When Mike Thomas was a kid growing up in the Bronx, hip-hop was everywhere. He would buy hip-hop CDs from guys on the street. One of the first songs that really spoke to him was Jay-Z’s “Hard Knock Life,” which sampled the song of the same name from the musical “Annie.”
“It’s the hard-knock life for us
It’s the hard knock life for us
’Steada treated, we get tricked,
’Steada kisses, we get kicked!”
“He talked about growing up in the ghetto,” said Thomas, 20, a junior at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs. “The [music] video looked like where I’m from. The chorus from ‘Annie’ kind of drew me in. I felt like I understood what he was saying.”
But as he got older, some hip-hop lyrics began to trouble him. “I was disappointed in what I was hearing, in terms of images and music, the hyper-masculinity and homophobia,” he said. “It was degrading. It was becoming less complex. … It kind of made the people around me simple as well. As a teenager, you’re going through a lot, but if hip-hop is your main source of information and it’s dumbing down and you don’t have a great education to begin with, it’s destructive.”
Thomas and fellow student Danny Tejada, 20, are the co-founders of the Hip Hop Alliance, a Skidmore group that officially formed last December. On Thursday, the group will sponsor a discussion, titled “The N Word,” at 7 p.m. in Bolton 282. Those who attend are encouraged to read an excerpt from a book, Jabari Asim’s “The N-Word: Who Can Say It, Who Shouldn’t, and Why,” before the forum. At the forum, they will watch an episode of “The Boondocks,” the cartoon about two black children growing up in the suburbs, listen to a song by rapper Sha Stimuli called “The N-Word” and watch a Def Poetry clip of a reading by poet Julian Curry.
The Hip Hop Alliance has sponsored two other discussions this year, on homophobia in hip-hop and degrading and sexual lyrics/images in hip-hop. Tejada said the goal is to promote a positive atmosphere for discussion; people are asked to be respectful. “The aim of these discussions is to engage and challenge students, faculty and administration,” he said.
“People are tentative about talking about these issues,” Thomas said. “We’re using hip-hop as a bridge for taking them into the conversation.” Hip-hop, he said, is a good bridge because “it’s universal. It’s a global force and it reaches young people, and young people are supposed to be the future of the world.”
The “N word” is widely regarded as a deeply offensive racial slur; comedian Michael Richards — Kramer on the sitcom “Seinfeld” — was roundly criticized when he used the word in a tirade directed at hecklers at a comedy club, and in a 2007 ceremony the NAACP organized a mock funeral in downtown Detroit to bury the word. When rapper Nas decided to title his upcoming album “N-----” he drew criticism from some black leaders, such as the Rev. Jesse Jackson.
Tejada said Nas is trying to stimulate discussion. On one song, titled “This is Not America,” he raps about sexism and racism. “Nas says this album is like talking to children about sex,” Tejada said. “It’s uncomfortable, but it’s important.”
Thomas, a sociology major, said he’s torn about the N word, which comes from a Semitic word meaning “king or honorable person.” Perhaps, he said, it’s possible for that positive meaning to be restored.
Finding the positive
Tejada, a Brooklyn native who is majoring in American studies, said he fell in love with hip-hop culture listening to old school rap from the 1980s, such as Run DMC, Public Enemy and the Sugar Hill Gang.
Like Thomas, he began to question some of the lyrical content when he got older; right now he’s working on a paper focusing on misogyny and violence in rap lyrics for his black feminist thought class. “Positive messages are not in the mainstream anymore,” he said. “Positive messages are out there, but they’re not as common.”
Now Tejada listens to “rappers like Nas, Ludacris, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco.” These rappers are positive, although “some of them do degrading songs.” He also likes lesser-known up-and-coming rappers, such as New York City-based Mickey Factz.
He and Thomas both promote underground rappers on mix tapes they create. “We help get them out there,” he said. “My favorite rappers are promoting positive things.”
But Tejada also believes people tend to criticize hip-hop for offensive content while giving movies and other musical genres a pass. These critics, he said, don’t always understand hip-hop. “We use hip-hop as a tool,” he said. “It’s a mirror, a reflection of larger society.”
“A lot of kids on campus do listen to hip-hop, but they’re not real educated on it,” Tejada said. “Hip-hop was about unity at first. It was a medium for change. Then it became what it is today.”