College and high school students throw “ghetto parties,” at which white kids in blackface wear diamonds around their necks and grills on their teeth. Comedian Michael Richards utters a racial epithet on a comedy stage after some black men heckle him. Radio personality Don Imus calls the black members of Rutgers University’s women’s basketball team “nappy-headed hos.”
The incidents seem disconnected, but in the mind of writer Cora Daniels, they exemplify a change that has slowly engulfed mainstream culture. In her new book, “Ghettonation,” she calls these acts “ghetto.” The word first described sections of European cities where Jews were forced to live, and became defined as neighborhoods where people of color reside because of social or economic hardships. But Daniels says it has broken away from those original meanings to become a mind-set.
“Ghetto is no longer where you liveit’s how you live,” she explains during an interview. “It’s a mind-set that embraces and celebrates the worst. . .. Behavior that shouldn’t be acceptable has become acceptable and commonplace.”
Lately cultural critics have blamed hip-hop culture for the dominance of these negative stereotypes. But doing so, some academics say, fails to take into account the role of hip-hop consumerspredominantly white, suburban teenagersand media conglomerates that capitalize on fetishizing it. MTV’s car-restoration show “Pimp My Ride” and rapper Snoop Dogg, who celebrates conquering women and smoking dope, become successes. Meanwhile, shows such as MTV’s “Run’s House,” which follows the stable family of former Run-DMC member Joseph Simmons, and the music of socially conscious rappers such as Lupe Fiasco and Common barely capture attention.
The messages in today’s rap lyrics differ greatly from the ones of self-determination and Afrocentricity that dominated in the 1980s. “Hip-hop was created as an art form by people who were oppressed as a counternarrative to the way they were being framed by mainstream culture,” Graves says. “Now you have the quintessential example of that experience being co-opted, repackaged and redistributed by mainstream industry for public consumption.”
But Emmett Price, a professor of music and African American studies at Northeastern University, says the focus on the words misses the fact that an audience still wants music with this content. “It’s hard to hold people morally and socially responsible when the people with money don’t have to be,” he says.
So how did it come to be this way? Price believes the fascination is a byproduct of whites abandoning cities for what they considered the safety of the suburbs and the effect the move had on future generations.
“It’s the children and the children’s children of those people who removed themselves from the inner city so they wouldn’t have to face the ‘element,’ ” says Price. “They’re going back to the inner city to see what their parents and grandparents didn’t want them to have access to.”