"Roman Candle" turns 20: Secrets of Elliott Smith's accidental masterpiece (slideshow)
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Topics: Entertainment News
Don Imus’ shocking comments about the Rutger’s women’s basketball team were problematic enough on their own, but after the shock jock was fired from both of his jobs, the conversation has evolved — on talk radio, cable TV and water coolers the world over — into a discussion of hip-hop culture and rap. The I-Man defended himself by saying that rappers “routinely defame and demean women” and slander them “worse than I ever did.” So now, a controversy centered around one man’s bad judgment has turned into a public debate about the possible harmful effects of rap music, and whether it is to blame for keeping racist and misogynist imagery and language alive in the public sphere.
We surveyed the cultural commentators we most wanted to hear from to answer the question everyone suddenly wants to ask: Is rap music responsible for promoting racist imagery — and if so, should there be consequences?
Here’s what they had to say.
— David Marchese
If hip-hop is defined by 50 Cent, Lil Jon and the stuff that’s commercial today you might make that argument. But the truth is there are a wide array of hip-hop artists out there — from MF Doom to Common to Immortal Technique — who rep other perspectives but who are viewed as either too underground or exceptions to the gangsta rules. The mass media, and much of the adult black and white community, define hip-hop by a narrow prism of attitudes. But the truth is there is no truly “acceptable” hip-hop. People wax nostalgic for the days of PE, Boogie Down Productions, etc., but they forget how much heat those acts and others took for their complicated views of black reality. Hip-hop’s vitality is directly related to its rebelliousness. You can tame it if you like (or try to), but whatever the result, it won’t be hip-hop.
— Nelson George, author of “Hip Hop America” and director of “Life Support”
Rap music, alone, is not responsible for promoting racist imagery. Those who define rap music as such are ignoring a significant part of the music and its artists who focus their music beyond the stereotypical and degrading images of black people that have dominated the entertainment industry throughout American history.
If the question is attempting to address the corporate, commodified and packaged hip-hop music industry, which has helped enrich major record labels and corporate conglomerates, then the answer is no because even within the arena of corporate hip-hop there are rap artists whose music doesn’t peddle racist imagery. For example, Lauryn Hill, Public Enemy, the Fugees, Queen Latifah, Lupe Fiasco, Kanye West have all created very popular rap music that does not promote racist imagery. The answer to this second question is mixed b
So if rap music isn’t in and of itself responsible, who should shoulder the blame? Of course individual consumers must bear some responsibility for financially supporting products without criticism. But mostly the onus falls on not the powerless, but the powerful across the board: hip-hop artists who do peddle these images; filmmakers and television producers who create dramas like “The Wire” and animated television shows like “The Boondocks” and stand-up comedy shows that do the same; corporate record executives who turn a blind eye in the interest of the bottom line; radio programming executives who decide what we hear on the airwaves and how often; the Federal Communications Commission for enforcing the law arbitrarily and far too often kissing up to corporate power; our government for failing to take a stand on what we allow our children to be exposed to under the auspices of freedom of speech.
— Bakari Kitwana, director of Rap Sessions: Community Dialogues on Hip-Hop (www.rapsessions.org) and the author of “The Hip-Hop Generation.” He’s currently heading a 10-city tour called “Does Hip-Hop Hate Women?”
Yes, rap plays on racist imagery every day, and the more racist it is the more it is defended as authentic and “keepin’ it real.” Rap’s success with young white people (its major market) has a lot to do with being edgy and overly violent and overly sexual. Having black musicians grant them a free pass to use the N-word and speak of black people as gangsters, thugs and amoral criminals is an added benefit. This is a veil on the 21st century minstrel show with the rappers jumping Jim Crow. The most pernicious part of this is the damage done to young black and Hispanic people searching for a strong identity, a sense of who they are in America. Rap’s imagery tells them they have a presence in the American mind and media only when the young men are threatening if not violent and dressed like they just got out of prison — the hip-hop fashion of pants drooping below your underwear as if the jail guards have taken your belt and a do-rag on your head because you don’t have a comb and no one sees you in your cell. Rap’s imagery for young women of color is also poison: They have a presence only if they are half-naked and gyrating as sex toys for boys. This mix of soft porn, violence and racism is at the heart of rap, both music and video. It makes racism more acceptable and offers excuses for the Imus crowd because they can say they are repeating the language of rap.”
