Malcolm X and rap music have always fit together like a needle in the groove, connected by struggle, strength and defiance. But three recent episodes involving the use or misuse of Malcolm and other black icons have raised the question: Has rap lost touch with black history? Chart-topping rapstress Nicki Minaj provoked widespread outrage with an Instagram post featuring one of black history’s most poignant images: Malcolm X peering out the window of his home, rifle in hand, trying to defend his wife and children from firebombs while under surveillance by federal agents.
Superimposed on the photo: the title of Minaj’s new song, which denigrates certain black men and repeats the N-word 42 times. That came after Minaj’s mentor Lil Wayne recorded a verse last year using the civil rights martyr Emmett Till in a sexual metaphor, and the hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons posted a Harriet Tubman “sex tape” video on his comedy channel. What is happening to mainstream rap music, which was launched by Simmons and is now ruled by the likes of Minaj and Wayne?
“I don’t want to say today’s rappers are not educated about black history, but they don’t seem as aware as rap generations before them,” said Jermaine Hall, editor-in-chief of Vibe, the hip-hop magazine and website. While previous generations had to struggle with the racism and neglect of the 1970s or the crack epidemic of the 1980s, Hall said, today’s young people have not faced the same type of racial struggle — “They’re sort of getting further and further away from the civil rights movement.”
“In the ’80s, whether it was KRS-One, Public Enemy, or the Native Tongues, that entire movement, it was very in tune with black history,” Hall said. “They knew everything about Malcolm, about Martin, about Rosa Parks. Now, the new rappers just aren’t as in tune.”
Indeed, Minaj issued a statement expressing disbelief at the uproar and apologizing to Malcolm’s family “if the meaning of the photo was misconstrued.” Wayne wrote to the Till family to “acknowledge your hurt, as well as the letter you sent to me via your attorneys.
“Simmons was the only one to say, “I am sincerely sorry.”
The apologies did not change much for Pierre Bennu, a filmmaker and artist who said Malcolm X’s life was dedicated to advocating for the humanity of black people, while Minaj’s song was simply dehumanizing. When he saw Minaj’s manipulation, Bennu said, “I felt punched in the gut.” The episode inspired him to post a mash-up video laying Minaj’s song over the infamous 1941 Walter Lantz cartoon “Scrub Me Mama With A Boogie Beat,” which depicts a town of lazy black people hypnotized by a seductive washerwoman.
Various mainstream rap artists seem reluctant to defend Minaj and Wayne; The Associated Press sought out five, but none returned calls for comment.