by: Sage Salvo
From an appeal standpoint, Hip-hop is the new Rock & Roll. Well, it has been for the past 20 years actually. I’m sure you’ve seen it; the brash young men enlarged through the lime light as pseudo-musicians prostrated with electric guitars on stages. Replete in that scene, circa the 1980’s, were the barely comprehensible song lyrics being played through heavy metal sonic compositions that emboldened already half naked young women to bare-all in a mosh-pit. Rock and Roll stars like ‘The Bad Boys from Boston’ aka Aerosmith were urban legends in their own niche cache in mainstream America. These dudes were the ‘Billy bad-asses’ of their musical time. And Billy’s never die.
Justin Bieber, the Canadian born pop-singer has ignited teenage girl’s hearts as a singing sensation for the past five years. Far from the ‘Billy bad-ass’ motif woven through the icons of Rock and Roll, Bieber enjoys a heart-throb’s status seen only sparsely in each generation’s pop music. But in the words of Kanye West, ‘It ain’t Ralph though!’.
“Heart-throb” just never seems to be enough. I know you’ve heard the one about ‘good guys’ and ‘good girls’. America has a long history of fanaticism of the ‘bad boy’ hero. He does what he feels, he says what he wants to say, he beats up who he wants, he ALWAYS gets the girl, and the world is his oyster because he’s tough enough to conquer it. I guess that type of thinking does fit well with Imperialism. It should be no wonder then, that various sub-cultures in America adopt branches of this ideology. Enter the Hip-hop philosophy of Money, Power, and Respect.
Bieber obviously has money; like somewhere to the tune of five number-one albums and over ten million albums sold to date. But of ‘Power and Respect’, particularly the brand that the ‘Billy bad ass’ moniker bestows, he’s gone double-wood. This is the all-too-common ‘flaw’ with ‘the good guy’. We’ve seen Bieber go from a scrawny white pubescent singer in 2009 to a 2014 version of Vanilla Ice… Hip-hop sub-titles included. But just as White Ice struggled with legitimate power and respect, it appears Bieber is now too. So what do power and respect really mean anyway?
In 1967, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. wrote and published his final book, ‘Where do We Go From Here?”. A discussion between him and Stokely Carmichael was detailed as follows: King writes, “For five long hours I pleaded with the group to abandon the Black Power slogan. It was my contention that a leader has to be concerned about the problem of semantics. Each word, I said, has a denotative meaning – its explicit and recognized sense – and a connotative meaning – its suggestive sense. While the concept of legitimate Black Power might be denotatively sound, the slogan “Black Power” carried the wrong connotations. I mentioned the implication of violence that the press had already attached to the phrase. And I went on to say that some of the rash statements on the part of a few marchers only reinforced this impression.
Stokely replied by saying that the question of violence versus nonviolence was irrelevant. The real question was the need for black people to consolidate their political and economic resources to achieve power. “Power,” he said “is the only thing respected in this world, and we must get it at any cost.”
This passage most clearly illustrates the break from King’s non-violent strategy and the blooming of a new more muscular tone of ‘Black Power’. King’s peaceful non-violence had come to the end of its growth spurt according to Stokely. Something with more testosterone, something more manly, more audacious, and even vulgar was now required. The movement needed a bad-ass attitude. You see, this dialogue is also emblematic of the good guy versus the Billy.
King’s explanation of semantics also makes sense for Hip-hop’s understanding of power. Making millions of dollars in and of itself certainly has a ‘connotative’ element of power and respectability. But making millions as a teenaged heart-throb singer just seems to lack ‘denotative’ power. That upfront, explicit, Billy bad-ass kind of power that Stokely advocated for. That Ralph!
When I see the young brother Justin lashing out at the paparazzi or with this latest DUI and arrest incident, I see a young man searching for Respect and Power of the Billy sort. I see a young man attempting to move from connotative respectability to denotative respectability. But my generation, this Hip-hop generation, has always been uncertain about just what explicit power and respect really mean. And far too often we’ve searched for this understanding through destructive avenues.