— Juan Williams, author of “Enough — The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America and What We Can Do About It”
Let’s examine the question from a certain white male viewpoint.
What’s a white man to do, given history?
If Africans had come here as citizens instead of slaves, white men would never have had to argue over their right to be citizens. We wouldn’t have to argue about them at all.
If African-Americans hadn’t spent over four centuries creating their version of an English many whites found so seductive, intriguing and sexually empowering in ways that only a man can truly understand — that it was taken into our literature, our theater, our music, our everyday speech and our culture as a whole — if that hadn’t happened, then Don Imus could have insulted black people using our language, not theirs. He could have used Anglo-Saxon English to express his opinion of those Rutgers female athletes. Like “coarse-haired sluts.” Or “woolly-headed (that’s a term we used to love) wenches.” Some say that “jigaboo” is of Scotch or Irish origin. But “wannabe” has traced back to a black man. If African-Americans did not use their own language to mock, criticize and insult themselves, a man like Don Imus might not have to go on believing they deserve to be mocked, criticized and insulted.
Now Don Imus has lost his job. He can no longer earn a good living by using a language of insults that African-Americans invented. But certain African-Americans can go on using this language to earn very good livings.
No African-American has ever had the right to earn more money insulting black people — black women in this case — than a white man. And so it is essential that the blame be placed back where it belongs: on African-Americans.
Would racism even exist if they had refused to come to America in the first place?
— Margo Jefferson, author of “On Michael Jackson”
Like most media junkies/media workers in America I spent most of last week wondering if Imus would bite the dust behind calling a group of African-American athletes kinky-haired so and so’s. In the process I too learned that [Rutger's women's basketball coach] C. Vivian Stringer and her team are far more estimable human beings than most of us will ever be, not because they forgave Imus, but because they set a new bar for sustained human dignity and ethical lucidity in the cartoon face of what passes for political discourse in this country.
Re Imus and rap: Ultimately Imus’ professional mistake was in not being as media-savvy as your average hip-hop MCs, who only target each other by name for personal insults and, generally speaking, don’t identify their bitches, hos and pussies by race or name and sometimes not even by feminine gender, since by inference we’ve come to understand that other men can be bitches, hos and pussies too.
Regardless of your wording, I know Salon means to ask, “Does the hip-hop industry promote sexism, racism and greed?” Absolutely. “Now just who owns the hip-hop industry?” would of course be Salon’s follow-up question. Obviously, as we all know, the same captains of the American consumer products and media industries who decided Imus had to go — and not because his decrepit comedic tongue flagrantly, unconsciously and unconscionably conflated racism and sexism in ways that hadn’t been heard flowing so trippingly in public off a well-established and feared white man’s tongue since Thomas Jefferson, but because he had suddenly become a very bad investment. Thank God for laissez-faire capitalism, the self-correcting invisible hand of the market, and all that other good doo-doo kaka.
Salon probably also means to ask, “Do the black content providers at the top of the hip-hop industry management chain help promote sexist and stereotypical images of the American Negro for majority white consumption?” Ab-so-fucking-lutely. Like Imus, however, they also exist at the behest of their corporate masters, and if they should ever be so uncharacteristically unsound in judgment as to offhandedly label an actual person, living or dead, a nappy-headed trollop, they too will likely get the boot. Or maybe not, if they can get her labeled crazy and unstable first. See Anita Hill, Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, for historical reference.
In an age of ambiguity, shifting ethical standards, various legal quagmires, eroding notions of civility, public decency, and constitutional rights, blah blah blah, I’m glad, thanks to Ms. Stringer and her sterling team, that the line that has finally been drawn in the sand is one that forces us all to acknowledge that some normal black women can be human beings too.
My own black neocultural nationalist heartstrings did however get quite the tug when I saw the National Association of Black Journalists, Sharpton, Jesse, Bruce Gordon, Oprah, Al Roker (!) and Barack all “black-up” (like man-up, only blacker and less masculinist) agree on something. My own post-bippie (sic, courtesy Redd Foxx), Hendrix-loving inner integrationist also got a kick out of seeing a rainbow coalition of progressives, feminist and not, coalesce around anything but Bush for the first time since Watergate.
