A Love Affair with Hip Hop, No More

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Writer and author Lonnae O'Neal Parker talks about her op-ed, which appeared in Sunday's Washington Post. Her piece details how her love affair with hip-hop turned to contempt, and then to fury.

NEAL CONAN, host:

And now the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. In an op-ed in Sunday's Washington Post, Lonnae - excuse me - Lonnae O'Neal Parker tells a story that a lot of parents can probably relate to. Sydney, her 12-year-old daughter, tunes the car radio to a station that might play rap music, and her mom says no way. For Parker, the confrontation was personal. Growing up in the southern suburbs of Chicago, she says that for her, the message of hip-hop music was liberation, and it gave her - when she was 12 years old - the beginnings of a voice. Hip-hop shaped her politics and her perceptions, but that was 1979.

In her op-ed on Sunday, Parker writes that her love affair with hip-hop ended after years of disappointment with messages of violence, misogyny, materialism and hostile sexual stereotyping. Her love, she writes, turned to contempt and ultimately to fury. Now with her own 12-year-old daughter tuning in, she says finally it's time to fight back. We have a link to her op-ed at our Web site, the TALK OF THE NATION page at npr.org, and we want to hear from you. Do you let your kids listen to hip-hop?

Tell us why or why not. How do you balance claims of misogyny and sexual stereotypes with the value of art and pop culture? Our number is 800-989-8255, 800-989-TALK, and our e-mail address is talk@npr.org. Lonnae O'Neal Parker is a staff writer at The Washington Post and the author of the book I'm Every Woman: Remixed Stories from Marriage, Motherhood, and Work. She joins us now by phone from the Post's Prince George's County bureau in the state of Maryland. Nice to have you on the program today.

Ms. LONNAE O'NEAL PARKER (Staff Writer, The Washington Post; Author): Hi, there. So good to be with you.

CONAN: This all started with a confrontation over what your daughter wanted to hear on the radio. So what happened there?

Ms. PARKER: Well, we're in the car. She typically prefers riding with her dad, anyway, because she gets away with a lot more of this. And she turns to one of the urban contemporary stations, and I just - I've banned that in my car in most cases, simply because my fingers aren't quick enough.

I just never know what's going to spew out of the speakers, and I just - I can't catch everything, and so it's easier just to turn it off and filter the music another way, through the iPod or through the CDs I let her listen to.

CONAN: Well, let's take a listen to some of what we're talking about. This is a song by Ludacris, and one of the biggest songs in the country right now.

Ms. PARKER: Okay, be careful.

(Soundbite of song, “Money Maker”)

LUDACRIS (Rapper): (Rapping): Hey, hey, hey. Shake, shake, shake your moneymaker like you were shaking it for some paper it took your momma nine months to make. Might as well shake what your momma gave ‘ya. You, you lookin' good in them jeans. I bet you look even better with me in between. I keep my mind on my money, money on my mind, but you's a hell of a distraction when you shake your behind. I got you…

CONAN: And one could understand why you wouldn't want your 12-year-old listening to that, and I should note there's much worse.

Ms. PARKER: You know, there's much worse. Ludacris is actually a really good example, because he's a really talented guy. He can rhyme, he's got charisma, he's bright. He doesn't talk about anything, though, or at least when I stopped listening. Like, I haven't even heard that song. But, you know, he - the songs I remember from Ludacris, you know, he talks about he's got all these hos in different area codes, you know, and then he starts rattling off area codes. And he calls himself the Abominable Ho-Man. And I'm just like what, what? To what end are you applying your creativity?

And he isn't even by far the worst example. It's just, it's toxic. And there's a place to listen and dissect the messages and have these teachable moments, and we certainly do that. But overwhelmingly, it's so over the top and offensive and, you know, I don't just have a 12-year-old. I have an 8-year-old and a 4-year-old. You have to just turn it off. You cannot allow that kind of, sort of - those messages and those images into your space. You know, even for the purposes of teaching, which I do and use other kinds of images.

CONAN: I do have to ask, didn't your mother hate the things that you listened to when you were 12?

Ms. PARKER: My mother definitely could not relate to LL Cool J and to UTFO and, you know, EPMD - folks like that. Even NWA, which was early gangster. But it was also part of a - the music had a greater range of expression, so we were able to contextualize a lot of these messages as just one story among many. You know, there was rap that was political. There was rap that was sexy. There was rap that was socially conscious. So we were able to kind of pick and choose. And yes, my mom did have a problem with some of the music, but it wasn't hyper-commodified back then.

And also, according to the Sentencing Project in Washington, D.C. in 2002, one of three black boys born in 2002 was going to prison. So we didn't have the same dire, you know, genocidal kinds of statistics that we have now - the same levels of violence, the same HIV levels, incarceration - those kinds of things. So it's not just the music happening in a vacuum.

