We Still Wear The Mask
By Dr.William Jelani Cobb
We could have known that it would come to this way back in 1896. That
was the year that Paul Lawrence Dunbar dropped a jewel for the ages,
telling the world that "we wear the mask that grins and lies." The
poet's point was that beneath the camouflage of subservient smiles,
black folks of the Jim Crow era were hiding a powder keg of other
emotions, waiting patiently for the chance to detonate. The thing is,
Dunbar never got the chance to spit bars with 50 Cent or throw in a
guest collabo on a Mobb Deep album. If he had, then he would've known
that grins and lies were only half the story.
These days, camouflage is the new black. Glance at hip hop for less
than a second and it becomes clear that the music operates on a single
hope: that if the world mistakes kindness for weakness it can also be
led to confuse meanness with strength. That principle explains why
there is a permanent reverence for the thug within the music; it is
why there is a murderer's grit and a jailhouse tat peering back at you
from the cover of damn near any CD you picked up in the last five
years. But what hip hop can't tell you, the secret that it would just
as soon take to its deathbed is that it this urban bravado is a guise,
a mask, a head-fake to shake the reality of fear and powerlessness in
America. Hip hop will never admit that our assorted thugs and gangstas
are not the unbowed symbol of resistance to marginalization, but the
most complacent and passive products of it.
We wear the mask that scowls and lies.
You could see which way the wind was blowing way in the early 90s when
Dr. Dre was being ripped off by white Ruthless Records CEO Jerry
Heller, and nonetheless got his street cred up by punching and kicking
Dee Barnes, a black woman journalist, down a flight of stairs. In this
light, hip hop's obsessive misogyny makes a whole lot more sense. It
is literally the logic of domestic violence. A man is abused by a
larger society, but there are consequences to striking back at the
source of his problems. So he transfers his anger to an acceptable
outlet – the women and children in his own household, and by
extension, all the black people who constitute his own community.
Nothing better illustrates that point than the recent Oprah Debacle.
Prior to last month, if you'd heard that a group of rappers had teamed
up to attack a billionaire media mogul you would think that hip hop
had finally produced a moment of collective pride on par with the
black power fists of the 1968 Olympics. But nay, just more blackface.
In the past two months, artists as diverse as Ludacris, 50 Cent and
Ice Cube have attacked Oprah Winfrey for her alleged disdain for hip
hop. It's is a sad but entirely predictable irony that the one
instance in which hip hop's reigning alpha males summon the testicular
fortitude to challenge someone more powerful and wealthy than they
are, they choose to go after a black woman.
The whole set up was an echo of some bad history. Two centuries ago,
professional boxing got its start in America with white slaveholders
who pitted their largest slaves against those from competing
plantations. Tom Molineaux. First black heavyweight champion came up
through the ranks breaking the bones of other slaves and making white
men rich. After he'd broken enough of them, he was given his freedom.
The underlying ethic was clear: an attack on the system that has made
a slave of you will cost you your life, but an attack on another black
person might just be the road to emancipation.
The basis for this latest bout of black-on-black pugilism was Oprah's
purported stiff-arming of Ludacris during an appearance on her show
with the cast of the film Crash. Ludacris later complained that the
host had made an issue of lyrics she saw as misogynistic. Cube jumped
into the act whining that Oprah has had all manner of racist flotsam
on her show but has never invited him to appear – proof, in his mind,
that she has an irrational contempt for hip hop. Then 50 threw in his
two cents with a claim that Oprah's criticism of hip hop was an
attempt to win points with her largely white, middle class audience.
All told, she was charged her with that most heinous of hip hop's
But before we press charges, isn't 50 the same character who openly
expressed his love for GW Bush as a fellow "gangsta" and demanded that
the black community stop criticizing how he handled Hurricane Katrina?
Compare that to multiple millions that Oprah has disseminated to our
communities (including building homes for the Katrina families,
financing HIV prevention in South Africa and that $5 million she
dropped on Morehouse College alone) and the idea of an ex-crack dealer
challenging her commitment to black folk becomes even more surreal.
In spite of – or, actually, as a result of -- his impeccable gangsta
credentials, 50 basically curtsied before a President who stayed on
vacation for three days while black bodies floated down the New
Orleans streets. No wonder it took a middle-class preppie with an
African name and no criminal record to man-up and tell the whole world
that "George Bush don't care about black folks." No wonder David
Banner – a rapper who is just a few credits short of a Master's Degree
in social work -- spearheaded hip hop's Katrina relief concerts, not
any of his thug counterparts who are eternally shouting out the hoods
they allegedly love.
The 50 Cent, whose music is a panoramic vision on black-on-black
homicide, and who went after crosstown rival Ja Rule with the
vengeance of a dictator killing off a hated ethnic minority did
everything but tap dance when Reebok told him to dismantle his porn
production company or lose his lucrative sneaker endorsement deal.
