Oprah, Hip-Hop and Issues of Black Identity

Commentator Todd Boyd says Oprah Winfrey's problem with hip-hop, and Ludacris' problem with Oprah, may solve some issues of black identity in America. Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California School of Cinema-Television.

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ED GORDON, host:

Rapper Ludacris is engaged in a running battle with talk show queen Oprah Winfrey. He says Winfrey has disdain for hip-hop artists, a charge the TV mogul has denied.

All this back and forth has commentator Todd Boyd thinking. He says the argument between the two entertainment industry heavyweights may get heated, but it may also help frame the discussion about black identity.

Professor TODD BOYD (Professor of Critical Studies, University of Southern California School): What's beef?

Recently another episode of black-on-black player-hating came to light when rapper/actor Ludacris talked about his appearance on Oprah as a cast member of the Academy Award-winning film Crash in the May issue of GQ Magazine. Luda alleges that his remarks on the show were edited, while Oprah's critical comments about hip-hop were presented in full.

Luda goes on to say that after the taping of the show, Oprah pulled him aside and told him that she didn't book rappers because she felt like she would be empowering them. Later, 50 Cent, in an interview with the Associated Press, stated that he could, quote, "care less about Oprah or her show," and chided the talk show host for catering to an audience of, quote, "older white women.”

Most recently, Ice Cube joined in the beef by again objecting to Oprah's booking policies, or lack thereof, regarding hip-hop artists like himself.

First off, Oprah has the right to book whomever she wants. She achieved her current position of cultural dominance by carefully cultivating a target audience and directly appealing to that audience over the years. One need only watch a few seconds of Oprah to know that she has absolutely no appeal to the hip-hop demographic anyway.

On the other hand, hip-hop, like Oprah, is a billion dollar industry today, driving the culture at large, and influencing many aspects beyond even its own immediate reach. The interesting twist here is that hip-hop culture gets criticized all the time, and often from prominent black celebrities like Bill Cosby and Samuel L. Jackson. Oprah, though, is often perceived to be so powerful that one dare not incite her wrath or else they might end up getting publicly clowned, similar to what happened to disgraced author James Frey earlier this year.

Hip-hop is nothing if not fearless. So when rappers like Luda, 50, and Cube, speak their truth to her power, they're courageously treading where very few have gone before. Besides, hip-hop has done quite well on its own already, which means that it's hard to empower people who already have power. This is one area where perhaps Oprah's reach potentially exceeds her grasp.

What I find so refreshing about this latest beef, though, is the fact that neither Oprah, nor hip-hop, need each other. Over the course of the last 20 years, both have reached their own higher ground by doing what they do well, and appealing to those who want to hear what they have to say. Contrary to that old adage about not airing one's dirty laundry in public, I always think that disagreements between prominent black people is a good thing, because it demonstrates to the world that black people are not monolithic, and that there are many differences of opinion and taste. Obviously, Oprah and hip-hop represent different things for different people.

Considering Oprah's knack for marketing and timing, how long will it be before she does a show on hip-hop? This will be accompanied by the countless references to Oprah that we can expect to hear in many upcoming rap songs, also. In the marketplace of popular culture, beef works out for everyone involved. At least as long as no one starts shooting.

GORDON: Todd Boyd is a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California.

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