Notes on “An Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey”
By Taalam Acey
I want to approach this critique cautiously if only because these ideas areÂ among my most sincere. I applaud you for writing your “Open Letter to Oprah Winfrey,” and though it took me awhile to get around to reading it, I’m glad I did. When James Baldwin remarked that, “The poet or the revolutionary is there to articulate the necessity,” I’m sure that your open letter was the sort of agitation he had in mind.
I was not born of a minister and school teacher. Instead my parents were Black Nationalists in Imamu Amiri Baraka’s Committee for a Unified Newark. Unlike you, I was influenced by both Rakim and June Jordan. I affirm these things because they will no doubt color the critique that follows.
As for the illustrious Ms. Winfrey, I too grew up watching her on television. As a teen, my mother had me read Alice Walker’s “The Color Purple.” In the film, Ms. Winfrey’s portrayal of Sofia was exactly how I envisioned it. It was not surprising that she garnered one of that film’s 11 Oscar nominations (though, the film somehow didn’t win a single Oscar).
Of more relevance here, however, is that Ms. Winfrey, ironically, played a major role in my appreciation for gangsta rap. In 1989, Harpo, her company, produced (and she starred in) Gloria Naylor’s “The Women of Brewster Place.” Back then I was sure that white America despised young Black men. However, in my 18th year, her mini-series convinced me that Black women might hate us even more. I felt demonized. Though, I didn’t care much for “hard core rappers” beforehand, after Brewster Place, my feelings of betrayal rendered their messages vital.
A few months later, when Ms. Winfrey donated $1 million dollars to your alma mater, I remember thinking it had to be a function of her guilt.
Since then, she has given repeatedly and contributed to the education of hundreds of Morehouse students. I no longer doubt her sincerity. Still, I have come to believe there is a dichotomy in her perception of young black males. She hasÂ gone on record about being sexually abused by relatives (including a 19 year old cousin) beginning when she was 9 years old. However, she also credits moving in with her father as saving her life. In fact, while Vernon Winfrey was named by her mother as only one of a few potential fathers, he nevertheless took responsibility for Oprah and refused paternity tests throughout her life.
I mention none of this to be disrespectful to Ms. Winfrey. She is a self-made billionaire, Television Hall of Fame inductee and media mogul. Yet, she is also human and, like the rest of us, her past experiences may shed light on her current convictions.
Thus, having discussed the above, I’d like to assert that many of today’s rap lyrics conform more to the values of her 19-year-old cousin than they do those of her father.
I love Hip-Hop. It is and has always been sacred to me. There was something spiritual about Rakim’s flow and something evangelical about KRS-One’s diatribes. In high school, I spent time with Queen Latifah and was pretty close with Cut Master DC (of “Brooklyn’s in the House” fame). I attended shows at Union Square, The Tunnel and even The Castle in the South Bronx. I almost don’t know where to stop… During my teens, I got to drive Red Alert from a show in Jersey back to NY and talked him to death. I remember dancin’ to Crash Crew records, arguing over who was the best emcee in the Fearless Four, losing my mind when the Sugar Hill Gang and The Furious Five did a record together. There are entire Slick Rick, Rakim and Biggie songs that I still know word for word. Believe me, I too am a hip hop head.
Hip Hop in its organic form is [Grandmaster Flash and The Furious Five featuring] Melle Mel’s “The Message.” Nevertheless, there’s always been room for Ice Cube and Snoop. They had a story to tell. Our problem now has become that the stories are being told ad nauseam and by people who not only haven’t lived them, but aren’t inspired to tell them.
I’m into Spoken Word, one of many forms of poetry. There can be no doubt that rap is another. True, all rappers are not poets. But, even by the definition you applied, all Spoken Word artists aren’t poets either. Few artists of any artform operate from a sincerely vulnerable place. That is not a Hip-Hop phenomenon.
The problem is bigger than vulnerability. When you declared, “There is no true hatred of women in Hip Hop,” I can only assume that you meant in the Hip-Hop that you and other “Backpackers” support—those of you who choose “to associate…with the more “conscious” or politically astute artists of the Hip Hop community.” Surely you don’t believe that today’s rappers intend their endless litany of “Bitch,” “Ho,” and “Slut” as displays of affection.
I agree with you that, at our root, we inherently worship the feminine. Sadly it seems that for most of us now, at all points above our root, we’ve begin to worship money more. The problem with most of Hip-Hop is that it’s being co-opted. I cannot imagine what, if any point, you were attempting by mentioning that 50 Cent and George Bush share a birthday. I agree that George Bush is one of the gangsters that control this country, but I am certain that 50 Cent is not one of the “gangsters” that controls Hip-Hop. He may control his entourage and his bank account, but not much more. Curtis Jackson is an “artist,” not a mogul. So can you tell me if Lyor Cohen or Jimmy Iovine share a birthday with Bush? That might be slightly relevant.
You are right that “Censorship will never solve our problems.” Boycotting the sponsors of a radio show that made disparaging remarks about young black girls isn’t censorship though. In America, dollars vote. It is not censorship to use your dollars to vote a bigot off the air. The dramatic decline in the sale of rap records since 2005 is also not due to censorship. People are voting for change. We no longer care to support songs about how your car and house are better than mine because you’re really good at selling crack to my children.
This is a serious social issue and has nothing to do with the depiction of G*d in Christianity or any other religion. I’ve heard the argument about the proper Holy Trinity being man, woman and child, previously. I’ve attended lectures about instances of chauvinism in organized religion. Still I take issue with the logic that the Western depiction of G*d has driven emcees crazy.
You concluded by saying:
“If we are to sincerely address the change we are praying for then we must first address to whom we are praying.”
That’s the point, emcees have begun praying to mammon. Most mainstream rappers no longer take pride in their lyricism. They simply write whatever the record company believes it can easily sell. The problem is selfishness, not religion. Believe me, we haven’t reached this point in our history because too many rappers have become obsessed with studying the Bible.
This particular weapon of mass destruction is NOT the one that asserts that a holy trinity would be “a father, a male child, and a ghost.” This weapon of mass destruction IS wealthy racist white men who exploit and mass market poor young black men who are willing to denigrate themselves for money. We do not require disconnected excuses, only change.
The primary problem with rappers today is selfishness. That’s the very quality that separated Oprah’s father from her 19-year-old cousin. I’ll end by saying there’s nothing more vulnerable than a broke talentless rapper in the hands of a racist white media mogul. In the end, I hope you understand that these notes are not about you and I but, instead, the masses of oppressed people who deserve to know the truth.