But why single out 50? Hip hop at-large was conspicuously silent when
Bush press secretary Tony Snow (a rapper's alias if ever there was
one) assaulted hip hop in terms way more inflammatory than Oprah's
"Take a look at the idiotic culture of hip-hop and whaddya have? You
have people glorifying failure. You have a bunch of gold-toothed hot
dogs become millionaires by running around and telling everybody else
that they oughtta be miserable failures and if they're really lucky
maybe they can get gunned down in a diner sometime, like Eminem's old
(We're still awaiting an outraged response from the thug community for
that one.) Rush Limbaugh has blamed hip hop for everything short of
the Avian flu but I can't recall a single hip hop artist who has gone
after him lyrically, publicly or physically. Are we seeing a theme
It's worth noting that Ludacris did not devote as much energy to Bill
O'Reilly -- who attacked his music on his show regularly and caused
him to lose a multi-million dollar Pepsi endorsement – as he did to
criticizing Oprah who simply stated that she was tired of hip hop's
misogyny. Luda was content to diss O'Reilly on his next record and go
about his business. Anyone who heard the interview that Oprah gave on
Power 105.1 in New York knew she was speaking for a whole generation
of hip hop heads when she said that she loved the music, but she
wanted the artists to exercise some responsibility. But this response
is not really about Oprah, or ultimately about hip hop, either. It is
about black men once again choosing a black woman as the safest target
for their aggression and even one with a billion dollars is still fair
Of all their claims, the charge that Oprah sold out to win points with
her white audience is the most tragically laughable. The truth is that
her audience's white middle-class kids exert waaay more influence over
50 and Cube than their parents do over Oprah. I long ago tired of
Cube, a thirty-something successful director, entrepreneur and married
father of three children making records about his aged recollections
of a thug's life. The gangsta theme went cliché eons ago, but Cube, 50
and a whole array of their musical peers lack either the freedom or
the vision to talk about any broader element of our lives. The reality
is that the major labels and their majority white fan base will not
accept anything else from them.
And there we have it again: more masks, more lies.
It is not coincidental that hip hop has made Ni@$a the most common
noun in popular music but you have almost never heard any certified
thug utter the word cracker, ofay, honky, peckerwood, wop, dago,
guinea, kike or any other white-oriented epithet. The reason for that
is simple: Massa ain't havin' it. The word fag, once a commonplace
derisive in the music has all but disappeared from hip hop's
vocabulary. (Yes, these thugs fear the backlash from white gays too.)
And bitch is still allowed with the common understanding that the term
is referring to black women. The point is this: debasement of black
communities is entirely acceptable – required even – by hip hop's
predominantly white consumer base.
We have lived enough history to know better by now – to know that
gangsta is Sonny Liston, the thug icon of his era, threatening to kill
Cassius Clay but completely impotent when it came to demanding that
his white handlers stop stealing his money. Gangsta is the black men
at the Parchman Farm prison in Mississippi who beat the civil rights
workers Fannie Lou Hamer and Annell Ponder into bloody unconsciousness
because their white wardens told them to. Gangsta is Michael Ervin,
NFL bad boy remaining conspicuously mute on Monday Night Football
while Limbaugh dissed Donovan McNabb as an Affirmative Action athlete.
Gangsta is Bigger Thomas with dilated pupils and every other
sweaty-palmed black boy who saw method acting and an attitude as his
ticket out of the ghetto.
Surely our ancestors' struggles were about more than creating
millionaires who could care less about us and then tolerating their
violent disrespect out of a hunger for black success stories. Surely
we are not so desperate for heroes that we uphold cardboard icons
because they throw good glare. There's more required than that. The
weight of history demands more than simply this. Surely we understand
that these men are acting out an age-old script. Taking the Tom
Molineaux route. Spitting in the wind and breaking black bones. Hoping
to become free.
Or, at least a well-paid slave.
(UPDATE: Addition from the Golden Girl)
By Dr. Cornel West (about Hip Hop, entertainers, the church, GWB, and the Black community in general)
On T.D. Jakes:
"I had to talk to my dear brother T.D. Jakes. Yeah, we had a dialogue, y'all. Went out to dinner spoke four hours before we ordered salad. I love my dear brother. He has enriched my life. He really has. But I told him, 'Brother, I think you lack political courage.' He said 'Oh, brother West why would you say something like that to me? I said because 'I think it's true.' Interaction with the right wing televangelists is not a healthy thing for those who love justice. "
On George Bush:
"Don't hate the man. Don't demonize the man. Talk about the effects and consequences of his policy."
On Some Megachurches:
"You go to some of these churches today. You see two ATM's before you see a cross."
On Minister Farrakhan:
"I love Minister Farrakhan. We just lovingly disagree. He has a deep love for black people. He's under death threats everyday. I just don't agree with all of his vision. I'm part of the King legacy. I'm going with Jesus. I've experienced something."
On the Golden Rule:
"You can't love Jesus if you don't love your neighbor. Every neighbor -- not qualified by your finite mind. You know how some Christians are. They love their neighbors but not Negroes, Jews, gays, lesbians, Catholics. Everybody but your friends. You can't love your neighbor if you don't have a loathing for injustice."
On Materialism in the Black Middle Class:
"One of the worst things the older generation told young folk: be successful, be successful as they broke the back of American apartheid and Jim and Jane Crow. Be successful. Be successful. They begin to think freedom is really about material choice. It's about personal security. No! Who told you that lie? It's about self respect and self regard and self determination. It's about service to others."
On Universal Poverty:
"We got white, poor brothers and sisters in Appalachia. I'm a Christian. I love everybody."
On Bill Cosby¦
"My dear brother Bill Cosby who I love greatly. Comic genius but your language of correction must be informed by a language of compassion or they won't hear it that way. I know you love them but make sure you put that love upfront when you talk about irresponsibility."
On Oprah Winfrey ...
"Embrace Oprah's entrepreneurial genius but ask for accountability in terms of her political courage."
On Kanye West¦
Even Kanye West -- thank God for him -- gets real nervous speaking the truth from his soul. Say it, brother! You say it well in the studio. George Bush does not put a high priority on poor folks, especially black folks. Go on and say it with conviction. We got evidence."
On 50 Cent¦
"Here comes a brother of infinite value, he calls himself two quarters, half a dollar, 50 Cent.Kanye's wrong about that. Kanye's wrong about that.' What are you saying 50 Cent? George Bush is in love with poor people? George Bush's policy highlights black people? C'mon 50 Cent. We know you got nine bullets in you. We praying for you. Why don't you speak the truth?"