Powerful Illusions: Glen Ford Blasts the Exploitation of Class and Age Divisions in the "Civil Rights vs. Hip-Hop" Debate. (Politics & Bling Bling)

By Ford, Glen | Colorlines Magazine, Winter 2002 | Go to article overview

Powerful Illusions: Glen Ford Blasts the Exploitation of Class and Age Divisions in the "Civil Rights vs. Hip-Hop" Debate. (Politics & Bling Bling)


Ford, Glen, Colorlines Magazine


The historical foes of Black America--right-wing bigots and ideologues backed by corporate money--are engaged in a new and multilayered strategy to subvert the general political consensus that has prevailed among blacks since the dramatic death rattles of official Jim Crow in the mid and late '60s. Begun in earnest only a few years ago, this heavily funded, media-driven campaign seeks to undermine existing African American political structures by creating the appearance of deep class and age divisions within the black body politic.

The hard right's New Black Strategy is, essentially, an enterprise of subversion and stealth. Its immediate goal is to shatter the remarkable degree of public unity around core issues that has evolved among all significant demographic cohorts of African Americans. Blacks remain the bulwark of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and the only ethnic group that can be counted on to oppose the right's agenda as a near-solid bloc.

The right's aim is to subvert, not convert, Black America. Ample funds have been made available to create confusion, as was evident during the past year's electoral contests in New Jersey Alabama, and Georgia. Corporate interests poured $2.8 million into Cory Booker's attempt to unseat Newark's Sharpe James, outspending the mayor by half a million dollars. The same network knocked out Representatives Earl Hilliard and Cynthia McKinney, outspending these incumbents by 60 percent and 40 percent, respectively (documented by the Center on Responsible Politics). In all three races, corporate media were actively allied with corporate cash, providing millions of dollars in free, shamelessly partisan coverage.

Appearances are everything in this game of images and impressions. Any and all divisions among blacks--real or imagined, perceptual or concrete--are described as fundamental and immediately exhibited as proof of the dissolution of the black consensus. Two easily flattered cohorts have been targeted by this most cynical strategy: the Black "middle class," very loosely defined so as to encompass all who are anxious to believe they are members; and black youth, also ambiguously described as the "hip-hop generation."

Through media, both groups are artificially pitted against an equally amorphous cohort, the civil rights generation(s), defenders of an "irrelevant" and "outdated" civil rights agenda--which turns our to be very much like the actual black consensus on a broad range of unfinished political business.

The hard right's New Black Strategy holds special dangers for young African Americans, the most media-dependent generation in human history.

Massaging the Products

For six and a half years, beginning in August 1986, I owned and hosted "Rap It Up," the first nationally syndicated hip-hop music show, broadcast on 66 commercial radio stations.

Like any other host, my mission was to add value to my program's product--the performers and their records--for consumption by the listening audience. These consumers were also my product, since I gathered, counted, and sold them to the advertisers who paid the bills, mainly record companies. That's how commercial radio and television work: both the audiences and the performers are products, commodities for commercial trade.

All hosts attempt to add value to their performers and flatter their audiences. We tell audiences how smart and hip they are, and we interpret and embellish the utterances of performers so as to give their words the appearance of weight, enduring meaning, intrinsic value.

Shamelessly, I proclaimed that each rapper's attempt at serious social commentary was deeply profound: MC So and So is "droppin' science!"

As the syndication moved into the '90s, I grew concerned at the deepening strangeness of the hip-hop milieu: an excess of young entertainers with delusions of grandeur; too many fans who seemed to think that they were the artists; kids whose freestyle rhymes consisted mainly of stringing one brand name after the other. …

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