Gladys Knight, 9th Wonder, and the Politics of Criticism
I spit the truth in lethal/
Its not the mic; its the mind I
Buckshot, Connection, Survival Skills,
Hip-Hop as a whole, as a cultural community, has always had a problem
accepting criticismwhether constructive or conjured, exact or exaggerated.
Its 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
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 originalit 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
Still, some adults couldnt 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
The 90s came and didnt disappointup until it lost track of purpose and
position, surrendering to the will of divide and conquer, drafted by enemies of
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
lessas the aim, above everything else, is to make moneyabout the caricature
of commercialism, commodification, and consumerism they were transforming
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 cautionsimilar to the kind Popa Wu and the older gods have made a life
ministry ofto 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. Its 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-Hops darker side. More often than not, other critics have
chosen the less inclusive
theymeaning otherto 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. Thats significant.
We stay highthats why old folks down us/
Lost, nobody found us; the force that surrounds us/
Aint with us; they get us on the ground and hit us/
We paint pictures of the chains under their names and
Among the many responses to
her comments was an editorial written by acclaimed North Carolina producer,
9th wonder. 9th, the preeminent beatsmith since J Dillas
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
I agree to a great degree with 9ths 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 Wonders 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
causeas 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 BETs Jeff Johnson nearly two years ago, chastising Hip-Hop
artistsor 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 (thats you: Budden), dry
snitching repeatedly (thats
self-degradation to unfound lows (thats you:
T-Pain), dancing with the devil over the good of their communities (thats
you: Alicia Keys), its more difficult to feign righteous indignation at
anyone critical of the culture.
But thats not Hip-Hop! we retort with rage. Thats the
commercial element many mistake for
Hip-Hop. To an extent, were right.
What if, though, what is not has become what iswhere
the new face of Hip-Hop isnt 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
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.