Hurricane Katrina appears to have signaled hip-hop’s passage from infancy to maturity. Over the years, our elders have castigated us for failing to take reasoned, decisive measures to facilitate political change. Despite voter registration drives, hip-hop conferences and Election Day slogans, we never really seemed intent on actually changing things. As a constituency, we rarely advocated for new laws and public policies. Certainly we have diligent, hardworking activists among us, but their messages were often overshadowed by the glitz and drama of their being rap music celebrities. As a result, the hip-hop generation partied, shook its tail feathers and sought ice rather than social justice.
Hurricane Katrina and its brutal aftermath have forced the hip-hop generation to grow up. Those of us with no actual ties to the evacuees quickly realized that a natural disaster or terrorist attack could have us walking in those Black folks’ shoes. The watershed moment for hip-hop was when rap artist-producer Kanye West decided to depart from NBC’s script for its Katrina telethon and address on national television how inhumanely American citizens were being treated. West did not set out to be a role model, but, like the rest of us, he was hurt and angry that in 2005 it was still okay to denigrate and neglect poor citizens and Black citizens. Instead of worrying about how speaking out could jeopardize his career, West, already a wealthy man, chose his principles over getting more Benjamins. Many in our society who had lost hope needed to see a young Black person of West’s stature step up and publicly speak out against injustice. His actions may embolden others to become agents of change in their own communities.
Unlike the Civil Rights generation, before Katrina the hip-hop generation had not collectively experienced the pain and blatant disregard that often spurs citizens to action. The history of our generation does not contain any “colored” signs, attack dogs or hoses. But Katrina brought an equally potent brand of racism to our doors. Partisans, bigots and the uninformed are beginning to blame the hurricane victims for their situations with comments that suggest had they not been poor, lazy and dysfunctional, this calamity would not have happened. The most problematic notion being advanced is that the government is now giving out freebies to trifling Black folks.
Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission, was quoted in The Washington Post as saying that in New Orleans, “you are dealing with the permanently poor—people who don’t have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves and getting things done and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life.” She continued by saying, “This is a natural disaster that is exacerbated by the problems of the underclass. The chief cause of poverty today among Blacks is no longer racism. It is the breakdown of the traditional family.”
Black actor Terrence Howard echoed Chavez on the Late Show With David Letterman by essentially saying that Katrina victims were accustomed to waiting for help rather than helping themselves. However, he failed to detail what they should have done to be pro-active in this monumental crisis. Former first lady Barbara Bush insinuated that Hurricane Katrina might have been beneficial to its “underprivileged” victims, since they will now be able to start over somewhere new. This woman of privilege cavalierly ignored the major obstacles looming ahead for evacuees who have no homes, no jobs and no identification papers. Comments such as those, coupled with racialized news coverage, are blaring reminders to the hip-hop generation that negative stereotypes about Blacks remain prevalent in our country and that Negroes still live among us. While race may not have played a hand in how the crisis was initially handled, it will no doubt inform public dialogues about how the government should assist the evacuees over the long term.
Hurricane Katrina points to failures of leadership and not to Black sloth. The lingering question for the hip-hop generation is whether there is justice or just us? For many of us in our 30s and early 40s, we have seen firsthand how precarious our situation in this country really is. Moreover, we have seen how hidden racism shapes public perception, which has import on public policy. So, the emergence of real and substantive hip-hop generation politics likely will start with efforts associated with Katrina and build from there. Becoming an adult is not an instant occurrence, so there will be no overnight transformations. The music will no doubt continue, but it will not be the only thing on our minds. We will now also be thinking about what courses of action, in relation to our communities and our government, we need to take to protect our lives, our families, our jobs and our property.
Yvonne Bynoe is the author of Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-hop Culture (Soft Skull Press). She is also a commentator on the National Public Radio program News and Notes with Ed Gordon.
By Yvonne Bynoe