WASHINGTON - If there is a cultural highway where high-minded ideals inspire society, to paraphrase music critic Stanley Crouch, there's also a cultural subway where low values dump society into a trash bin. Black culture rides the rails of the latter with vulgar rap personalities serving as conductors.
Yes, we've all been told that the rap lifestyle, also known as hip-hop, is the "real" voice of the street - that it "represents" the mores of today's urban youths, that is authentic. Those arguments are nonsense. They are justifications for the debasement of black culture. Truth is, hip-hop is a historic atrocity that makes a mockery of the community that birthed its stars.
Hip-hop is the wild child of a social revolution. After the civil rights movement accomplished its significant legislative goals, an angry counterculture developed that wanted to do away with not only the legal parasite that was Jim Crow but also the traditions of the country that hosted it. It took the values that preserved the black community in the face of aggressive, state-sponsored racism and associated them with "whiteness."
As a result, socioeconomic characteristics needed for upward mobility - such as morality, scholarship, entrepreneurship and personal accountability - became foreign to the class of people who most needed them. That calcification on the fringe of society has produced an underclass divorced from the historic norms of the black community. It is in this nasty void where hip-hop flowers.
The kingdom hip-hop has claimed for itself in the black community is backward and fraudulent, and reverses the legacy of past black entertainers. This can be easily viewed in a historical context. During the era of Jim Crow, with lynchings and poverty rates over 80 percent, black neighborhoods produced accomplished stars such as Louis Armstrong, Dizzy Gillespie and Nat King Cole, among others.
Conversely, the generation of blacks that enjoys the highest employment rates and the most doctors, attorneys and engineers has produced a celebrity class denoted by felons such as Snoop Dogg, 50 Cent and Lil' Kim who are intrinsically linked with vulgarity and criminality.
The previous generation used its low status as motivation to prove it was better than the stereotype fitted onto its people. Those black entertainers were, in the patronizing lingo of the times, a credit to their race. The current poseurs exploit the blight found in their former communities for financial gain by reveling in ignorant pimp stereotypes.
In economic and political terms, hip-hop is even more out of touch. Contrary to the bleating heard on many rap albums, black America is not in decline. Three-fourths of blacks do not live in poverty. Blacks control the political infrastructure of many of the biggest cities in America. Not to slight those suffering in poverty's grip, but the hip-hop worldview is as emblematic of the status of blacks as the chicken-thieving, watermelon-smacking caricatures of 90 years ago.
Hip-hop is not a voice. It is an embodiment of the spiritual emptiness that has stalked material prosperity. Spectacular moral failures in black leadership have gone hand in hand with moral failures in low-income neighborhoods. Perversely, hip-hop upholds these dysfunctional behaviors as the standard for authentic "blackness."
Until it is reformed or constrained by the multitude of black people it embarrasses, demeans and does not speak for, it will remain the domain of outlaws. And black culture will continue to inch down the cultural rails toward unrestrained debauchery.
Wendell Talley is a policy analyst for the National Center for Neighborhood Enterprise in Washington.
Columnist Steve Chapman will return Monday.