This strategy also encompasses the challenges, or possibilities, of product marketing. In the 1980s, hip-hop’s primary audience was black, male and urban. In the 1990s, as in this century, young suburban white men were hip-hop’s dominant audience; they bought more of the music than any other demographic.
When its audience was black, hip-hop embraced black nationalism, Afrocentrism and social consciousness; it was rebellious and almost always antidrug. After the audience whitened, many MCs embraced criminality and sold the image of the criminalblackman. Black nationalism was out, embodying drug dealers was in.
Hip-hop could have grown into a challenge to the war on drugs but instead accepted it as a fact of life and told bluesy, or braggadocious, stories about its part in it. In the 2010 smash “B.M.F. (Blowin’ Money Fast),” Ross enthusiastically embodies the drug dealer and in the chorus, likens himself to two gigantic drug-world figures: “I think I’m Big Meech! Larry Hoover! Whippin’ work! Hallelujah!”
This is as far from Melle Mel’s antidrug stories as we can get. Ross is just one of many whose music idolizes dealers, and who carry scars from the drug trade like medals. They swallow the stereotype whole. Ross’s entire career reflects this shift: He is a former corrections officer who took on the name of a legendary cocaine dealer — “Freeway” Ricky Ross — and proclaimed himself “the biggest boss that you’ve seen thus far” in his song “The Boss.” He’s just one of many MCs who have made millions by swallowing the drug-dealer stereotype whole, and thus deploying the drug problem and the criminalblackman myth for personal gain.
The nation surely failed its black male citizens by targeting and imprisoning them when joblessness and the crack epidemic left them with few real options. They were conveniently villainized, arrested and warehoused to help politicians, judges, prosecutors and police win the public trust.
But hip-hop also failed black America, and failed itself. It’s unavoidable that hip-hop and the war on drugs would become intertwined. But the music could have been a tool of resistance, informing on the drug war’s hypocrisies instead of acquiescing to them. Hip-hop didn’t have to become complicit in spreading the message of the criminalblackman, but the money it made from doing so was the drug it just couldn’t stop getting high on.
Touré is the co-host of “The Cycle,” which airs at 3 p.m. daily on MSNBC, and the author of “Who’s Afraid of Post-Blackness? What It Means to Be Black Now.” Follow him on Twitter: @Toure.