Black Music Month 2012 - Part III: "A Better Best"
June 12, 2012
As we continue our journey into the third week of Black Music Month 2012, this time we find ourselves again examining not only our musical history, but also our culture and ongoing struggle. Our music is part of and directly affected by that struggle. So in June 2012 we again ask the question, ‘How far has Black America come in its struggle for equality?”
If growing political power and economic gains of a new middle class are the measure, then some progress has been made. However, in a year when the first Black president is running for re-election, the only other African-American bidding for even a top statewide office is Maryland state Senator C. Anthony Muse.Â Since the momentous 2008 election, there has been no great flowering of Black political life or renaissance in Black political leadership.
If the spreading blight of the urban poor and lingering smoldering of white prejudice and discrimination are the measure, then the goal is still a ways off. Through it all, our music has lasted. It has lasted because it was not just good. It was beyond good. It was “a better best.”
Races other than African-Americans, of course, season the ethnic mix of America. Each group has its own tale to tell. But the history of one of America’s largest minorities is the longest and most bitter tasting; other immigrants now benefit from the victories won by Blacks in the ‘60s and ‘70s.Â Looking back on that tumult of time, we find that we can understand and appreciate anew both the civil rights movement and the music.
We realized we're really talking about a musical history of firsts. The spirit of Black music in America grew from ideas of rhythm and improvisation. It started out as a music that was part of a movement that developed as an answer to slavery; but in a broader sense, it was also about the ability of African-Americans to turn the most extreme circumstances into something meaningful, soulful and entertaining.
During this Black Music Month series we have attempted to seize the opportunity to raise the level of consciousness regarding the many contributions that African-Americans have made to the music business and to society.
The Hip-Hop Culture
Speaking of society, every generation comes along and brings with it its culture and its music. Some say that because of the hip-hop culture we are "marching in the wrong direction." In this the third of our current series for Black Music Month 2012, we want to again look at this newest musical generation, hip-hop, and the impact it has had on society in general and radio in particular.
Throughout the history of music business, black music has been associated with artists who have defined the music of their generation, providing a soundtrack for the myriad of social and cultural changes of each decade. Many claim we are now in the hip-hop or rap generation. Perhaps because we have lived with it and understand it better, even if we don't completely agree with it, we fear it less. For that reason, much like hard rock, for some, today's hip-hop has become a "safer reality."
In spite of the notion of diminishing fear, hip-hop's insistent lyrics, aggressive pulse and often no-nonsense overview are still scary for some. We attribute that at least partly to racism and ignorance. The fact is that hip-hop represents a unique subculture and its message often seems very much overstated and misunderstood. This is because much of America in 2012 still harbors a one-dimensional vision of blackness. So naturally, it fails to fully grasp the complex nature of who we really are. And while there are the beginnings of a new candor about our culture the question remains, how did one segment of the African-American community come to represent the whole? The answer unfortunately, is the thought or just the phrase hip-hop still conjures up an image of a semiliterate, hoop-shooting former prison inmate.Â
Unfortunately, Back society itself placed emphasis on that lower caste. This made sense because historically that’s where the vast majority of us were placed; it’s where American society and its laws were designed to keep us. Yet although more doors have opened to us, it's still commonplace for Black leaders to insist on correcting the misconceptions that some whites have little knowledge of, and less interest in, of Black culture, particularly young Black culture.
They have no picture, no concept. Rap is a language they don't speak to and a race of people whose language they don't understand, either. While it's true that many of those who become successful rappers started out in the projects, brought up to be hard because of what they've been through, rap has many forms and much stronger appeal than most give them credit for.
One of the first assumptions the hip-hop generation questions is just how much the language of youth-oriented music matters and that the language of other forms of popular music does not.
The second assumption is that the intentions of music forms such as heavy metal and rap are subversive in ways that the intentions of other forms of popular cultures are not.
Both assumptions are understandable, given the social history of each musical genre. Rap and heavy metal appeal to youth, particularly male youth, who are presumably more impressionable than the adult audience of, say country. If country songs get interpreted more benignly, perhaps it's because they rarely have been enlisted in the cause of generational warfare in the way that rap has. Nonetheless, since America seems on the brink of yet another shouting march over popular music, it seems fair to submit each of these assumptions to more rigorous review: Is it really true that youth-oriented music such as heavy metal and rap represents a special case?
