The crowd of maybe 50 at Detroit's New Galilee Baptist Church is restless. It's the last day in May and they're here to see the Rev. Kurtis Blow (yes, he's a minister now), who's set to perform for the Detroit-based organization SOAP (Stop Offensive and Abusive Language in hip-hop music through Personal Responsibility) as part of a series of events to eliminate misogynistic and degrading language from hip hop. In 1980, the Harlem-born Blow was the first emcee to record a full-length album and the first commercially successful rapper. He switched to gospel rap in 2003.
"Our agenda is to the spread the gospel of Jesus Christ," Blow says, relaxing with two members of his Christian rap group Trinity in an office at New Galilee. He's wearing a T-shirt and jeans, a braided ponytail. He looks younger than his 47 years.
"I am a newly licensed minster and we're here to have a good ol' time in the name of the Lord."
Blow talks up God a lot these days. He talks about personal integrity. He talks about supporting all forms of rap.
"I like some gangsta rap," Blow says. "I think the rappers of today are faster and whiter ... I support them. We need to embrace our culture and not alienate ourselves from others."
How can this happen?
"Living for God," says the emcee who claims that he has 150 songs recorded without a swear word. "The key is to live like God and if you got a brain than you know that God would never say the word 'nigga.'"
Minutes later Blow is on stage. It's a consistent performance of conscious and spiritual rhymes over bass-driven hip-hop beats. His hype men work the crowd, his DJ cuts and scratches, and Blow break dances, closing the night out with his 27-year-old signature hit "The Breaks."
Call it holy hip hop or righteous rapping or whatever you want, but Blow's message is clear: You can be positive and still rock the house.
OK, we get it.
But the bigger question is, Do we really want it? Let's be real. Rapping for God is like Christian rock: When you remove the sex and drugs, where's the fun for the kids? Besides, on a cool evening all Kurtis Blow could pull into a Detroit church was 50 people. Was the turnout light because most local hip-hop fans don't give a damn about any "positive" message from a rap icon?
Fast-forward to a Saturday afternoon in early June. We're on the 13th floor of the Coleman A. Young Municipal Center auditorium for a hip-hop "town hall" meeting called "Hip Hop: Beyond Entertainment." A panel of local industry artists and hip-hop execs (including G-Unit producer Nick Speed, DJ Razorblade, rapper Magestik Legend, rapper-activist Joyce Branham, gospel rapper Mike Sears, and representatives from the Hip-Hop Congress and Pic-nap poets) gather to discuss the Detroit hip-hop experience. The event was organized by City Councilman Kwame Kenyatta who, chairs the Detroit Entertainment Task Force. (Yeah, we have an Entertainment Task Force who knew?).
"This is a task force set up by the City Council," Kenyatta says outside of the auditorium, "to evaluate and demonstrate a whole new level of entertainment in the city. Hip-hop culture is a part of that."
Kenyatta talks about ways to promote local hip hop and highlighting what "positive and progressive people" are doing. Like many, the councilman thinks Detroit must play a more proactive and progressive role in the cultural health of Detroit kids.
But, as it was for Blow, this afternoon's turnout is bleak. Seventy people, tops. But the discussion is potent, stronger than any hip-hop summit in recent memory.
Razorblade offers a short history of Detroit hip hop; Sears performs a gospel rap; Legend and Speed chat unity; and Branham brings the crowd together with a talk about how powerfully influential music is in our lives.
The dialogue, which fell under the umbrella of music, addresses nearly every problem nagging contemporary black culture. Solutions are suggested. Razorblade wants to know why kids are being "talked at" and not with. Magestik chimes in about his involvement within the schools. Everyone agrees that it's about straightforward communication with schoolkids.
When the idea of school funding is brought up, the panel concurs that Detroiters need to be concerned about how their tax dollars are spent, and that city officials need to be held accountable for misused funds.
Sure, the folks here agree, but it was preaching to the choir.
Kundanlini, a local poet and emcee, thinks that "this is cool, but it could have been promoted better. We need this kind of thing, where are the people at, where are the papers at?"
In theory, Kundanlini's right. Every emcee, producer, parent and person who gives a shit about hip-hop culture our culture and its future should be here.