CONAN: We're talking today with Lonnae O'Neal Parker on the TALK OF THE NATION Opinion Page. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

You mentioned LL Cool J. There are some songs that don't need to bleeped on the radio. This was one of your favorite artists as a teen. Let's listen to some of this.

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. LL COOL J (Musician): (Rapping) Silky, bilky, your smiles' like sunshine. That's why I had to dedicate at least one rhyme to all the cuties in the neighborhood, ‘cause if I didn't tell you, then another brother would. You're sweet like sugar with your gangsta talk, wanna eat you like a cookie when I see you walk with your rayon, silk, or maybe even denim. It really doesn't matter as long as your in ‘em. You can break hearts and manipulate minds or surrender, act tender, be gentle and kind.

CONAN: Doesn't seem that different from the Ludacris song.

Ms. PARKER: You know what? A lot of - one of the things I argue in the piece is we don't want to be hyper-sexualized, but we don't want to be de-sexualized, either. Black music comes from a tradition where songs were sexy, stretching back to the post-emancipation music of the blues. So we don't want to be erased. LL was sexy in places. He wasn't, you know, he called women cuties and honeys. You know, once she gets going, it's hard to make the hottie stop -things like that. There's - not only is there much less creativity and subtlety about, you know, the sexuality that they are talking about, it's also all they're talking about.

CONAN: Right.

Ms. PARKER: You know, LL just had a range of stuff. By the way, of course, LL stands for Lonnae Loves Cool James. I just wanted to put that out there.

CONAN: Okay, let's get a caller on the line. This is Dee, and Dee's calling us from Dunkirk in Maryland.

DEE (Caller): Yes, hi.

CONAN: Hi.

DEE: I have three children, and this topic is so timely. I have a 12-year-old, a 10-year-old and a 6-year-old. And I recently was driving down the street with my 12 and 10-year-olds, and Promiscuous Girl came on the radio. And I had to stop my car - we pulled over at McDonald's - and I had to explain to my daughter why she was not a promiscuous girl, and why it was not okay for a 12-year-old to sing Promiscuous Girl.

The same with Pimpin' Around the World. That was a song that was out a couple years ago. I had to stop the car and have a teaching moment like your person on the radio was saying. You have to have a teaching moment with your child. I had to stop my car and explain to my son what a pimp is, and how it's not okay to sing about pimpin' around the world. It's just - hip-hop has degraded to a level where I cannot allow my three children to listen to hip-hop songs anymore. It's unbelievable. What happened to the groups like the Jackson 5 or even - I mean, what even happened to…

CONAN: You're sounding old, Dee.

(Soundbite of laughter)

DEE: Okay. I am old. I'm 44 years old. So that's what happens when you wait in your 30s to have children. But the point is it's a scary, scary place to be with small children, that you have to stop your 6-year-old and explain to her what promiscuous means and why it's not okay to be a promiscuous girl.

CONAN: Lonnae Parker, what's to be done?

Ms. PARKER: Well, first of all, I'm going to move us a little bit ahead of the Jackson 5. We can at least get up to Digable Planets.

DEE: Absolutely, Digable Planets. And that's what I have to do. I have to get my 12-year-old - I got my 12-year-old this CD of the group that sings Tennessee. I can't think of their name offhand.

Ms. PARKER: Arrested Development.

DEE: Yes, Arrested Development. I had to get my daughter that CD, and then we talked about what kind of consciousness-raising things that they were talking about in that CD, because unfortunately, I had to go into the back of the stacks, so to speak, in terms of CDs, to find songs that I will allow my children to listen to.

Ms. PARKER: Right. And the things is, you just have to be very deliberate. And I don't want to sort of make a mistake or confuse folks. I'm not saying that there's no room for individual expression. I don't want rap to be sanitized. I don't want it to stray so far from its roots that you would never be able to hear a Public Enemy, although arguably - well, you've got Dead Prez or Lupe Fiasco - arguably, though, you wouldn't hear a Public Enemy now. It strayed in the other way, you know, far from its roots.

But I want the culture still to have room for urban stories and for a gritty reality and for sexuality and all of that. It's just our filter has to be so strong. You used to not be able to hear this stuff on the radio. That was the other thing. So you got adult music when you were an adult, when you knew people who could buy underground music, and that is part of what the problem is now. There's such a hyper-saturation and it's commodified and commercialized, and it's everywhere. It's not even just on the radio. The Disney Channel had a character - a few weeks ago I was watching a Disney short, and the little guy was lamenting that his thug pose doesn't work. Well, that…

CONAN: I'm afraid our time is up, but I wanted to thank you, Lonnae. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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