Prominent scholars, activists, and hip-hop artists discussed the social implications of hip-hop culture during a panel titled “America’s Most Wanted: Hip-Hop, the Media, and the Prison Industrial Complex,” held at International House on April 12.
Discussion focused on Chicago’s role in shaping hip-hop, as well as how that influence affects wider constructions of “blackness” and urban life. The panelists also suggested that black communities can create counter-narratives to resist the violent image of blacks that major record labels, radio outlets, and news channels propagate in American media.
Drill and trap music—subgenres of hip-hop that feature aggressive beats and violent lyrics—were featured as examples of contemporary hip-hop that have shaped public perceptions of the South Side. The panelists questioned its truth value as a reflection of inner-city life.
Che “Rhymefest” Smith, co-founder of Donda’s House, a Chicago youth arts and music program, said that drill and trap music presents an incomplete image of life in Chicago, and is mostly a moneymaking vehicle for corporate record labels.
“The young people say ‘Man, this is how we are gonna get on. This is how we’re gonna get Jimmy Iovine from Interscope to come to our neighborhood, like he did for [Chicago native and trap music artist] Chief Keef, and find us. This is what’s gonna make us have an opportunity in a city where black teenage unemployment is at 92 percent,’” Smith said.
The panelists also discussed ways of influencing the media. According to a Pew Center poll cited by moderator and hip-hop activist Jasiri X, 86 percent of the time that black men appear on the news, they are represented as violent individuals. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, argued that the way to change this is for blacks to represent themselves in a positive light, as a means of countering negative portrayals in media.
“When you look at the way black people are represented in the media, it is often through the lens of violence,” Hill said. “The media becomes the way in which people develop norms for how the world works…and we have a huge responsibility to counter-narrate these stories of black people being criminals and black people being violent. We frame the crack addict as not someone with a medical problem, but as a bad person. We construct the sex worker as a bad person, such that when they get incarcerated, it makes sense for the crack addict or sex worker to be in jail, and for the CEO on cocaine to be somewhere else. We have to shift that consciousness.”
Dr. Beth Richie, a professor at UIC of criminal justice and of gender studies, also indicated the need for blacks to use opportunities to engage and expand the representation of black women in the media. Richie cited Marissa Alexander, who was controversially denied immunity under Florida’s “stand your ground” law, as an example of one such case.
“We don’t see all of the cases of the black women who go missing and are just gone,” she said. “We see case after case of white women who disappear in other countries, and the media is just riveted by their stories. And every day, black girls and women are just gone, and not only do the police not care, but the media doesn’t care.”
In addition to critiquing what he sees as mainstream media’s negative portrayal of blacks, Hill also emphasized the need for blacks to speak for themselves by supporting black-owned and -run media outlets, such as the Chicago Defender.
“What black media outlets end up having to do just to stay in business is to sell black people out to politicians—just to stay alive—while we give all our power to people who don’t have our best interests in the media,” Hill said. “We have our own media outlets…and we have to realize that we have power, and to stop giving our power away and asking why.”