Marketing black poverty, crime

November 10, 1996|By Glenn McNatt

At the American Musicological Society convention in Baltimore this weekend, one of the presenters analyzed hip-hop music - including the genre known as gangsta rap - as the marketing of black poverty.

"The marketing of hip-hop music, videos, artists and clothing abounds with representations of African American inner-city poverty which promise its safe reproducibility, portability and consumption," noted Adam Krims of the University of Alberta.

In effect, Krims suggested, such products "are marketed as frozen essences of social relations."

Granted, recent changes in academic fashion have led to criticism that sometimes seems more concerned with social and political value judgments - be they feminist, Marxist or psychoanalytic - than with musical ones.

Still, the idea of marketing inner-city black poverty as a safe - and therefore desirable - commodity raises disturbing questions.

For example, if black inner-city poverty has become just another "commodity" in the marketplace, doesn't that imply there is a demand for it?

And if so, what price are Americans willing to pay to ensure a continued supply to meet that demand?

To explain the way hip-hop music, videos and clothing are marketed, Krims borrowed the idea of "commodity fetishism" from the German social theorist Theodor Adorno, whose work drew on basic concepts underlying the theories of his two great predecessors, Karl Marx and Sigmund Freud.

Both Marx and Freud concerned themselves with the idea of fetishes, broadly defined as any object that is regarded with superstitious or extravagant trust or reverence.

Among primitive peoples, fetishes are natural or artificial objects - such as an animal tooth or a wood carving - believed to have preternatural power to protect or aid their owners because they have been ritually consecrated or animated by spirits.

In Marx's economic theory, social relationships are so distorted by the exploitation of capitalist modes of production that they actually become commodities themselves.

The commodity, as fetish, then symbolizes its owner's place in the network of class relationships. The ubiquitous piano in the 19th-century parlor is an example of a product that also served the social function of confirming its owner's middle-class status.

Freud used the idea of fetishism to explain the pathological displacement of erotic or libidinal interest to an inanimate object, such as a shoe or glove, or to a particular body part.

For Freud, sexual fetishism was a dysfunctional psychological element because it impaired or destroyed the individual's ability to enjoy normal relationships.

Something analogous may be said about the fetishism attached to black inner-city poverty, which allows politicians, sociologists and the media to ignore larger issues of economic and social injustice by concentrating on the relatively small number of black poor who can be categorized as criminals, drug addicts and teen-age moms.

It's easy to point to the sexually explicit, misogynistic lyrics of gangsta rap as an example of a morally corrupting force in poor communities.

But it's much harder to craft housing and employment policies that will allow residents of such communities to lift themselves out of poverty.

So the marketing of hip-hop culture as an "authentic" representation of African-American experience serves to reduce a vast and heterogeneous group to a few simple stereotypes that are easily dismissed as dysfunctional deviants.

This relieves the larger society from any responsibility to address real issues such as the increasingly unequal division of wealth in this country, the inadequate funding of urban public school systems, the flight of jobs to the suburbs and the systematic shredding of the social safety net by both major political parties.

Thus the marketing of black inner-city poverty transforms an unjust and morally unacceptable status quo into an entertaining and desirable commodity. No wonder the overwhelming majority of people who buy hip-hop music and videos are white suburban dwellers.

Like the 19th-century parlor piano, hip-hop commodities serve to delineate caste and class distinctions, assuring their owners that the brutal life experiences depicted in rap songs and videos have been safely contained behind ghetto walls.

Yet Americans pay a huge price - in terms of crime, urban decay and the gradual unraveling of norms of civility and common purpose - to maintain the pretense that black inner-city poverty has nothing to do with deeply embedded social injustices that spring from this country's long history of racial discrimination and oppression.

The sad thing is, they seem willing to keep on paying it rather than give up their comforting illusions.

Glenn McNatt is The Sun's arts columnists.

Pub Date: 11/10/96

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