Fear of a Black Network
The main issue is that everybody's upset and nobody knows why. It could be Kunta Kinte or O.J., Clarence Thomas or Frederick Douglass, 2Pac or Dred Scott, Uncle Tom or Colin Powell. Take your pick. There's an awful lot of baggage when it comes to talking about race, plenty to go around. But only to the most ignorant bigot is the color of someone's skin the sole indicator of their worth as a human being. Right? That's common sense. But this grotesque idea has even affected the search for humanity's most transcendent moments, the domain of art and creativity. In a society that supposedly prides itself on such Nineties values as diversity and multiculturalism, and the old standbys of democracy and independence, even our art remains cliquish and exclusionary; when everything is reduced to a black/white/left/right/young/old thang, nobody understands. `Keepin' it real' has its limits.
And yet, N.W.A.'s Straight Outta Compton is, I believe, one of the finest albums ever made. Its great triumph lies in its conversion of street life to wrenchingly graphic but never fabricated imagery, and how it siezes the possibilities of the recording medium to deliver its horrific ghetto screeds. Immediate as a SWAT raid, it forced the hand of all those people responsible for the creation of the gangsta environment, from the rappers themselves to the conservative lawmakers whose slash-&-burn approach to social relief during the Eighties bled whole neighborhoods dry of legitimate opportunity (then there's that CIA-planting-crack-in-da-hood theory). It didn't matter if you were black, white, or purple, Straight Outta Compton told anyone who listened about the ghetto, down to the last nickel bag and AK-47 shell, and how it could move these men to create such a document. Anyone who heard it, particularly "Fuck tha Police," knew how the Rodney King trial would end beforehand.
And there, in the most unlikely place at the King trial, was the safety valve for all this racial tension. Not in the trial itself, but in the way it was presented to America: television. Televison reaches more people than any other medium. Everybody watches TV, and it's becoming increasingly possible for anybody to be on TV. Shit, there are more TV sets in America than voters -- that's power. Much of our racial discourse is conducted on television already -- from Supreme Court decision analyses to malt liquor ads -- so the medium holds powerful sway over the attitudes people form. Sometimes attitudes do change, producing isolated spots of equity. (Well, Men Behaving Badly is just as awful as Homeboys in Outer Space.) Though it's probably best not to ask why MTV airs most of its urban programming during daylight hours, because the channel likes you to think it's different from the days it was almost sued for refusing to air black artists, its acknowledgement of hip-hop and R&B as legitimate (read: profitable) elements of its identity opened up an interracial era in pop music unseen since Elvis and Chuck Berry traded rockabilly licks and top-10 singles. White kids turned on to hip-hop by the thousands, leading to the free-range sonic radicalism of Beck, DJ Shadow, and the Chemical Brothers. Now, there wouldn't be any music television without African-American music, as the glut of videos (BET features hip-hop, R&B/soul, and jazz programming almost as much as Benson and Thea reruns) stretches all the way to public access' Sunday afternoon rap-a-thons.
Elsewhere, HBO's Dennis Miller Live offers acerbic, candid commentary -- frequently more barbed than even Crossfire -- on racial and other hot-button topics. The Fox cable news channel just hired Chuck D as a special correspondent, and any time Chris Rock shows up -- on his side-splitting '96 Bring the Pain special, Politically Incorrect, or Late Night With Conan O'Brien -- he's worth watching. His "Niggaz vs. Black People" routine from Bring the Pain and his CD Roll With the New is as hysterically dead-on as Pryor, Murphy, or Hicks. Think about it. Every time we laugh at an O.J. joke on Politically Incorrect (from what must be host Bill Maher's infinite archive), cringe at Sipowicz's Cro-Magnon prejudices on NYPD Blue, gape at "Marry Outside Your Race and You're Out of the Family" on Jerry Springer, howl at Rock describing the "Tossed Salad Man," or otherwise confront our own racial attitudes through the window of television, and not through violence or ignorance, we're helping cool ourselves and the country out that much more. Peace.