Everyday Struggle: The Colossal Failings Of Hip-Hop Media
In 2018, can the hip-hop landscape find a true journalistic outlet? Does it even want to?
Days after Black Thought seized the culture with his 10-minute exercise in fire-breathing on Funk Flex last month, blogs and social media erupted with quotables and GIF reactions, and rightfully so. This was a moment in hip-hop akin to the “Control” verse, and as a longtime Black Thought evangelist, I relished the moment. Here was a guy who most people under the age of 25 are more likely to refer to as “that dude from Jimmy Fallon with the great beard” than one of the greatest emcees of all-time (with the great beard). And in one take, he had taken over the conversation.
What was missing from this massive event, however, was a second layer of commentary. Not the hot take, but the dissertation. Not the, “Twitter Is Still Recovering From Black Thought's Blistering Hot 97 Freestyle,” but the “Why Black Thought’s Freestyle is a Hallmark Moment in Hip-Hop History.” His work warranted that level of reflection. The best the culture could offer was a three-paragraph piece from Jelani Cobb of the New Yorker that ended as quickly as it began, and felt more like a thesis statement than a complete (Black) thought.
At the same time, it seems we can’t go a full 24 hours without another XXL feature on [Insert Random Rapper Accused of Sexual Assault], or gems like this from Complex’s Featured section: “Woman Convicted of Illegal Butt Injections Dies in Prison.” The sort of stories no one willingly admits they read, but are routinely pushed into the Twittersphere by fans and writers as “need to know” news. Worst of all is the cognitive dissonance in response to the subject matter: we expect more, but settle for far less.
During 2017’s Art of Cool Festival here in Durham, Combat Jack (may he Rest In Power) and 9th Wonder made a call to arms for more writers to enter the arena and better shape the narrative around hip-hop culture. More recently, Nipsey Hussle made a similar assertion — albeit in an insensitive, homophobic way — about controlling the narrative. There is a desire from the gatekeepers to have a higher quality of hip-hop journalism in the mainstream. The question is, do the majority of hip-hop fans feel the same way?
While studying journalism at North Carolina Central University, I feel confident in saying that we, in fact, do not. During my time in HIST 2320 under the tutelage of 9th himself, he would often assert that one of the glaring differences between his many students was their desire to “seek” and to pursue knowledge. His class wasn’t unique in that way. Throughout the mass communications department, there was a disturbing fervor for public relations specialists — you know, the ones that get these ridiculous stories on Page One? — and an equally disturbing lack of interest in real documentation of the culture.
Perhaps it’s the money. As noted by every single one of my professors, public relations professionals make significantly more than your average journalist across both print and digital, and the glamour of following around the Kardashian-West’s or gushing about The Bachelor seems generally more appealing than the hours of deep concentration required for work like that of Ta-Nehisi Coates, Rembert Browne, or Craig Jenkins. Or at least it seems to, based on the opinions of 17-23 year old undergraduate mass communications students at a prominent HBCU. In the age of social media and reality television, our attention is on the outrageous and not the outstanding. The result? Trump and Lil Uzi Vert. Congratulations, America.
Another popular opinion is the “I don’t always want to think” fan, who ascribes their consumption of junk food journalism to being mentally exhausted from the chaos of the 21st century. Look, I get it. When I get home, my cerebral cortex is fried to the point that I’d rather mindlessly watch the Sacramento Kings and Orlando Magic duke it out for title of Worst Basketball Franchise than do stimulating things like write this story (all due respect to Super Empty, Ryan). That doesn’t excuse any of us from the responsibility of being savvy consumers of hip-hop media and how the hip-hop story, our story, is shared with the public.
After the 2016 election, when the Trump administration first injected the idea of “fake news” into the public discourse, subscriptions to the New York Times spiked. The attack on journalism and the overabundance of sensationalist media only fueled readers to pay into the system more with their time and money, helping to produce high-quality reporting they perhaps hadn’t known they needed.
What is going to be the watershed moment that warrants a similar urgency for journalistic integrity in hip-hop? For Ta-Nehesi Coates, it was the election of Barack Obama. For the New York Times, it was the election of Donald Trump. Will it take the election of President West to wake us from this trance?
Justin Laidlaw is the Director of Operations at RUNAWAY, a clothing and media brand based in Durham, North Carolina. He also co-hosts the weekly podcast, The Super Empty Show, available for download every Wednesday morning.