Oprah: hip hop is hate speech set to a beat

by Carmen Van Kerckhove

Oprah delivered a speech at Bennett College’s fundraising event on Friday. She talked about the stuff you’d expect from her (personal development, spirituality, etc.) but interestingly enough, according to this DiversityInc article, she also spent about a third of the time discussing hip hop. And it wasn’t a positive take, to say the least:

Oprah also spent roughly one-third of her time discussing hip-hop music and her opinion of the debilitating effect of misogynistic and racist lyrics. She riveted the audience with historical anecdotes of slavery, Jim Crow and the civil-rights era and pointed out that the last word a lynched person heard was the N-word. She pointedly criticized blacks for taking hate speech, “setting it to a beat and dancing to it.”

She described her mainly unsatisfactory talks with hip-hop artists and her understanding that as a 52-year-old woman, she could be seen as “out of touch.” But she wasn’t out of touch when she told the audience that their generation “didn’t know who they were.”

Ouch. I agree that there are a lot of problematic aspects of hip hop, but I also think it gets an unfair share of criticism. You can find the exact same problems of misogyny, materialism, and general buffoonery in good old-fashioned rock ‘n roll too. And these criticisms of hip hop always overlook the fact that what you hear on Top 40 radio does not represent all of hip hop.

Rappers have been name-checking various black thought leaders for years now (everyone from Marcus Garvey to Huey Newton, from Maya Angelou to W.E.B. DuBois, just to name a few). I wouldn’t be surprised if many folks were first introduced to these figures through their favorite rapper and were encouraged to read their books because of hip hop. It’s pretty narrow-minded to assume that hip hop can only have a negative effect on its listeners.

I also have to say that as a member of the “hip hop generation” (defined by Bakari Kitwana as folks born between 1965 and 1984), I’m very put off by her claim that someone like me doesn’t know who I am.

Every movement is going to experience tensions between older and newer generations – that’s natural. But I definitely think that sweeping generalizations like this, that pretty much insult an entire generation, don’t do much good in bridging the oft-cited gap between the civil rights generation and the hip hop generation. People of our generation are probably much more conscious than she thinks.