That all said, I also realize that post-Imus I remain something of a hip-hop hypocrite — that I really don’t believe an Imus has the same rights and privileges in public discourse as a Young Jeezy, if only because I believe Jeezy’s publicly broadcasted genocidal hate speech, though in actuality more protected by Viacom, the FCC and Polygram than the First Amendment, is still “fiction,” not white-supremacist diatribe, even though both encourage racial, sexual and psychological violence against young black women. This is what you might call one’s bass-ackwards cultural biases in action.
James Baldwin always reminded us that utter dishonesty frames most discussions about race and sex in America. Ntozake Shange tells us black people are the subconscious of America. In tandem they suggest black women are likely the nation’s collective unconscious, the ground on which our racial and sexual mythologies have been savagely formed.
Imus and the hip-hop industry were both found to share a philosophy: Black bitches ain’t shit but hos and tricks. But since the new/old racism demands the dishonest illusion that only black people hate black people, Imus crossed a line he didn’t even know existed. The dishonesty lurking in the American subconscious made him believe real and fictional black women were interchangeable and therefore fair game for any predatory old pale-faced fool’s public abuse.
Salon might also ask, “Do powerful black men do enough in public to make black women feel loved, respected and protected?” That’s what ya call one of them rhetorical questions.
In conclusion: Yet do I marvel at the power of hip-hop, still so marginal in American culture as a whole, if we use the minimal radio, television, film, news and even Internet space it occupies as a guide, to be the frame through which we will now attempt to grapple with the nation’s racist-, sexist-, greed- and gossip-ridden soul. I think, except for Stringer and her team, we all must be out of our cotton-picking minds.
— Greg Tate, author of “Everything but the Burden: What White People Are Taking From Black Culture” and “Midnight Lightning: Jimi Hendrix and the Black Experience”
I have been a participant, lover, critic and consumer of hip-hop for more than two decades and not once have I ever considered hip-hop culture racist. Not even when its most commercial elements — rap music and videos — produce sexist, misogynist, homophobic, violent, hyper-masculine content that exploits some of the undeniable pathologies that exist in the black community and mass-markets them for a consumer base (much of it white) far too comfortable with limited expressions of black youth culture’s lowest common denominators.
So is hip-hop racist? No, but like black-on-black crime, disproportionately high intraracial rates of domestic violence and sexual assault, and the alarming rate HIV/AIDS cases in the black community, hip-hop at its worst is a tragedy with many unsung victims. Despite the similarities in language, Don Imus’ racist, sexist comments (amazing how sexism gets lost in this conversation) are not representative of all rap music or hip-hop culture. It does highlight those areas in the culture, specifically the black community, where sexism and self-hatred intersect in particularly painful ways.
As for those misguided souls who don’t think that Imus should be punished because “rappers say those things too,” black women don’t like it when rappers indulge in verbal misogyny at our expense either. But if Imus’ comments have inspired others to move from silent outrage to action, then perhaps a higher purpose has been served. What is frustrating to me is the way mainstream media has colluded with certain black leaders and media personalities who are woefully out of touch with hip-hop culture to launch the “Enough Is Enough” rallying cry. I’m so whatever with that. Hip-hop has always had its own critics — writers, scholars, activists, feminists, filmmakers like myself, Kevin Powell, Bakari Kitwana, Elizabeth Mendez Berry, Mark Anthony Neal, Tracy Sharpley-Whiting, Rosa Clemente, Byron Hurt, Tim’m West, MC Lyte, Yo-Yo, Davey D, Moya Bailey, Michael Eric Dyson, Greg Tate — who have been dedicated to doing the incredibly gratifying, hands-on and unsexy underground work of critical self-examination and consciousness-raising in the last 20 years. Our motivation? We love hip-hop enough to hold it to its highest standards.
— Joan Morgan, author of “When the Chickenheads Come Home to Roost: My Life as a Hip-hop Feminist”
The framing of the question reveals the poor language at hand to get at the problems provoked by controversial art. Rap music certainly can promote vile images of women and other blacks, but I wouldn’t call it racist. That term suggests a relation of power exercised by folk with the ability to impose significant harm with the backing of official culture — for instance, the state through police brutality.