The first assumption, that rock and rap lyrics should be interpreted literally, is one that has been addressed extensively by scholars who study popular music. But their conclusions are equivocal. Popular music lyrics, not surprisingly, seem to track the social mores of the time. A study of more than a thousand songs recently found a strikingly different image of women in songs of the past few years.
For example, in the 1990s and then the decade of the ‘00s, popular rap songs were more than twice as likely to portray women as evil, compared to songs in the 1980s, but only half as likely to depict them as needing a man. These rap songs often lacked the key ingredients necessary for lasting hits -- love lyric integrity.
But regardless of what they lacked, whether these changes create social attitude, particularly among youth, or simply reflect them is up in the air. For one thing, teens simply don't seem to understand what they are listening to most of the time. A recent study found only 14% of college students who heard the most popular hip-hop songs could accurately interpret their true meanings.
The second assumption, that youth-oriented music is somehow more subversive than other music, is even more difficult to evaluate. The language of youth music has stubbornly remained outside of the mainstream since its beginning, with each new generation of performers vying to outdo the last in the level of sexual explicitness.
The history of firsts is also a history of profanity. Profanity in rap lyrics is profoundly cyclical, varying widely from the Middle Ages through the Renaissance and Victorian era, according to the moral temper of each generation. The important thing is that one generation of language catalysts distinguishes itself from its predecessors and that process can take many forms. Some hip-hop artists whose beat is the harsh landscape of urban America reflect a racially polarized society in which cultural heritage is obscured, opportunities limited and social services minimal.
In today's musical environment, with all of the available choices, urban adults have traditionally been a fixed commodity and always brought in a uniquely wide age demographic. That large audience is changing as the median age of the baby boomers population rises. Generation Y'ers and Jones think differently, vote differently, listen to and interpret music differently.
For Urban radio, the answer is that we will have to play some rap songs early, just like the rest of the hits. Yes, we have will have to be careful of the transition songs on either side of the most popular rap hits. But you can‘t ignore them. Black adults, in particular, are impatient. They won't wait for a new song they want to hear. They'll just run to your competition to hear it. Winning in 2012 still means playing all the big hits at the right times and being careful of what you play and say around them.
Progress And Common Sense
In spite of the considerable progress that has been made on some areas of rap music, certainly important musical strides, discrimination still exists in our industries, business and government. Common sense and reality have both been affronted regularly in the anti-discrimination war. Much of this silliness and confusion stems from simple blindness to what a polyglot society is really like. In 2012 our country is still like a patchwork of many sub-societies (based on race, ethnicity, religion, national origin, education, cultural taste and language).
Every group naturally tends to exclude outsiders under certain circumstances. But this need not inevitably conflict with the achievement of a society that does not shut anybody off from any reasonable path of opportunity. The notion of an open pluralistic society becomes a contradiction in terms, unless there is some common sense to limit both its openness and pluralism. To define that limit is difficult. Perhaps it can be fixed only case by case, as are conflicts between equally valid constitutional rights.
A grain of sense needs to be applied to the current situation. Too many excursions into absurdity will achieve more than amusement; they could make the whole cause of fair play seem silly. But fair play in a sense is what we need to be all about. The question then becomes "fair to whom?" And the answer is "fair to those who deserve it and recognize that we are a different breed." We think different. We act different and we live different. That's because many of us tend to be cut from a different cloth: a fabric that outsiders often simply do not understand. Not because they don't want to, but because we live in two different worlds.
This patchwork story holds many lessons for us today. It reminds us that history does not just happen. It does not unfold naturally like the seasons or rise and fall like the tides. History is made by people, who bend and shape the present to create the future.
Today, in 2012, despite what you may hear or read elsewhere, fewer African-Americans are "marching in the wrong direction." Instead, we have accepted hip-hop as a music format and we are moving toward seeing ourselves as we really are and demanding that others see us as individuals, not as shards of a degraded monolith.
Another significant change that is taking place, which affects Black music and radio in 2012, is the growing use and better understanding of how to apply music research for Black radio. For a long time even the most successful and well-run Black radio stations depended on the ears and minds of the program and music directors to make the decisions on what songs were to be added and played. Until very recently, Urban radio was looking for answers beyond just calling record stores and processing requests to determine what songs were selling. Often they discovered what they already knew -- some songs that did not sell well at the retail level were still favorites among radio listeners. And the requests lines in many markets were totally controlled and dominated by 15-year-old girls. We need to also know what adults wanted to hear. So research became a reality.
