Rap, Riots & Rodney: How Rodney King Changed Hip-Hop
On March 3rd, 1991, what started off as just another case of a brotha gettin' beat down by the po-po, would set off a chain of events that would forever change the socio-political dynamics of America, especially for the hip-hop generation.
Although, the beating of Rodney King -- by four Los Angeles police officers -- happened 20 years ago, the shock waves from the event are still being felt today. To grasp the gravity of the situation, one has to look at it in historical terms.
The period of the late 80's was, possibly, the most revolutionary since the '60's, as the combination of Reaganomics and racial incidents -- such as the Virginia Beach and Crown Heights incidents -- had pushed America, once again to the brink of revolution. There was also a cultural revolution happening on America, where Black youth were re-discovering the works of heroes such as Malcolm X and Huey P. Newton. The rapidly maturing hip-hop genre also began to absorb the changes, as the party music of the early 80's began to become what Public Enemy frontman, Chuck D, coined "The CNN of Black America."
While the music was previously seen as "fad" and "just a blip on the radar screen of middle America," the idea of rebelling "ghetto youth", using rap music as an unregulated form of information dissemination, sent a shock through America's political foundation.
This is not the first time that the rising collective voice of "the silent minority" became a matter of national security.
According to the March 21, 1993 edition of the Memphis Commercial Appeal, in 1917, a Lt Col. Ralph Van Deman created the Army's black spy network, which snitched on black organizations, even black churches. The article names Robert Morton of Booker T. Washington's Tuskegee Institute, and Joel Spingarn, one of the founders of the NAACP, as operatives in the spy network.
In the book, Heard it Through the Grapevine, Patricia A. Turner wrote that "rumor clinics" were set up during World War II to "prevent potentially adverse hearsay of all sorts from gaining credibility."
Also, although the FBI's COINTELPRO is the best known of the "dirty trick" operations of the civil rights/Black Power Era, Clay Risen, in his book A Nation On Fire: America in the Wake of the King Assassination, wrote about the Army Operations Center and "its first operations plan for national disturbances, code named Steep Hill." Risen also talks about the U.S. Army Intelligence Command (USAINTC), which included 1000 agents "around the country whose job was to spy on militants" and "monitor indicators of imminent violence."
The entertainment industry was not immune of the fear of a black uprising. In Peter Doggett's book, There's a Riot Going On, he wrote about how James Brown was hired by the mayor of Boston, Kevin White, to throw a concert the night after the King murder to keep the natives calm.
From the very beginning, it has been clear that America's fear was not for the thugs in the street, stealing hubcaps, but the fear that they may become politicized, intelligent hoodlums. So on April 29, 1992, the day the police officers were acquitted of beating King, the apparatus was already in place to deal with young "urban" youth, who were chanting hip-hop lyrics, challenging the system as their mantra.
As rebellions took place in cities across the country, even the watchful eye of the Feds underestimated the politicizing of the youth, courtesy of rap lyrics. The site of "gangstas" articulating the political ideologies of Frantz Fanon on "Night Line" caught politicians with their pants down.
According, to the May 11, 1992, Time Magazine article, "How TV failed to Get the Real Picture", it was reported that LA mayor Tom Bradley "requested" that in the midst of the chaos that the highly rated "Cosby Show" air as an exercise in "crisis counter-programming." However, this was not 1986 and black youth were more responsive to the voices of the X-Clan, than they were "Dr. Heathcliff Huxtable."
So, another form of "crisis counter-programing" had to be developed that would insure that rebellions like what happened in L.A. would never happen again.
Even before the L.A. rebellion, President George Bush had instituted the "Weed and Seed Program", which many residents of Los Angeles, such as those interviewed in the book, Uprisng by Yusef Jah and Sister Shah Keyah, considered a spy operation. The official purpose of Weed and Seed was to "weed" out gang members and in their places, "seed" the hood with community programs.
So, we see the same strategy was used in hip-hop as the biggest threat to this country's racial hegemony, "conscious rappers" were weeded out and the industry was seeded with "gangsta" rappers.
One can clearly see how the careers of early conscious rappers suffered because of their courage to speak truth to power. However, the "gangster rappers" of the period became multi-millionaires and were rewarded with movie scripts and endorsement deals.
It is against this historical backdrop that two major post-L.A. rebellion developments took place.
First, the "no snitching" ethos was taken out of its historical context and was been replaced with a scapegoat for black on black violence and the demonetization of entire black neighborhoods. Conveniently forgotten were the various government-sponsored snitch operations that had plagued the black community for decades.
More important is the overall anti-political direction of commercial hip-hop, where -- instead of "Cosby" crisis programming -- the hip-hop artists are now part of preemptive crisis programming, where the minds of the youth are distracted by such things as face tattoos. This can help to explain, in part, why the incidents of police brutality in cities such as Cincinnati, New York, Oakland and Houston generated relatively little outcry.
Some may argue that times have changed and the season of "fighting the power" is a part of a bygone era. However, with incidents of global outrage taking place from Egypt to Wisconsin, maybe not.
Perhaps Ice Cube was right when he once rapped: "April 29th brought power to the people, and we just might see a sequel."
Only the 'hood knows....
The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author, Truth Minista Paul Scott, who blogs at MilitantMindMiltia.com. He can be reached at [email protected] or (919) 451-8283. Or visit him online for more information.