Image is Everything

Posted on March 1, 2008

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60sprotestIt is always awe inspiring to stand in the shadows of momentous historic events. On my way to Jena last year we stopped and toured the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham Alabama. An odd mixture of solemnity, reverence, and accomplishment was felt in the air, mixed with the images of the girls, the explosion, and the community coming together afterwards. I spent this past Tuesday night standing under the sign of the Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta Georgia. This unexpected pause from sound checks and cd sales let my mind scan through a slide show of all the protests and near riots I was shown during black history month. The sense of community and camaraderie that must have existed amongst the thousands who came out to decry the evils of a racist social system had to have been palpable. This was a time when our community’s adversary was clearly defined, wearing uniforms, and based on nothing but centuries of hate.

You might have the fortune to travel down Massachusetts Ave a little later today (March 1, 2008). If you happen by the home of Debra Lee, CEO of BET, you’ll see Rev Coates and his congregation, along with numerous other volunteers getting all 60’s civil rights era on Ms. Lee’s block. Picket signs and raucous chants disturb this upper class neighborhood for hours on end during the weekend. This battle is also about images. Enough is Enough is up in arms over the portrayal of young black people in their video programming. The images synonymous with this generation seem to be the “blinged” out rappers/pimps/drug dealers with scantily clad, physically blessed and racially ambiguous women. They are there protesting the negative images shown on BET and have chosen an old school, outdated and inappropriate way to cause the change they seek. Too many people with righteous intentions are trying to cure the ills of our society like bulldozers, dealing only in absolutes with no understanding of nuance. Like Denzel Washington said in Training Day “This ain’t checkers, this is chess”. Enough is Enough, who uses my video “Read a Book” as an example of BET’s debauchery, is so caught up in reenacting the images of five decades ago that they can’t perceive what they are really protesting against, capitalism!

Picketing a corporation to make them change their practice from a proven business model is a direct attack on capitalism. Now, if you want to attack capitalism we can all turn off our cell phones, do a bug sweep of the room and discuss that in detail. But in real life, very few of Rev Coates’ followers probably understand the awesome undertaking they are participating in. All they know is back in the day, if you had a problem in the way your community was being treated you folded arms with your neighbor and sang “We Shall Overcome”. That was a completely different situation though, when the enemy was the local, state and federal government, not a multi-billion dollar corporation. Social institutions respond to social pressure, businesses react to the business pressure!

Enough is Enough’s website makes a very interesting point, that they can’t just affect the profits of BET by not turning to that particular station because most cable packages make you pay for BET whether you are turning to the station or not. They are currently working for legislation to remedy that. Until then they are reduced to chanting in front of Debra’s house. But there are ways around that, ways to affect Comcast or your Satellite provider. They can collectively decide to not buy cable until they make BET an option instead of part of the standard package. Now, this would entail missing out on ESPN, CNN, The Food Network, Oxygen, a plethora of gospel channels etc.. This might be a bit of belt tightening that is too much for his constituency, but if they are really serious about affecting BET, this seems to be the most effective technique.

GYI0050865466.jpgThe organizations website also makes another interesting point, one that Al Sharpton likes to make on a regular basis. You can’t imagine someone portraying such consistently negative depictions of Jews or gays or any other minority group the way the video programs on BET do. But the power that these groups have in thwarting negative images of them is based in their spending power, and is only bolstered by the media coverage that comes from staging demonstrations, not created by it.

Can you imagine the amount of money you lose in this country, in consumers and investors, if you offend the wrong group? The question then becomes, why haven’t black people flexed that kind of monetary muscle? The only explanation is that we, as a group, have not made the connection to the images and music on BET and the problems that we’re having in our communities. When we battled Jim Crow there was never an issue with convincing people that the system was evil, only whether or not it was safe to protest. Our mission seems to be convincing the masses that they need to be upset and take action. Maybe we are over estimating the importance of the imagery? I doubt that, but I must believe that our lack of understanding of our young people’s real issues and aspirations leads to the inability to be able to guide them away from such negative images.

Beyond the fact that BET is not a social agency and therefore won’t react to social pressure that’s not connected to any financial pressure, they’ve also seemed to miss a very important distinction. Viacom is a corporation, Debra Lee is a person. During the build up and the height of the “Read a Book” hoopla I met numerous executives from the most powerful media and entertainment companies in the country. Beginning with the staff of BET’s animation department and including sub-divisions of every major record label in the country (there are only four). I had numerous lower level executives and A&R’s explain to me how much they loved what I was doing, beyond Read a Book. They all told me in detail how they would love to sign me, but they couldn’t find a way to convince their higher ups that there is a viable market for “conscious” or “positive” hip-hop. We would talk about how tired they are of putting out the same cookie cutter thug rap, and have tried to inject some creativity into their label. At the same time, each of these label exec’s had a platinum plaque or a poster on their wall from one of the recent “ring tone” rappers. They would listen to my project and applaud the lyricism and musicality, then start talking numbers.

This experience led to a very important lesson for me. The employees of these companies know that their programming is acting as a leach, sucking the economic and artistic energy away from their own communities. But they have a job to do. Some of these A&R’s and program directors are trying to find creative ways to circumvent the current programming, but haven’t come up with a formula to beat the proven “Sex, Drugs and Money” fascination that’s rampant in our culture. I would love for Rev Coates to do a poll of his congregation on their jobs and how what they do as a 9 to 5 conflicts with the over all well being of their community. Attacking people for doing their job belies a basic misunderstanding behind the driving force of our economy.

