Chicagomuzik

I've got a whole city to hold down

March 27, 2004

Healthy debate

Over the last two days, Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Clarence Page and Chicagomuzikblog main man Jack Flack have traded messages regarding Page's March 24 column, "Authentically self-hating," and our March 25 critique, "Turn off that devil music!" What follows is a transcript of that discussion, beginning with a reprint of the critique. (Page's original article is linked therein.)

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Turn off that devil music!

Yesterday, under the headline “Authentically Self-Hating,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page launched an attack on what he called “hip-hop culture” (elsewhere, with revealing awkwardness, he also addressed “hip-hop rappers”). His supposed ammunition? The results of a survey, published in January, on the attitudes of urban black teenagers about sex and status.

“Today's teens have grown up awash in hip-hop and so have their parents,” Page writes. “The sad consequences have been a narrow and distorted view among many black youngsters, among others, of what it means to be black.”

One problem: Page doesn’t bother to share whatever conclusions the study drew about the actual direct influence of hip-hop on these attitudes. After a diligent web search, we couldn’t find the facts, either—though we did track down the publicly available summary of the study’s key findings, which makes a handful of vague references to the influence of “the media,” but specifically excludes discussion of hip-hop.

Page's column grants that some survey respondents “praised certain hip-hop artists as more ‘positive’.” But that doesn’t stop him from sneering at the “macho pose” of “a culture that uses ‘bitches’ and ‘hos’ as labels for every woman but one’s mama.” Then he pats himself on the back for transcending a youthful naivete that once caused him to “buy [a] narrow notion of blackness.” And he winds it all up with a call for “elders” to show black teens “a broader vision of what black culture is all about.”

A few points for Page:

Ever thought that you’ve replaced your youthful “narrow notion” of what it means to be black with just another narrow notion—one that just so happens to look a lot like you?

Think you might have a “narrow notion” of what “hip-hop culture” is? Ever consider that your reactionary, uninformed dismissal of hip-hop might undercut your ability to reach young people with your positive message? Really, what teenager wants to listen to another grumpy old man preach at them about the evils of something he doesn’t understand?

Or how about this: Ever listen to Kanye West’s “All Falls Down”? (Read the lyrics or listen to a sample.) If you haven’t, you should—if for no other reason than it’s the current single from the #1 rap album in the country. It’s the work of a guy from Chicago, your very own backyard. And as social commentary on the “get it while you can” mindset you ascribe to those “hip-hop rappers,” it’s a heck of a lot more insightful and nuanced than your own column.

We don’t doubt, Mr. Page, that your motives are good. But your column reveals more about your generational and class differences with most rap fans than anything else.

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To: Jack Flack
From: Clarence Page

Thanks, Jack. It's always enlightening for me to receive feedback, and I mean that sincerely.

I didn't know it was a news flash that I've become a grumpy old fart (my 14-year-old reminds me regularly) but I guess when people can't come up with a good argument for the tragedy I am writing about, they can always dump on how, Ah, ha! He's an old out-of-touch dude who doesn't know "hip-hop" from "rapper."

Ah, well. Good luck with your blog. Keep the dialogue going.

Cheers,
CP

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To: Clarence Page
From: Jack Flack

Thanks sincerely for your response. However, I take issue with your characterization of my piece as "dumping" on you instead of a good argument.

The argument, which I thought was obvious, is that in your haste to condemn admittedly tragic circumstances, you painted an entire art form with a broadly demonizing brush. It'd be a little like me telling you not to listen to Cliff Kelley because that Rush Limbaugh is a big fat idiot, and isn't "talk radio" culture awful?

Bottom line, if you're saying that rap music causes black teens to hate themselves, and I'm saying that entrenched racism and deep poverty and segregation and a broken economic system and substance abuse and AIDS and rampant incarceration rates and divisive politics have combined to create a terrifically challenging environment for some black teens to do anything but hate their prospects and grasp at whatever superficial straws they can--be that the cold comfort of a gang or the escapist indulgence of violent movies or flashy fashion or, yes, the sort of rap music that fetishizes sexual and economic conquest--then I guess we'll have to agree to disagree.

At any rate, I honestly hope that you will give some thought to the possibility that rap may not be evil. It's a cycle: Today, we look back with pity on the prudes of eras past who railed against Elvis' pelvis or the demon rum, don't we? Anyway, I'm betting hip-hop has saved a lot more troubled youngsters--black, brown, white or what have you, by giving them an outlet for creative expression or turning them on to art, thought and culture--than it has ever condemned.

Thanks again for the dialogue.
Jack Flack

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To: Jack Flack
From: Clarence Page

Thanks. I'm sure you meant no disrespect. Nevertheless, your message boils down to the predictable "You don't get it, Page."

I expect that whenever I point out the negative side of something that's popular, but sometimes that's my job.

On the plus side, I happen to be a fan of some of the works of some pretty raunchy rappers, but I also have seen close-up how wallowing in misery causes deeper fatalism in kids who, as you say, already receive too many of those messages from their environment in their everyday lives.

I wish "positive" rap sold better, but it doesn't. Villains in music, drama and literature always have more rascal appeal, as one wise lit crit observed, because there's nothing the bad guy won't do.

I hear in a lot of fatalistic rap (some call it "gangsta rap") a cry for help. Too bad society has not found better responses to it.

I think we have to keep trying.

Peace out,
CP

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To: Clarence Page
From: Jack Flack

With your permission I'd like to publish our exchange on the Chicagomuzik website.

[Anyway,] some "positive" rap does sell well, like the Kanye West example I cited, which is the #1 rap album in the country so far this year, and the work of a South Side cat to boot.

Jack Flack
Chicagomuzik blog

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To: Jack Flack
From: Clarence Page

Sure, Jack, you can publish our exchange, if you wish. I'll be interested to hear what kind of reaction you receive.

I haven't heard Kanye West yet, but if what you say is true, he gives me hope.

It's about time some Chicago "Third Coast" rappers make it. We are, after all, the home of slam poetry, among other fine art forms.

cheers,
CP

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Note to readers: We will make sure that Page sees whatever discussion takes place in the comments section for this post, so have at it.