U.S. Representative Maxine Waters changed the way I thought about rap music and hip-hop. I never cared for it and thought it was without melody or musicality and had none of the storytelling I worshiped in the likes of Springsteen and Dylan.
She didn’t care much for it either as I recall, but she defended it as a critical element to her identity and her constituency. She described how the music industry left behind South Central Los Angeles, its artists and contributors. It branded them as non-members of the entertainment business outside of its own geographic arena.
She said it gave voice and power to people, just like the anthems of the 60’s. And the anger it highlighted and the violence it recognized was an essential outfall from the ignorance of those who did not listen. Rap and hip-hop are a voice where none is given, and for that it must be cherished, honored, respected and promoted.
She was right, and ever since I’ve been keenly aware to what I don’t hear as much as what I do.
That doesn’t erase years of ignorance assumption, though. Two photos shoots stand out in memory that highlight white thought and reaction. The first was a mid-or-late 1980s photo shoot I had at a car stereo place in Compton for a story on boom cars. The photo was of the shop owners, but their client and I talked a lot about why he’d put such a loud system in his Corvette.
The client guy wasn’t too talkative but extremely nice and polite. He kept telling me his street name but I insisted he give me his full name for the caption. In fact, I think I was a dick about it. He finally did, and I dutifully wrote it down: Andre Young.
In the years since I’ve often wondered what this guy, Dr. Dre, thought of me. I was a presumptuous white guy not giving him a chance to set his own identity. Damn. And as happens so often everywhere, he was far more generous to me than I was to him.
The second shoot happened not long after the chat with Representative Waters in 1994. That shoot was for a startup magazine called Unity LA, and its art director, Lew Bryant, hired me to do another shoot for a different publication.
Lew, who is African American, told me to meet the magazine’s editor at a school on the coast, I forget exactly where. He told me her name, which I now can’t remember, and it had a strong ethnic flavor to it. Unfortunately, the first reflective words out of my mouth were “oh, is she black?”
I realized immediately what a stupid thing it was to say, think or even exist. Why would it be surprising that an editor would be black? Why would her name be an indicator of race? Maybe because it is still true that African Americans are still underrepresented in media and media management here and now, in 2020.
It was a brutal moment of unknown inbred racism on my part. I grew up in a racist environment, sure, but I had thought by then, 1994, I had cleared myself of all that. Obviously, I hadn’t. The pause in Lew’s breath still rings in my ears. It is always on my mind.
Like it or not, my very being as a white boy from Pasadena made me racist without knowing it. And while I thought opportunity, fairness, justice and equity were all on the mend, it has been my own inner workings that present the biggest challenge. When it comes up naturally we, or at least I, must recognize it and work towards undoing the past wrongs that got us here, whether they’re my fault or not.