BET shovels is swallowed by more people and does far more damage than Imus ever could.
I can't even pretend to be in touch with my Inner Brotha. I learned more about race relations in high school from one CD -- Public Enemy's Fear of a Black Planet -- than I learned the previous 17 years of my life (OK, without Spike Lee's Do the Right Thing, I'd never have known about Fear of a Black Planet, so I owe that movie a good bit as well).

Mine has been an existence of cultural cluelessness, although I've always hoped for the best and tried to minimize whatever racist tendencies I've witnessed in myself or those around me. I'm not one of the gajillions of stupid white people who starts any sentence with "I'm not a racist, but..." Those words always seem to preceed an extremely racist comment. How could it not? The entire reason for the existence of those five words is to grant the user carte blanche (or should I say "carte black"?) to utter inappropriate opinions or observations.

It's a shame The Cosby Show is so under-appreciated, as is Fat Albert, for that matter. Bill Cosby is proof, to me anyway, that even a philandering perv can have some seriously righteous causes and make positive cultural waves, often in spite of himself (see: Bill Clinton).

But Bill Cosby, Public Enemy, Spike Lee... these are influences long past, relics of previous iterations of race relations. Recently, it's either become easier to avoid these kinds of cultural awakenings, or they're just not as powerful as they used to be. I've never seen a Tyler Perry movie. I've purchased maybe two dozen R+B or HipHop albums in my entire life. Our culture will have a hard time exorcising BET's demons when so few of the other networks seem willing to step up to the plate and make a legitimate and compelling drama or sitcom revolving around black people. Is The Great Debaters really as powerful as Glory was 20 years ago?

To be fair, it's difficult to sound the alarms too loudly when our most bankable movie star is black, our most influential TV personality is black, our most esteemed athlete is black, and we're on the verge of electing our first black President. The existence of four supremely successful people doesn't magically erase racism from our culture, but it sure as hell buffers one's righteous fury, especially if you're a clueless pasty optimistic white boy.

One day, pasty white people and black people with a variety of melanin levels will have the ability to sit down together and calmly discuss misconceptions, ignorance, opinions, and observations without the dreaded fear that the discussion will end with the two sides feeling assaulted or more distant. I'll probably be dead by then, but I'll keep my eyes open just in case.  

"I Don't Wanna Be Called Yo Niga" is off Public Enemy's fourth album, Apocalypse 91... Public Enemy Strikes Black. "Dignity" is off The Heavy's only album thus far, Great Vengeance and Furious Fire. "Blackjack" is off Everclear's 2003 album, Slow Motion Daydream. All are available on iTunes or's mp3 site.


jbradburn said...

Billy - did you ever watch the Wire? They actually show some of it on BET.

Part of the problem w/ our current culture is that we have this "You can't judge a man until you've walked a mile in his mocassins" perspective.

If you want to get an idea about the problems facing the black community, just download some "softcore" rap from Jay-Z or Kanye West. Watch the reaction to the "Jena 6" - then watch your local news and see the parade of young black men being murdered by young black men.

I like rap and hip-hop (right now my ipod is playing Biggie.) I was exposed to it in 4th grade and have liked it ever since. Of course, when I prepare my playlist that I'll play in front of mixed company - I'm pretty much limited in what I can select due to the incredibly graphic language of some of the best artists. The worst part - the language is unnecessary...because in 90% of the cases, lyrics don't matter - it's the music and the delivery of the lyrics.

I'm just trying to figure out how a community is going to overcome these conditions until said community as a whole starts treating the injustices they see every day like they did the Jena 6.

jennifer said...

Hands down, the most educational class I had at UT was my African American culture far as opening my eyes and make me rethink--not only about black culture, but about how people create and respond to culture in general.

We touched on hip-hop culture at the end of the course, but not nearly as much as I would have liked, and my professor left us with the same kind of questions. For something that really started out as groups of inner city young people taking the reins back on their identity--defining from within rather than let a wider culture dictate who they were--it has evolved into something that divides African Americans, as you point out.

I'm an interested observer on this subject, but don't really have opinions one way or another. The lesson I get is that kids need far more of learning how to analyze the media critically, so that they question what they're being fed, who's doing the feeding and why, and to always always follow the money trail.

Bob said...

I agree that The Wire is very wise in its understanding of culture and clash, within and without.