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Remixing the Image: A Tale of Two Chains

By: Sage Salvo

“I can’t say I’m smart, [be]cause ya’ll will run away..”Nas ‘Let There Be Light’

 “The United States is a profoundly anti-intellectual culture and civilization… Americans love intelligence but fear intellect.” These words from Dr. Cornel West, during a ‘Dialogue on Race and Church’ in 2008 at Eastern University, dovetail well with the opening quote from legendary rapper, Nas. Having an ivy league professor and a hip-hop artist both express an understanding of how our country reacts to intellect is very telling of the social order of our day. If the prevailing belief of young people is that they must quell their intellectual curiosities to quench their burning social desires, then not only is our very democracy endangered but also human authenticity itself is. 

The question of authenticity has plagued the Hip-hop generation since we ushered in the ‘Gangsta Rap’ era of Hip-hop. With ‘Gangsta Rap’ our artists were required to be ‘Real’. If you rapped about the prison-industrial complex then you actually had to have gone through prison. If you rapped about the various murders in your neighborhood then you actually had to have pulled the trigger. So much for the role of the ‘Griot’. Hip-hop has been mired in pseudo-artistry ever since.

Rap and EducationThis blog post will be the first in our series of examining rappers through a more authentic lens. We’re going to discuss rappers as scholars and classroom successes, not the images portrayed or forced onto the public. You’ll read about Big Sean, J. Cole, The Roots, Lil Wayne, Will Smith, Little Brother, Common, Kendrick Lamar, Jay Z, Ras Kass, Rick Ross, and Bun B to name a few. Too oftentimes, the image of the rapper is one of an uneducated low-class social rebel incapable of sophisticated thought, critique, analysis, or educational success. In essence, the overriding perception is that rappers are not respectable artists.  

Speaking of respectable, consider this not-so unlikely pair; rap star 2 Chainz and the NFL Seattle Seahawks cornerback, Richard Sherman. I call this segment: A Tale of Two Chains. Through this ‘dredded’ pair, we’ll look at the issue of being true to your academic and intellectual histories as well as embracing thoughtfulness and intellect.

2Chainz-WordsLiiveTauheed Epps is 2 Chainz. In 1995, Mr. Epps graduated 2nd in his class from North Clayton High School in College Park, GA aka he’s from ATL. In high school he was a basketball standout. His college career record is not as publicly lucid as it could be but what’s known is that he played at least one season at Alabama State University on their basketball team and then transferred to Tuskegee University. Tauheed’s first studio album is entitled ‘Based on a T.R.U. Story’. However, strangely silent from his T.R.U. Story album is any narrative about his true life. Quite turned-up with bravado, street imagery, and submissive women, his album is mute on the diligence required to excel in school and college. Enough social media research will reveal that Mr. Epps was largely a mystery during his college years and was perhaps busy preparing for a rap career as the founding member of the rap duo ‘PLAYAZ circle’ which eventually signed under another ATL rap star, Ludacris in the early 2000’s. So why is Tauheed aka 2 Chainz aka Tity Boi so hush-hush about his scholastic beginnings?

Let’s flip the coin. In 2005, Richard Sherman graduated from Dominguez High School in Compton, aka he’s from South Central LA, where he was also a Salutatorian (second in his class). As an All-American in track and field, Mr. Sherman earned a scholarship to attend Stanford University where he ran track, played football, and graduated by earning a B.A. in Communications. What’s interesting is he used an additional year of eligibility to begin work on a Masters degree at Stanford.

What’s most interesting is to contrast Richard and Tauheed.

When ‘the post-game interview heard round the world’ went viral, the NFL Seattle Seahawks star cornerback became an overnight media sensation. Mr. Sherman received several opportunities to tell his ‘TRUE Story’ on national television via various interviews. What I’m most proud of, is he didn’t shrink from his orientation as an intellectual athlete. During an ESPN interview, he let Skip Bayless know, through no uncertain words, that he was smarter than Skip! Richard spoke explicitly about his studies at Stanford and his background as a hard-worker in sports and in school. He was authentically and unapologetically, himself.

Taken together, Tauheed and Richard, represent two separate links in a chain of social events that inform the public about the accurate image of young black rappers and athletes. So what is it about rappers like Mr. Epps that warrants a need to ‘play dumb’ while athletes like Mr. Sherman are free to be true to themselves?

The answer is essentially understood through knowing ‘who is in control of the brand’ which is a Marketing function. The Marketers for Hip-hop music and the NFL have diametrically opposed goals. The NFL, sinking deeper in image issues, needs intelligent ambassadors right now to save it. President Obama recently quipped that he wouldn’t want his [fictitious] son to play football. The NFL has long enjoyed the public support and success of ‘the apathetic dumb athlete’. But the operators of brand management for hip-hop still don’t want to ‘hurt the nigga brand’. Why? Because as the NFL knows and as Dr. Cornel West and Nas outlined at the top of this post, intellect and social inclusion are mutually exclusive in American culture.

nyc social unrest So where does this brand-image in hip-hop come from anyway? One answer is the failing school system origins of hip-hop. In the early 70’s, NYC was a geography point of severe social unrest. Social programs were cut, the city was bankrupt, and schools were abysmal. Ergo, many students chose not to participate in public education and of course couldn’t afford private education. The result is a cohort of urban artists who were high school dropouts. But over the past 40 years, the poetics in Hip-hop have evolved right along with its artists.

 Hip hoppers have had flashes of deep civic engagement before with the ‘Stop the Violence’ movement in the 90’s and the P. Diddy led ‘Vote or Die’ campaign in 2004. The potential is there. But without a commitment to authenticity, our potential will never be realized. Without embracing the truthfulness of our intellectual propensities, our genre is doomed. 

Later, in the same discussion at Eastern University, Dr. Cornel West said; “America loves intelligence but hates intellect. Intelligence is a manipulative faculty. It approaches a situation and evaluates to find what the results will be. But intellect, evaluates the evaluation! Looking at the assumptions and the deeper presuppositions and the framework and the paradigm and the backdrop… which is Socratic!” 

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Hip-hop has this Socratic potential but must be brutally honest with itself. Our artists have to decide to what degree do they continue to trade their personal truths for personal profits. To what extend will you embolden the ignorance of the youth simply to employ more extravagance for you?

“You can only be destroyed by believing that you really are what the white world calls a nigger. I tell you this because I love you, and please don’t you ever forget it.” – James Baldwin

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