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History, Hip-Hop Part Ways in 'Barbershop'

September 30, 2002|TODD BOYD

Some may remember a Coca-Cola television commercial from a few years back that showcased an African American father listening to the music of Motown, while his son, downstairs, was listening to hip-hop. They were both drinking Coke, and the implication was--in spite of their differences in music and in generation--they were united, father and son, by sharing the common soft drink. In TV commercials, soft drinks can unite generations. Real life is another story.

As the controversy surrounding the film "Barbershop" has revealed, there is no unifying force when it comes to bridging the generation gap between those of the civil rights era and those of the hip-hop generation.

Old-school civil rights figures like Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton contend that the sacred cows of their time, namely Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks, are above criticism and should be regarded as something akin to deities. The new-school hip-hop generation exists with a mandate to "keep it real"; this has to do with embracing a hard-nosed truth about the world and letting the chips fall where they may.

There is now a generation of black people in America who find the ways of their parents and grandparents to be completely inapplicable to their own lives. At the core of the civil rights movement was a push to integrate an otherwise segregated society. The obvious result of this integration was assimilation into the mainstream.

Hip-hop, however, having come about in the aftermath of civil rights, sees this assimilation as being akin to selling one's soul to the mainstream devil. What has always been interesting about hip-hop is that it has never attempted to assimilate. Instead, through a strong sense of defiance and self-determination, the hip-hop generation chooses to do things its own way. As the rapper Jay-Z has said: "We didn't cross over, we brought the suburbs to the 'hood." In other words, hip-hop never went mainstream, the mainstream came to hip-hop.

This hip-hop generation has defined its own agenda, and that includes selecting its own icons. In this regard, Notorious B.I.G. and Tupac Shakur are deemed more relevant and occupy more of a martyr status than does King, who was dead long before those in the hip-hop generation were born.

Civil rights, for many, is now a 12-part PBS miniseries. A short time ago, King's family sold his image to Alcatel, a French company, to use in its ads. It should not be surprising then that the current generation finds King's image to be less than sacred. King, to the hip-hop generation, is simply another media image, not unlike Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods. Add to this the various allegations that have surfaced that paint King in the same light as many rappers, that of a "playa" who loved "girls, girls, girls," and you find an image regarded as human, more so than one that is considered divine.

Whereas the civil rights generation found its calling in politics and the pursuit of political institutions, this hip-hop generation has contempt for these institutions and finds culture to be the primary means of expression. The civil rights movement produced an increase in the number of black elected officials. The hip-hop generation has produced several black figures on Fortune magazine's list of the richest people under 40.

The individuals most empowered now are entertainment figures, not political activists. Thurgood Marshall, Medgar Evers, James Meredith and Fannie Lou Hamer have morphed into Sean "P. Diddy" Combs, Russell Simmons, Master P, Queen Latifah and Missy Elliot. These leaders of the new school understand that power in this society is consistent with the size of your bankroll.

The point is, everything evolves. As the late B.I.G. once said: "Things done changed." Muhammad Ali was once the most hated man in America, and now he is one of this country's greatest living heroes. In the same way, Martin Luther King's birthday has become a long weekend. What was once sacred has become increasingly secular. What was once revered is now openly rejected. With this in mind, these old-school civil rights leaders are about as played out as a bulky eight-track tape machine in a world full of iPods.


Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies in the USC School of Cinema-Television, is the author of the forthcoming "The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop."

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