Gladys Knight, 9th Wonder, and the Politics of Criticism

“I spit the truth in lethal/

… It’s not the mic; it’s the mind I

speak through/”

— KRS-One &

Buckshot, “Connection,” Survival Skills,

2009.

Hip-Hop as a whole, as a cultural community, has always had a problem

accepting criticism—whether constructive or conjured, exact or exaggerated.

It’s in our bloodline. We suffer no critics, antagonists, or haters the

opportunity to reduce our art-form to a spectacle. We respond with the

quickness. We trot out the best amongst us, the brightest in our midst, to push

back, blow back (military style), against anyone perceived as unjustly

attacking it.

The reason is clear: Hip-Hop has stood the test of time as one of the only

artistic developments, throughout the history of humanity, to come to life

without the help, supervision, or even awareness of an adult population. Youth

of color, relegated to the ghettoes and barrios, took the dead scraps they

found lying around, breathed life into it, and created a cultural force of

irreducible significance that would change, and perhaps even save, the world. 

Three decades later, Hip-Hop is still

standing. And though it is true that without the groundwork laid by Muhammad

Ali, The Last Poets, Langston Hughes, Phillis Wheatley, Zora Neale Hurston, Gill

Scott Heron, and many other pre-Hip-Hop poets, artists, and folklorists,

Hip-Hop might have never come to be, it is also true that up until the mid

‘80s, most adults still openly expressed doubt about this budding phenomenon of

creative genius they saw some potential in. And those were good old

folks. There were those who simply despised it, because, to take their word, it

presented nothing original—it simply borrowed from pre-existing traditions,

remixing what was old into new, upbeat, catchy, repetitive loops.

To an extent they were right.

But never before had street kids, most without astute academic backgrounds,

created their own cardinal directions to map out a future of possibility and

hope: 1). They would paint pictures of the legacies they intended to leave

behind 2) set music to it 3) carve out dance steps to supplement the sound 4)

and prophesy upon the waves and melodies. That was genius! Immitigable

genius. 

Still, some adults couldn’t see the forest from the tree stumps. They hooted

and hollered, cursed and castigated the young folks they saw selling their

future in a fleeting pursuit of, to invoke Lauryn Hill, every tree bearing

the wrong fruit. But as the late ‘80s roster unveiled a line-up of

rhetorical acrobats, back straightened and eyes widened. The world began paying

attention.  

The ‘90s came and didn’t disappoint—up until it lost track of purpose and

position, surrendering to the will of divide and conquer, drafted by enemies of

Hip-Hop culture.

The new millennium, however, produced a radically dissimilar outlook, cranking

out Hip-Hop junkies with virtually no chance at rehabilitation. As the

paraphernalia of materialism left its needle eye, the vein of creativity,

originality, and fidelity that had sustained Hip-Hop hitherto collapsed,

rendering the body powerless to the powder of the peddlers who could care

less—as the aim, above everything else, is to make money—about the caricature

of commercialism, commodification, and consumerism they were transforming

Hip-Hop into. 

So maybe some adults had it right. Or maybe the blame was misplaced.

We might never know. Maybe instead of belittling what work of genius their sons

and daughters were crafting, they might have better served providing guidance

and caution—similar to the kind Popa Wu and the “older gods” have made a life

ministry of—to the vibrant generation coming after them. Again, we might never

know. What we do know, nonetheless, is that though criticism hurts, it can also

force the soul into self-examination and introspection, which, in turn, guarantees

substantive reevaluation and reassessment.  

* * *

A couple of weeks back, Motown legend Gladys Knight held nothing back in sounding off on Hip-Hop culture.

Speaking with BlackNews.com, Hip-Hop, she said, has “been bad, in my opinion,

as far as the quality of the music and the stories that they tell. It’s one

thing to be raw about your history, but they took it to another level and it

became vulgar.” It has not “elevated our industry musically.” As a people, “we

have lowered our self-esteem with these performances and presentations,” she

said, referring to Hip-Hop.

While some saw it an opportunity to return fire with fire, they might have

missed a crucial point that poignantly expresses her pain and passion. Her remarks

might dovetail with previous rants, rendered by older Black entertainers, about

Hip-Hop, but rarely has the word “We” been used to call into sobering

reflection Hip-Hop’s darker side. More often than not, other critics have

chosen the less inclusive

“they”—meaning “other”—to do the dirty work. In fact, it makes more sense that

one who finds no redemptive value in Hip-Hop would dismiss it as something far removed

from the true essence of Black art, thus unqualified under the canopy of “we.”