In the beginning of research for Urban radio, as you might imagine, there was no budget. You would think that given Urban radio's rapid rise in many major cities that the owners and managers would have been anxious to increase their knowledge and ratings by making available a research budget to get some answers. That was simply not the case.
The reasons given were predictable and varied, but most often the simple reason given was that the general managers at the time had no frame of reference for making a decision to increase their programming budgets to allow for even some basic research.
Those of us who were programming at the time had no other choice but to tap into the knowledge bank of some of the white broadcasters. They were putting together groups of people who represented their core audience and asking them all sorts of basic questions about their listening habits. They would recruit these respondents from newspaper ads and pay them between $20 and $25 apiece for their opinions on music, air personalities, news, etc. Then they would process the results of this information and decide on future programming strategies.
We figured if it worked for Top 40, it should work for us, too. After all, the audience we were serving was not that far from Top 40. In fact, much of the music we were playing turned out to be songs that eventually wound up on the playlists of the nation's leading Top 40 stations.
Eventually, toward the end of the '80s, we were able to convince our owners and managers that research had its place in Black radio, as it did in other formats. As a result, Black radio stations that were researching their music and applying the results of that research properly improved, and Black radio and music both took a giant step forward.
Soon research and all the obstacles echoed those faced by early Black music and radio pioneers became penetratingly real. The ground had been broken. In spite of all the discussions, setbacks, and barriers, Black music grew into an effective medium of expression, fulfilling an important niche in history.
The need to embody African-American music and radio history brought about a kind of Urban magic, one which heralded changes. Today, Urban radio seeks something with its own valid purpose, something far more meaningful than simply becoming a jukebox that occasionally pays bills and gives away money. Today, Black radio seeks to involve its listeners with the same excitement, spirit and struggle which motivated its originators.
Naturally, the originators were involved in the four decades before the one that witnessed marches on the nation's capitol demanding civil rights for African-Americans and protesting the war in Vietnam; a new kind of struggle was taking place, beneath the airwaves. With it came a new kind of pride. Perhaps more than anything else, this pride instilled coherence into the colorful, lively and often chaotic African-American characters that played a difficult but necessary role. Some have said that the legacy of that struggle "is not in the facts but in the mythology, the mystery, the pairing of black music and radio."
Obviously, the two were intertwined. The music came first, but once the music found its way to the radio, the whole picture changed. For Black radio, there was always a wide gap between rhetoric and reality. Call it a conflict between the past and the future, growth and no growth, experience and the lack of experience. Focusing their binoculars on the future, those standing on the promontory will tell you that they saw a world vastly different from the one that exists now.
This struggle, in turn, played a profound role in the shaping the contemporary American social and political conscience. In its quest for wider acceptance, radio listeners and music buyers recognized the unique qualities that make Black music special: the earthiness, the emphasis on vocal expression over technical gimmick, the emotional release.
Despite its rise in popularity and influence, Black music and radio both faced many obstacles in their struggle for recognition and freedom of expression. This struggle, in turn, played a profound role in shaping the contemporary American social and political conscience. The racial disparities of privilege and power in our cities were dramatically revealed by the parallel emergence of gentrifying yuppies and an entrenched underclass.
It was an underclass that accepted and embraced hip-hop, circumstance and timing. They all became part of an exciting history of firsts and bests. They may have given some a head start over others, but America was changing and soon, especially for the music industry, the challenges and formulas for success would change, too. Embedded in them are the answers to the puzzle of proven realities. And so some of our most talented music makers were enlisted. They took full advantage of the new technology, added a little texture, a little passion and a lot of love.
The combination made their best â€¦ just a little bit better.Â At a time when we’re celebrating all that is excellent about our music, we have to keep in mind that these are just tools.Â And we have to be prepared to combine these tools with courage. Courage comes in different packages and speaks different languages. There is a courage called defiance and one called perseverance. There is a courage that shouts and one that whispers. We must sharpen these tools and find new ways of using this courage to create “a better best.”
(Next Week, Part IV)