Over 20 years ago there was a guy named Al Sharpton that virtually no one took seriously. I mean forget about mainstream New Yorkers, 99% of progressive and liberal white and Black folks alike dismissed Sharpton as a fat, cheap James Brown knockoff, that chased the media around town in a tight jogging suit with a bad perm. Yet he was impossible to ignore as he stood up for the families of slain Black youth in Howard Beach and Bensonhurst. When he made what the public considers his major blunder, falsely accusing a white District Attorney of the kidnapping and rape of a widely discredited, and quite disturbed young woman named Tawana Brawley, whatever support he had among the civil rights crowd faded completely.
In search of resurrection, Sharpton strategically began to rebuild a following among young people. And way before he became mainstream, appeared in movies, had his own talk-shows, ran for mayor of New York City, and president of the United States, Sharpton built a loyal following among young African-American, Latino, and white members of the hip-hop generation (particularly in New York City). Sharpton embraced young people and hip hop, as other public civil rights leaders chose to alienate the youth, like Rev. Calvin Butts III, the head of one of the most historical and important churches in Black America (The Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem) who literally instructed his congregation to steamroll hip hop cds, or C. Delores Tucker who partnered with rightwing congressmen in an attempt to censor hip hop artists.
Instead of following in the footsteps and tradition of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. and Malcolm X (who had the foresight and understanding to listen to, embrace and engage young people through dialogue) the majority of the civil rights crowd dismissed hip hop, failing to recognize not only its power and influence, but also the fact that when they dismissed hip hop, they dismissed the younger generation that belonged to it. They didn’t “get the culture” and they clearly didn’t listen to the lyrics. Instead of using the momentum of what many view as the most politically conscious time period in hip hop’s history, the elders thumbed their noses at it, and young people by extension.
Consider myself a case study. Despite being warned to the contrary, I first came to respect Sharpton in 1991. Weeks before Sharpton was set to speak to a small crowd at my undergraduate school, he was stabbed in the chest, moments before he was to lead a protest march in Howard Beach. Yet, still ailing from his wounds, Sharpton made it up to my school and not only spoke in front of us, but did so powerfully, intelligently, and was 100% politically in tune with the outrage we felt by everything from police brutality, racism, sexism, homophobia, and corrupt U.S. domestic and foreign policy. From that moment forward, Sharpton moved us and mobilized us. Say what you want about the man, but for 16 years he consistently fought against oppression and forced those who would otherwise ignore our point of view to listen.
That said, myself and others are utterly disappointed and frustrated that Sharpton has seemingly chosen to turn his backs on us. Instead of keeping with a tradition of dialogue, Sharpton has followed the misguided lead of Bill Cosby, Oprah Winfrey, NAACP, and for that matter Bill O’Reilly and his Klan, in deciding that hip hop (and for that matter us) is Public Enemy #1. Instead of mobilizing hip hop artists to battle for the Jena 6, against the war in Iraq, for the environment, or other issues that really matter and impact our lives, Al has chosen to attack the same movement that made him a respectable household name. And while I don’t mean to discredit his past contributions, in a few short months Al has done more to distance and damage his-self among those who built him up, than any outside force could have done. As difficult as it has been to keep an open dialogue between generations, it is simply discouraging to see Al choose this path.
Talib Kweli, one of the most gifted, well respected, and progressive hip hop artists expressed Sharpton’s abandonment, in a recent interview with SOHH, “First, I’m an artist and I’m gonna say what I want to say. Nobody’s gonna tell me what I can or can’t say. [While] I do think that people like Al Sharpton and Oprah and Russell Simmons are our vanguards and our elders and that we should respect them. They have been here representing for us since before even hip-hop was here. What they say is important and it’s relevant but I think we need our own leadership so that we can respectfully disagree and say ‘I hear you uncle Russell, I hear you Al Sharpton’ and be respectful about it. But we can’t cow tow to them either.”
And while Talib Kweli chose a measured tone, David Banner, whose post-Katrina work has been just as important as Sharpton’s (in fact the National Black Caucus presented Banner with the Visionary Award for his contributions and efforts in helping to raise millions of dollars for victims of Katrina), most likely represented the way most youth felt, “The next time you see Al Sharpton, tell him I said fuck him and he can suck my dick! I might change the name of my album from The Greatest Story Never Told to Fuck Al Sharpton. I hate Al Sharpton. This is the kind of shit that I’m talking about. They’re killing kids in New Jersey and all across the country and all a nigga got to talk about is rap lyrics? Fuck that about they’re our elders and we gotta respect them. I’m tired of this. They’re like the parents, but the parents are crucifying the kids. They tried to crucify Nelly and Akon…we need to come together because they’re only doing this because we’re not saying anything. He’s [Sharpton] a permed-out pimp. Him and Jesse Jackson are out here charging people to do rallies with them. They’re more worried about their investors than our kids. Tell him David Banner said it. Niggas talk a good game about we need to clean up the hood and the lyrics and all that. But I’m out here doing it. Who can say that?”
Take out the profanity and anger and what you have is nothing less then pain and truth. I’m done.