But Ms. Knight, being the caring elderly stateswoman she is, went against

conventional wisdom, thought, and practice. That’s significant.  

“We stay high—that’s why old folks down us/

Lost, nobody found us; the force that surrounds us/

Ain’t with us; they get us on the ground and hit us/

We paint pictures of the chains under their names and

scriptures/”

Among the many responses to

her comments was an editorial written by acclaimed North Carolina producer,

9th wonder. 9th, the preeminent beatsmith since J Dilla’s

passing, showed just why he landed a gig two years ago as adjunct professor at

North Carolina Central University.

He lamented the refusal of

“the older generation of our people… to see or seek the GOOD facets of

Hip-Hop, or even the cultural aspects of Hip-Hop when it comes to

improvisation, creativity, research, and skill. The fact that TRUE Hip-Hoppers

respect, glorify, and honor the great ones who came before us in our records,

and the use of what we call ‘samples’ speaks volumes.”

9th theorizes the lack of “patience” in this older generation to

“hear” the voices of the younger generation as a principal factor why younger

folks are less interested in mastering the musical history that gave birth to

them.

I agree to a great degree with 9th’s assessment, more so with the

fact that we have in place a dominant media apparatus determined, over and

above all obstacles, to promote commercial junk to a young, oblivious fan-base.

Not only I am an ardent fan of 9th Wonder’s beats, I also admire

his intellectual vigor. We need that.

But I must say, it is clear Ms. Knight is no C. Delores Tucker. Unlike Ms.

Tucker, she has actually contributed her fair share to the reproduction of the

Black Arts Movement. And her love on behalf of the Hip-Hop generation is

undeniable. Ms. Tucker, in all her eloquence and fervor, was less a

conscionable community activist and more a rambling rebel with no coherent

cause—as it concerned Hip-Hop. Gladys Knight, it should be apparent, has more

dignity than to sue

a dead man for “emotional distress.”

And, of course, Ms. Knight is hardly alone. 

Earlier this year when First Lady Michelle Obama hosted a Jazz celebration concert

in the White House, she mentioned how important it was for her young girls, who

attended in flesh, “to [be] alive and aware of all kinds of music other than

hip hop.” The President was less ambiguous in an

interview with BET’s Jeff Johnson nearly two years ago, chastising Hip-Hop

artists—or at least the ones he listen to (Jay-Z, Ludacris, et. al.) for

“degrading… women” and using “the N-word a little too frequently.” Not to talk

about the obsequious obsession with “material things… how I can get something;

more money, more cars.”

Of course it all boils down to what kind of Hip-Hop one chooses to digest. Personally, I prefer a good meal enriched with

the ingredients of J Dilla, DOOM, GZA, Jean Grae, Invincible, Ian Kamau, Canibus,

Jasiri X, MC Lyte, Big L, Mos Def, M.anifest, Talib Kweli, Lupe Fiasco, Ol’

Dirty Bastard, KRS-One, Nas, 9th Wonder, Raekwon, and other well

prepared supplements to go along. And, yes, it might taste of misogyny and

materialism every now and then, but the nutritional count is balanced enough to

keep me physically, mentally, and spiritually sound.

We also have to be frank about the reality Hip-Hop today consists of. In an

age when prominent artists share no shame humiliating themselves infinitely (that’s you: Budden), dry

snitching repeatedly (that’s

you: Fabolous), pulverizing the art of freestyling (that’s you: Drake), taking

self-degradation to unfound lows (that’s you:

T-Pain), dancing with the devil over the good of their communities (that’s

you: Daddy Yankee), assaulting their ancestors with remarkable effrontery (that’s

you: Lil’ Wayne), elevating themselves—50

was dead-on—above the banner of Hip-Hop (that’s

you: Jay-Z), giving elitism a facelift (that’s

you: Alicia Keys), it’s more difficult to feign righteous indignation at

anyone critical of the culture.  

“But that’s not Hip-Hop!” we retort with rage. That’s the

commercial element many mistake for

Hip-Hop. To an extent, we’re right. 

What if, though, what is not has become what is—where

the new face of Hip-Hop isn’t that of courageous youth of color mustering up

the courage to define their humanity and worth within the hostile society they

were born into, but of inebriated, intemperate souls lost in the paradise of

lust?  

Tolu Olorunda is a cultural critic and

a columnist for BlackCommentator.com. He can be reached at

Tolu.Olorunda@gmail.com. The views expressed inside this editorial aren’t necessarily the views of AllHipHop.com or its employees.

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