Dr. Boyce Watkins beef with Lil Wayne-Hip Hop Buffoonery? Or something more complicated?
Hip Hop Commercialized? Buffoonery or something more complicated?
By Dr. Boyce Watkins
I am not a huge fan of Lil Wayne. I don’t hate him, I just don’t love him. His music doesn’t make me move, but it doesn’t make me sick. The thing that challenges my ability to love Lil Wayne is the environment within which he is operating.
Lil Wayne can be considered, by some, to be a modern day minstrel show: gold chains, diamond grills, 10,000 tattoos on parts of his body that have no business being tattooed, you name it. He engages in the stereotypical rock’n roll/hip hop lifestyle: guns, drugs, alcohol and random women. I fear for Lil Wayne, because at this pace, he might be dead before he turns 35. Lil Wayne makes Tupac Shakur and Eazy E look like conservative school kids.
You see, Lil Wayne is a product. The corporate executives pulling the strings and making the decision to sign deals with Lil Wayne also see him as a product.
Lil Wayne impacts the world in which he lives, sells records by the boat load and impacts far more young men than he probably should. It’s not that he chooses to be a role model, he just is one. But when we see Lil Wayne and express justifiable disdain for his behavior and persona, there is certainly more to be said.
You see, Lil Wayne is a product. The corporate executives pulling the strings and making the decision to sign deals with Lil Wayne also see him as a product. A product has to sell to its target audience, or it will not reach the sole objective of any capitalist venture: to make a profit. Not just any profit, but the highest possible profit within legal constraints. The corporate model doesn’t care about the community; it doesn’t care about health, workers, the environment or anything else. Like the financial machine that led to the breakdown of our global economic system, cogs in the wheel that pursue any objective other than pure profit maximization are quickly punished and replaced.
The target audience of hip hop is not black teenagers in the hood…..they don’t have any money, relatively speaking. The target audience for hip hop consists of middle and upper class kids in the suburbs, and those on college campuses. Those are the kids who line up at the record store and cause server outages at I-tunes when new albums are released. That is who the executives are trying to impress, and that is who Lil Wayne must impress in order to get a record deal.
The problem with Lil Wayne is that the transfer of commodities taking place between the recording industry and white America is one that lies over the economic heads of many African Americans. It doesn’t mean that those in the hood play no role in public consumption, but we are certainly not the biggest players in this game. Like a big bridge in the sky, we don’t impact the transactions, but we closely observe them. We don’t always buy the albums, but we watch the videos, read the articles, and hear the news stories about whose album sold the most copies during its first week. Due to the fact that there is a lack of diversity of images of black men in media, we have children who see the image of Lil Wayne and transform him into an involuntary role model. White kids don’t have to use Lil Wayne as a role model, since they see 50 new white men on TV every single day. Black youth don’t see doctors, lawyers and professors on TV: they see criminals, thugs, athletes and entertainers.
Lil Wayne’s environmental impact on the black community is what we in economics would call “a negative externality”. The fact that he makes it cool to use drugs, carry guns and engage in anti-social behavior does, in my opinion, cause irreparable harm to the black community. The problem is that the black community has little leverage to control these externalities, since we are neither the dominant consumers of hip hop, the controllers of media or the owners of record labels. Like the bridge in the sky I mentioned above. The presence of networks like BET or magazines like Essence and Ebony is relatively minor when compared to the dominance of CNN, Universal Records or Time Magazine. It’s like bringing a knife to a fight between nuclear superpowers.
The fact that he makes it cool to use drugs, carry guns and engage in anti-social behavior does, in my opinion, cause irreparable harm to the black community.
Those of us upset about negative images in hip hop can protest all night at the next Lil Wayne concert and perhaps even have an intervention with Wayne to get him to see the err of his ways. The problem with this logic is that even if Lil Wayne does change his behavior, there is a long list of starving kids in the projects that the record label executives can find to replace Lil Wayne after he has been dropped from the brand. Also, getting Lil Wayne to invoke a more positive image will not change the fact that the consumers and producers of his product (gangster rap) are more willing to purchase albums made by black men when they feel that the performer has indulged their need to enjoy a stereotypical "thug-nificent" fantasy. Wayne may have some degree of industry power, but it is not as much as we might think. The in-studio recording of Lil Wayne’s product is not what creates the magic. The magic of a product is created through the marketing, distribution, financing and purchase of that product. That is done by the labels, and none of the large label owners are African American.
So, does Lil Wayne represent a modern day menstrual show? My answer is yes. He and others like him are told to behave more “thug like” and in more ridiculous and extravagant ways in order to get the attention necessary to sell records. It is, unfortunately, not smart business for a rapper to brag about being intelligent. Also, it is a lack of diversity of black male images in media that give black youth few alternatives for self-perception that go beyond that of Lil Wayne, 50 Cent, Flavor Flav and Juan Williams (the Fox News analyst who, along with Jessie Lee Peterson, enjoys bashing the black community). If any of these men chose to be forthright, insightful and firm in their support of the African American community, they would be fired immediately. But when we protest and challenge the system that is negatively impacting our communities, my argument is that we should look past the puppets and deal with the puppet masters.
Some would argue that by attacking rappers for the negative impacts of their lyrics, we are simply killing the messengers and going after the weaker scapegoat. While I am not one to judge whether the messenger should be killed, I am also an advocate for finding a way to get to the root of the message. Someone is controlling the messages of hip hop, and it’s not that poor kid from the projects who finally made it big.
Dr.Boyce Watkins is a Finance Professor at Syracuse University and author of “What if George Bush were a Black Man?” He makes regular appearances in national media, including CNN, ESPN, BET and CBS. For more information, please visit www.BoyceWatkins.com.