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Rap Disrespect of Black Icons Raises Concerns

By Jesse Washington AP National Writer | 3/3/2014, 10:59 a.m.
Chart-topping rapstress (pictured left) Nikki Minaj provoked widespread outrage with an Instagram post featuring one of black history's most poignant images: (pictured right) Malcolm X peering out the window of his home, rifle in hand, trying to defend his wife and children from firebombs while under surveillance by federal agents. Superimposed on the photo: the title of Minaj's new song, which denigrates certain black men and repeats the N-word 42 times.

"All the while, they're being funded and pushed by major corporations,'' he said.

"I see Nikki and other artists, whether Kanye or Jay-Z, adopting these revolutionary images or using a clip or saying their name, but never practice the principles which these revolutionaries gave their lives for,'' Jasiri said.

It was not always so.

Hip-hop began in the early 1970s as an alternative to gang activity. Before the music was recorded, founding fathers like DJ Afrika Bambaataa, whose slogan was "peace, love, unity and having fun,'' would play Malcolm X's voice over instrumental break beats.

"Not only did it sound funky but it helped raise our consciousness,'' Davey wrote on his website.

Davey attended many early rap concerts at Harlem's Audubon Ballroom, where Malcolm was assassinated. As the music gained steam, X was constantly honored on wax. KRS-One duplicated Malcolm's gun-in-the-window pose on the cover of his 1988 classic album, "By Any Means Necessary.'' In 1991, Tupac rhymed on "Words of Wisdom'': "No Malcolm X in my history text, why is that? / Cause he tried to educate and liberate all blacks.''

Malcolm's voice and image appeared on so many records and videos, "many would remark that he was an emcee,'' Davey wrote.

Tubman also is a longtime rap staple, mentioned by everyone from Ice Cube ("She helped me run like Harriet Tubman'') to Pharoahe Monch ("A railroad to underground like Harriet Tubman''). Till, too, has been mentioned in songs such as Kanye's breakthrough 2003 single "Through The Wire.''

But today's rappers reflect our money-obsessed society, said Bakari Kitwana, whose Rap Sessions organization just moderated a series of community dialogues between the civil rights and hip-hop generations.

"We see a lot of things going on with our young people, and we don't feel like we are teaching them values that can compete with the way the value of money is ingrained in our culture,'' Kitwana said. "Everything is just focused on money. If you can get money, whatever else you're doing doesn't matter.''

"It's reached a crisis point,'' he said. "I came up in the '70s and '80s, and greed has always been present, but I don't think I've ever seen it like it is now.''

He was echoed by Paradise Gray, who performed in the 1980s with the Afrocentric rap group X Clan.

"Mainstream rap music has lost its reverence for anything besides money,'' Gray said.

Today's rappers threaten to kill people who disrespect them, "but they sit back and let you disrespect our legacy, our culture, our history,'' he said.

"What,'' Gray asked, `"will the disrespect of your humanity and your blackness cost you?''