Michael Moore made an outstanding point in the great documentary called The Corporation. He explained the puzzling phenomenon of how a billion dollar corporation would support, through production and distribution, films and other mediums exposing the negative affect of that said corporation on our community. The explanation is simple. They only look at the bottom line. Blind to actual content and intent of any particular product, these corporations don’t care if you’re chanting down Babylon, as long as people are paying to hear it. That’s also why the hilarious episode of the Boondocks (banned from TV and leaked onto the internet) is insightful and entertaining but inaccurate. The execs at BET are not planning the downfall of black people; they are plotting how to make money. If you want to debate the merits of putting making money over the welfare of your community then count me in, but realize that once again you are battling capitalism, the very root of our country. That is a much more daunting task.

Reverend Coates has tapped into something incredibly powerful. To mobilize dozens of people to protest on a Saturday or Sunday instead of watching football or going to the mall is no small feat. This shows strong dedication to a cause and a willingness to sacrifice. I applaud there willingness to take action instead of just complain, like many social commentators do. Couldn’t this energy be directed towards constructing something healthy instead of destroying something you don’t agree with? Let’s use that energy to advocate a viable alternative, or at least inform us if you already are. Give your proactive efforts as much air time as your reactive ones.

In 2008 our young people have so many options to receive their information and entertainment from. My company has various new contracts to create video content for the internet; because the surge of blogs and social chat rooms has created a market for media that many believe is going to compete with the cable television and commercial radio. There are also fledgling cable alternatives targeting our communities like TV One. The production cost of the one episode of the Oprah Winfrey show when she berated hip-hop artists and executives could be used to start a record label or online magazine that would display music and images that Oprah would be proud to support.

If you let someone choose between the obviously clean and the dirty glass of water, he’ll pick the clean one every time. This has to be a concept that Rev. Coates is already familiar with. I doubt if he protests outside of brothels and drug houses, but instead tries to make his own church and congregation a beacon of light for people to be drawn to.

I would love to see Enough is Enough endorsing a hip-hop artist, a concept that my friend and collaborator Cedric Muhammad has cleverly called a “buycott”. Someone who’s message they agree with and whose music moves young people. These artists exist all over the place but are often ignored by main stream media. The mainstream is hard headed about anything different, but I know from personal experience that when you expose a teenager, even ones who are hard core “gangsta rap” fans to a positive and creative song that addresses their real concerns and/or projects an image of their desires and possibilities that they will flock to it. Enough is Enough could stay home in their comfortable chairs in front of their computer and work as said artists promotional team. They could spend that time sending messages to their favorite radio stations, informing the hoards of music fans on myspace and facebook about this artist. They could volunteer to be apart of Nielson ratings and keep their stations turned to positive programming, both edifying themselves and affecting the all important numbers that every media corporation watches.

Wouldn’t it be gratifying to walk into Debra Lee’s office and demand that she plays the video of artist “x” because you have empirical evidence (through the work of your organization) that this message sells, that this is the clean glass that every is thirsty for, that this is the image of the future that our young people can relate and aspire to.

I believe that Coates and Co have not advocated on behalf of any music or videos because they are operating under an old activist model and it just hasn’t occurred to them to be “pro” something instead of “anti” something else. His organization even protested outside of the BET Honors Awards! Someone had to have thought for a second that it would be in their best interest to encourage this program, which was specifically designed to honor our community’s accomplishments in every aspect of society, not just sports and entertainment. At some meeting to plan that protest it didn’t occur to anyone to support this program? They then could let BET know that if they create more programming like this they can expect more support from concerned citizens.

I don’t want to believe that they avoid supporting anything because he knows that the mass media will come and give you much more than 15 minutes of fame if you are protesting something bad in our community, but won’t give you the time of day if you are working diligently on something constructive. Career civil rights activists like Jesse Jackson would never support a grassroots hip-hop movement because at its outset CNN and MSNBC would not be calling him to pontificate about it on their networks. If it became successful, however, he would jump right on and claim to be part of spearheading the movement. The grassroots movement does not have the immediate gratification of seeing people marching arm in arm, but has a long lasting affect on the issue, including the building of an actual infrastructure to combat the ills they are protesting. It will be a slow process but one that will benefit hip-hop music and whatever new art form our young people are naturally cooking up right now that will emerge in the next decade. As the great historian John Henrik Clarke once said “we must begin projects that our grand-children will finish”.

I haven’t met Rev Coates personally, but colleagues who have tell me they believe he is earnest in his intentions to improve our young people’s lives by protecting them from negative images. My challenge to him would be to use the momentum he’s created and begin inundating our youth with positive messages. This effort wouldn’t have to be created from scratch. A quick Google search and you will find numerous organizations with the same concern as Enough is Enough, but who have chosen to take a proactive instead of a reactive approach. Organizations like the Hip-Hop Assocation, Hip-Hop Caucus, and Words Beats & Life are making moves to provide our young people with creative and positive alternatives. Artist all over the country like Strange Fruit Project, Blu and local artists like Tri-Flava and Asheru project a real image of black life and aspirations.

This is what the new movement looks like, young people in front of the camera or behind the microphone, making art that deals with their life and reality, being supported and guided by the adults in their community. It’s the image of young people on their computers and cell phones, forwarding pictures and songs from their new favorite artists. They are still reachable, and they are yearning very hard to be a part of a movement bigger than themselves. It is our job to show them what they can and should be, not just fight against what they should not be. When it comes to outdated tactics, enough is enough. It is time to become proactive.

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