There is, however, a great deal of bigotry and prejudice that flows in the stream of some hip-hop lyrics. Long before the Imus affair, there had been great concern in black quarters about the harmful impact of gangsta rap’s lethal misogyny and its glorification of violence. But not until white bodies are at stake do black bodies become relevant or noticed — and only then as a prop for a larger mainstream agenda, even if that is to prove how harmful black pop culture is and, by contrast, how even a powerful, arrogant white man like Imus can’t escape its influence.
So the big point really isn’t to score rap for its vicious sexism — if that were the case the mainstream white media would have been on the bandwagon a long time ago. It is to partially exonerate a racist and bigoted representative of its own ranks, in part to exonerate all those other white journalists who either appeared on his show or stood by in silence while he had his way with whatever vulnerable group he chose to attack that day. The white media has to scapegoat rap now to cleanse its hands of the blood — and to wipe clean its conscience — of the suffering of citizens, like black women, it never cared enough to oppose before Imus put his foot in his mouth. Black women are a footnote — and an afterthought — to the controversy.
Thus, all the hand-wringing and feigned horror over how young black males could ever speak about their women in such hateful tones is the delayed reaction of the partially guilty — not through active discourses of assault as with Imus, but through the passive indifference to the plight of women they didn’t care enough about either to learn their condition or to cry out over it on their airwaves. As we’ve seen in the last week, when white media elites are so inclined, they can use the airwaves to tell stories of black life with far more time and resources in one week than they’re used to spending in a year. If black women matter, they can’t just matter when white men mess up.
It is typical of a media that ignores black life that it also ignores the outrage black folk have felt about rappers spitting invective toward its women since the early ’90s. And it’s equally apparent that the white media has no interest in the fierce debate raging within hip-hop about its future and soul. Hundreds of “conscious” rappers who extol the virtues of black female identity — and who indict the materialism and misogyny of rap — can’t get a word in edgewise on white or black media outlets, from radio to television. There’s a blackout of conscience-driven, racially astute, politically motivated rap that contains progressive gender messages, in large part because such rap also contains poignant and prophetic indictments of white supremacy and social injustice, themes that even ostensibly liberal white media is not ready to hear, air or acknowledge. So it closes the mouths of such progressive artists, with the consequence that the women-hating harangues of hip-hop artists drown out the considerable complexity of conscious artists. It does so with the complicity of the very media machine that now wants to point fingers at only half the equation — the rap artists who pour acid on the heads of black women — while failing to self-critically indict its very participation in this unseemly affair. That is utter and naked hypocrisy.
I have for nearly 20 years, as “the hip-hop intellectual,” defended a beautiful and complex art form while criticizing its ugly and self-defeating features. I am disturbed by misogyny and sexism and patriarchy — and what I have termed “femiphobia,” or the fear of women — in all their appearances across the political, cultural and racial landscape. What rap artists have done to spread their blight is undeniable, and worthy of the kind of sustained and vocal opposition that have gone on for years unnoticed by mainstream culture. But rap neither invented brutal antipathy toward women nor benefits from it as much as quarters of mainstream culture — including the media — that continue to restrict and ruin women’s lives with a vigor and subtlety that are stunning. After all, you don’t have to call a woman a “bitch” to treat her like one; and you don’t have to say “ho” to exploit women’s bodies and minds for your purposes. Just ask the mainstream white and black media.
— Michael Eric Dyson, University of Pennsylvania professor and author of 14 books, including the forthcoming “Know What I Mean? Reflections on Hip Hop”
Elliott and the friends with whom he recorded in middle school in Texas (photo courtesy of Dan Pickering)
Heatmiser publicity shot (L-R: Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson, Neil Gust, Elliott Smith) (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott and JJ Gonson (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
"Stray" 7-inch, Cavity Search Records (photo courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott's Hampshire College ID photo, 1987
Elliott with "Le Domino," the guitar he used on "Roman Candle" (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Full "Roman Candle" record cover (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Elliott goofing off in Portland (courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
Heatmiser (L-R: Elliott Smith, Neil Gust, Tony Lash, Brandt Peterson)(courtesy of JJ Gonson photography)
The Greenhouse Sleeve -- Cassette sleeve from Murder of Crows release, 1988, with first appearance of Condor Avenue (photo courtesy of Glynnis Fawkes)