Race In Music, and American Media

In the wake of the firestorm regarding Janet Jackson and her breast taking exploits at the Super Bowl halftime show, many issues have surfaced regarding decency, entertainment, and due to the participation of Justin Timberlake, and his subsequent level of character assassination, the dreaded R word…Race. Since the acquittal of OJ Simpson, a couple years ago, there seems to have been a heightening of awareness regarding the issue of race, especially when it comes to high profile individuals.

We’ve seen a barrage of media coverage demolishing what little privacy entertainers have, resulting in a series of events, each one upping the ante, each subject more surprising with each turn. Kobe Bryant, a rapist? Rush Limbaugh, a drug user? R.Kelly, a child molester? Phil Specter, a murderer? One day you’re making millions joking in front of the cameras, the next you’re fighting for your life and livelihood with 12 jurors, 1 judge, and half a chance...unless you have Robert Shapiro and Johnny Cochran. Ask Jason Williams.

While we hunger for more, and lives vicariously through our heroes’ successes and abandon them in their failures, is our own idol worship fueling the rush for the newest edition of American Flameout? Does this media coverage differ across racial boundaries?

Many of these cases have been at least sufficiently outlandish enough to set race aside. Stories of “Jesus Juice” and “Elephant Man Bones” and “Pet Monkeys” and a litany of veiled children, flaming hair, and plastic surgeries would be enough to damn anyone of any race to public ridicule, no matter the color. Or would it?

Let’s revisit O.J. for a minute. Media coverage was so lighthearted due to a general assumption that Simpson would be found guilty. Jokes abounded on the late night talk shows. Everything was funny…until the verdict. It was the verdict that made White America feel like Black America during the first Rodney King Verdict.

Since O.J., two other high profile actors were also involved in incidents concerning the deaths of their wives. Both Robert Blake and William Shatner lost their wives under fairly dubious circumstances. Neither was put under such intense scrutiny as Simpson, and Shatner was never charged with anything, despite the fact that he had filed for divorce a month before the incident, argued with his wife vehemently the night before, and called 911 before he attempted to get her out of the pool. Did race play a factor in the differences in coverage? The Blake trial is mired in obscurity, almost as an aside to the entertainment events of the day. Blake isn’t exactly an A-list star, so maybe it wouldn’t make much news. It’s not a sexy enough story.

The situation last week concerning American “decency” versus Janet Jackson is another story. Justin Timberlake is an A-lister, yet he was allowed to distance himself from the event quite easily. None of the comments, some of them quite hurtful, used to describe the event were ever lofted towards Mr. Timberlake. He was never even considered for banning from the Grammies, although he was the “doer of the action.” Before the gravity of the situation became evident, Justin was quoted as saying “we like to give you folks something to talk about. As things worsened, and the backlash got stronger, Janet was left holding the bag. Left to make grainy hostage tapes. Left to bear the brunt of public condemnation. It was as if she let the dog out all by herself. Now there are congressional hearings, and public indecency outcries.

Would Madonna be subjected to the same treatment? If Usher were to rip off Madonna’s bra, would he be allowed to escape the situation unscathed, under the rather laughable excuse that he didn’t know the costume would “malfunction?” There seems to be an inequality and a different standard for minorities in entertainment.

Some of the adjectives used to describe both Janet and her more famous brother Michael have been really personal and hateful and sharp considering the media is supposed to be objective. Maybe it’s a family thing. Tito, get me a tissue.

Was the Janet really so indecent? Sure you had to explain the incident to your kids, but did you also explain the many Viagra commercials? Did you explain the commercials proponing sexual dysfunction, and hair growth, equating hair with vitality and virility? Have you explained to your son the message that if he loses his hair, women won’t like him and he’ll be rendered impotent? I don’t think a breast, albeit a nicely pierced one, would be more difficult to explain than “Mommy what’s Viagra?” (or “Daddy, why is Madonna kissing Britney?”)

Over the last year we’ve seen events like PepsiCo’s embrace of the dysfunctional Osbournes whose patriarch is a known for biting the heads off small animals, while simultaneously distancing itself from innocuous, yet sex crazed Ludacris. We must ask ourselves, when are these incidents going to stop being coincidences and actually start being addressed?

Race will continue to be a prevalent issue as we forge ahead into the 21st century. More powerful than terrorism, more powerful than drugs, able to leap small progress in a single bound. The February issue of The Source featured an old recording of top selling rapper Eminem making disturbing comments about Black women. More disturbing was the relative lack of coverage of the event. Can America’s race problem be combated by ignoring it?

We as a nation of Hip-Hoppers have a unique opportunity. We are a powerful movement. One that is immune to religious beliefs, racial separation, nationalistic histories, and physical separation. We can move on from the mistakes of our fathers. We have common loves through the music and the lifestyle that our parents could never have. It has fallen to us, the children of the turntable and the shelltoe to take the bull by the horns. Are we going to continue to allow the media to control how we see and deal with each other? Or will we empower ourselves through independent thought, cooperation, and understanding. In the words of Dres, the choice is yours.