Facing the Music

I went to a dance performance with my little girl last night. There was great diversity in the dance styles presented. From flamenco to hip hop, the music evoked powerful emotions which were translated to the movements of each dancer. The new Joy of Motion dance facility on H street in Washington, D.C. is a sparkling example of urban renewal.

I was impressed by the skill in the execution of all the dances, but I was moved by the hip hop music and the accompanying performances. At 48, I can only dream of being able to ‘bust a move’ like they did on stage. However, the profound commentary made by the dancers was unmistakeable. 18 year old Erica Hart used thought provoking music by Citizen Cope, mixed with some old school Herman Kelly and her own beats to display her artistic vision. In a performance entitled ‘5 to 9’, choreographer Aysha Upchurch used the dancers as a paintbrush and made it clear that hip hop and rap music are expressive art forms that tell an American story as valid as that in the music of Irving Berlin or Rogers and Hammerstein.

Rap and hip hop have evolved from the days of The Sugar Hill Gang and Kurtis Blow. When Grandmaster Flash released “The Message” in 1982, it became clear that every ugly reality of life in the ‘hood’ could be set to a beat played over the airwaves. At that point, Black America’s pain became a musical vehicle and music became another tool to vent and inform the rest of the world. I actually cried the first time I heard it. Crime, hopelessness, economic hardship and all the social dysfunction that goes with them were exposed for the world to hear. It was at that point that the music should have created a new dialogue between political leaders, business and financial interests and the community. After all, in the wake of the civil rights movement, the women’s movement, the Black Nationalist movement and the anti-war movement, we were all ready to implement the ideals expressed by Dr. King and change the society, right?

What happened instead is that lucrative recording contracts, record sales and instant fame for the chosen few became the incentive for creating the music. Many artists continued to speak the truth of their own life experiences, but increasing numbers of posers simply channeled horrible thoughts and hateful words into their rhymes to feed into the gangster rap machine. Dr. Dre has admitted that he at one time tried to write rhymes without describing women as “Bitches and Hos”, but he just couldn’t find the inspiration. As he returned to the use of those terms, he influenced a generation of Black children to do the same. Black mothers, sisters, aunts and daughters all got branded and diminished in stature because of the American music industry’s profit motive. The words ‘virture’ and ‘Black female’ so infrequently occur in the same sentence that when Robert Sylvester (R. Kelly) is accused of abusing scores of underage females, it is often Black females themselves who vigorously defend him. I don’t believe that R. Kelly and Dr. Dre or their product are representative of all rap and hip hop music, it’s that the community embraced them and amplified their message without shutting down the hatred inherent in their words and behavior. We needed Don Imus to use those words before we examined what they really mean in popular culture.

Music has an influential relationship to the soul and the psyche of the listener. Just as listening to the blues can make us feel melancholy, listening to gangster rap can subliminally fill us with rage. The frequent ‘beefs’ between artists are proof of that. On the other hand, the music I heard last night and the dances that interpreted it made me feel uplifted. I was encouraged to see that hip hop and rap have not killed our children’s souls, but that young people are adaptive and able to make life-affirming choices about the complex challenges they face in the future.