In an old video of the always brash Nina Simone, the iconic artist responds confidently to an interviewer’s question about her work saying: “I think what you’re trying to ask is why am I so insistent upon giving out to them (her black fans) that black-ness, that black power.”
“I have no choice,” she continues. “In the first place, to me, we are the most beautiful creatures in the whole world, black people.”
Simone was part of a corps of black musicians who harnessed the power of their art to champion self-love, race pride, social consciousness and social responsibility.
For artists like Simone and Curtis Mayfield, whose music was called “The Soundtrack of the Civil Rights Movement,” black popular music was a vehicle for social change, a catalyst of empowerment.
Today, however, certain prominent elements of black popular music have become warped and quite possibly destructive.
Perhaps one of the most recent and important examples of this shift in black popular music is the rapper Dwayne “Lil Wayne” Carter’s contribution to the remix of Future’s track “Karate Chop.” In the new version of the song Lil Wayne compares a sex act to the infamous murder of 14-year-old Emmett Till, a black teenager who was tortured and killed by two white men in 1955 for allegedly whistling at a white woman.
Lil Wayne’s lyrics are as follows: “pop a lot of pain pills/Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels/Beat that p—y up like Emmett Till.”
The lyrics demonstrate Lil Wayne’s ignorance of a pivotal moment in the history of his own people, his acute lack of self-awareness, and dare I say, his misogyny.
Airickca Gordon-Taylor, Emmett Till’s cousin put it best in her comments to the Associated Press when she said the following: “the images that we're fortunate to have (of his open casket) that 'Jet' published, they demonstrate the ugliness of racism. So to compare a woman's anatomy — the gateway of life — to the ugly face of death, it just destroyed me.”
And this isn't the first time that contemporary black artists with massive followings have openly disparaged their own people. There is Nicki Minaj’s reference to natural-haired black women as “nappy-headed hoes” in “Did It On’em” and Lil Wayne’s proclamation that a “beautiful black woman” would “look better red" in "Right Above It." Lyrics like these and Weezy’s Emmett Till line, though seemingly inconsequential, fly in the face of black music’s tradition of activism and of empowering people throughout the African diaspora.
At one point at time artists dedicated themselves to creating bodies of work that challenged ingrained social narratives about the supposed inferiority, ugliness and incompetence of black people.
James Brown literally shouted “I’m black and I’m proud” in the face of racism and dared society to say otherwise. In a blend of harmonic falsettos The Impressions crafted an anthem that was both celebratory and restless as it urged our community to "keep on pushing” for progress.
In the heat of the struggle for black liberation Sam Cooke implored black folks to take heart despite the daunting obstacles before them, for change would most assuredly come. Simone famously penned “Young, Gifted, and Black” and “Mississippi G—m” songs that unapologetically declared the joy of being black and the urgency black youth felt in the struggle for black freedom.
These entertainers effectively delivered entertainment and inspiration as evidenced by the popularity of their conscious music. The Impressions’ single “Keep on Pushing” proved to be a Top 40 hit while James Brown’s “Say It Loud (I’m Black and I’m Proud)” reached number ten on the Billboard Hot 100.
The function of songs like "A Change is Gonna Come" was to motivate or sustain the listener’s involvement in social movements and to communicate a shared experience of oppression in a prejudiced society.
Brown, Cooke, and Simone cultivated pride in the listener’s blackness and identity through their music.
Today, however, it seems that black artists like Lil Wayne and Nicki Minaj actively seek to do the opposite.
I have never expected Lil Wayne to be the next Harry Belafonte or Curtis Mayfield. I am not looking to him or Nicki Minaj to provide leadership in the struggle for racial equality.
I do, however, expect them to be mindful of the power of their words. As a major player in the entertainment industry, I expect Lil Wayne to be aware that he has a cultural platform that touches millions of people. For better or worse, popular music and media profoundly influence many people’s belief systems, values, and worldview.
Black teenagers, for instance, could very well internalize and carry into adulthood the false belief that light skin is more beautiful than dark skin after hearing a taste maker like Lil Wayne proclaim that it is. A black girl with natural hair could begin to believe that she is ugly after hearing Nicki Minaj say that girls like her need “a perminator.” And for the white, Asian, and Latino youth enamored with hip-hop music who hear Lil Wayne say “beat that p—y like Emmett Till,” to them Till’s important legacy is trivialized. He is no longer a sacred martyr but an empty and vulgar metaphor, a punch line that works its way into casual conversation for comedic effect.
The influence that contemporary entertainers have is great power and as the saying goes, with great power comes great responsibility.
To my surprise it was the Reverend Jesse Jackson who gave an apt assessment of this phenomenon.
"We want artists who have considerable power to use their power to uplift and redirect," Jackson said to the Associated Press.
"It's not a matter of free speech, it's also speech that matters....These artists have culturally transforming power. Either they hurt or they help."
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Assita Camara is a writer residing somewhere below the Mason-Dixon. She writes about culture at her blog The Afro-Modernist and crafts prose about culture, herstory, and life at her philosophie. You can follow her tweets about music, poetry, and technology at @assitawrites