As the town hall meeting ends, a small group of folks gathers in front of the Motown Museum on West Grand Boulevard. Tara Young, the local coordinator of the Decency in Hip-Hop campaign (an organization designed by Rev. Al Sharpton to clean up language in hip hop), the Rev. Horace Sheffield III, the National Field Director of National Action Network, and students from the Michigan chapter of the United States Student Association await the arrival of Sharpton president of National Action Network to hold a press conference presenting the Decency in Hip Hop campaign in Detroit.
Much of the crowd is passers-by and museum visitors who stuck around once they heard Sharpton is en route.
Tara Young also a SOAP organizer is confident in this new movement to clean up hip hop. But isn't that just straight censorship? Not so, Young says.
"It's not that we're trying to handcuff the artist," she says, "but we want them to have responsibility and tell the whole story.
"People want a tight joint, they want clever lyrics over a real tight beat. It doesn't always have to be bitch, ho or nigga."
But do they want clever lyrics? This is America. And this is about giving the kids what they want, right, wrong, ugly, pretty. In a free society you accept the bad with the good. Did the record-buying public demand clean and clever lyrics in the mid '90s when nearly every sexist West Coast rapper had gold or platinum albums? Didn't Too Short make a name for himself on the word "bitch"? Many have shared Young's completely valid and on-point opinions through the years, but when you get down to it, the guns-bitches-and-niggas clichés have defined commercial rap.
"Sixty percent of us are being born in single family homes, women only," Young continues. "So you would think that women would be respected and held on a pedestal."
She's right. Young who's determined and genuine in her efforts says SOAP will be collecting bars of soap through the coming weeks. The cleansing bars will be distributed to area women's shelters in late July. The soap represents the cleaning up of hip-hop, one mouth at a time.
Sharpton rolls up in a navy blue sedan and steps out. He moves up to the mike as if he's a heavyweight contender arriving at a fight. Flanked by security, his presence is huge.
He talks about eliminating certain words in hip hop, including "bitch," "ho" and "nigga."
Applause erupts when he says that "we cannot fight Don Imus outside of our community and not fight the same syndrome in our community."
Sharpton wants to end the hustling of black culture for corporate gain. If enough pressure, he believes, is put on the labels and corporations, they'll eventually give in.
Soon Sharpton is back in the sedan and driven off into the night like a rap star.
What's fucked up is that Don Imus the radio jock fired in April by CBS for airing racial epithets is credited with spawning a rebirth of a "clean-up hip-hop" campaign that never had shit to do with him. If the local and national leaders have always felt so strongly about hip-hop lyrics and idioms, than why wasn't anything this aggressive organized in the past? (Anyone remember C. Delores Tucker's late '90s anti-gansta rap crusade that fizzled?)
Since the major labels discovered the hip-hop cash cow, it's long been the new Hottentot Venus. It's where cultural stereotypes are exploited and browbeaten for huge capital gain.
There's no doubt that hip-hop would be in a better place without the misogyny and degradation. But these words and attitudes certainly didn't begin in the mouths of rappers. They're the language of street corner and inner city. Gangsta rap is glorified black street culture as much as The Sopranos is glorified and parodied Italian gangster street culture. So can one change the language of the street? No.
Do fans want to hear Snoop Dog lose "bitch" in his raps? Do they want Kanye West (who's a halfway conscious rapper) to quit rapping "ho?" Would they still get into T.I. if he didn't say "nigga"?
Do people know what they want? Is payola the reason we don't hear many songs on radio that bestow intelligence on hip hop, such as those by Mos Def, Common, Kem and Talib Kweli? We're a nation in adoration of sex and violence; these wants drives the economy, from pop music to gaming to Internet porn. Prohibition doesn't work. And whatever happened to the idea of good parenting?
Maybe a year from now Kurtis Blow and MF Doom can perform at the Fox with 50-Cent and Young Buck at the Fillmore. Let's see who draws the bigger crowd. Let's see if SOAP is still around. Let's see how far this movement has come. Let's see how smart we can be.Kahn Davison is a freelance writer, father and local poet. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org