Hip-hop product portrayals divide black community

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

If all goes as planned, gangsta rapper Nelly's new energy drink will be on store shelves by next month. The brand name: Pimp Juice.

The Loaded Weapon sneaker is among the latest shoes to hit the Converse conveyor belt. And the new game Ghettopoly, a take on the classic board game Monopoly, features "playas" who vie for stolen property and crack.

All three speak to a growing fascination with hip-hop and its portrayal of urban black America. The products have also ignited protests and boycotts nationwide, high- lighting a division in the African-American community over what's an appropriate representation of the black experience.

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It is part of a larger cultural war among blacks, fought largely along class and generational lines.

"The traditional civil rights model included a kind of politics of respectability, putting the best face of the African-American community forward," says Imani Perry, a law professor at Rutgers University. "There is an absolute refusal in the hip-hop community to adhere to those ideals of respectability, in terms of what the public face of black people should be."

That tension may only heighten as hip-hop goes global and the appetite for edgy products grows. Nelly announced the release of Pimp Juice, named after his hit single, at the MTV music video awards late this summer. Days later, the Rev. Paul Scott, founder of the Messianic Afrikan Nation, launched a local campaign to keep it off shelves in Durham, N.C. He calls the word "pimp" derogatory and demeaning.

"We don't want our young people walking around with Pimp Juice in their lunchboxes, thinking that it's cool," says Mr. Scott, who has joined forces with black leaders nationwide to petition for Nelly to change the name. "Four hundred years ago, black women were being sold into slavery ... and now someone wants to come out with a drink selling women."

Nelly has maintained that Pimp Juice is a healthy beverage for athletes. Critics say he is fueling an industry that exploits black stereotypes to reap a hip-hop dollar, raising deeper questions about the portrayal of African-Americans and their identity. "We have begun to promote our misery and misfortune in this whole hip-hop genre of keeping it real - celebrating public housing, drug use, black-on-black homicide," says Dr. Leonard Moore, head of African-American studies at Louisiana State University. "When it's a fad to celebrate black misery and poverty, something is wrong."

Supporters say that hip-hop is misunderstood, perceived solely as gangsta rap. In fact, it encompasses the written word and visual arts as well. They also say it does not just glorify violence or misogyny, but can be a socially conscious artform that has given black youth a voice, entrepreneurial opportunities, and pride. Some note that similar criticisms were leveled against jazz when it first surfaced. "When you see the African-American experience and culture being taken all over the world, that's 'dope,' " says Heru Ptah, a hip-hop artist who wrote the new book, "The Hip-Hop Story. "That's really beautiful."

Black leaders protested outside Urban Outfitters' stores earlier this month when Ghettopoly arrived on shelves. The president of the NAACP, Kweisi Mfume, fired off a letter to game creator David Chang: "It is disturbing that you would choose to promote and capitalize off such negative aspects of society that cause great harm to individuals and to the African- American community at large."

Ghettopoly has received more attention than Pimp Juice or other products. That may be in part because Mr. Chang is not black, but a Taiwanese-American who apparently got his idea from watching years of rap videos on MTV.

"Whether or not it is a good kind of power, [Pimp Juice] implies power and prestige on the part of the drinker," says Ms. Perry. Ghettopoly, on the other hand, is more mocking of poor people, she says.

The divide in black America is getting "wider by the day," concurs Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California in Los Angeles. "Hip-hop polarizes people because there is a group that wants to control our African-American image." He says that ideal is inherently flawed, though: "You cannot create one universal sense of blackness. That would be boring, and ultimately stereotyping."

SO far, the petition against Pimp Juice has garnered about 400 signatures nationwide. "We are going to take a stand against these rappers and entertainers, who always want to portray us in a negative fashion for the whole world," says Najee Ali, director of Project Islamic Hope, a group that launched a national campaign with the Messianic Afrikan Nation.

Others note that hip-hop itself isn't the problem. It is only a mirror of urban life. "Hip-hop may glorify the ghetto, but it didn't create it," says Tyran Seward, a Louisiana-based cultural critic. "People hate hip-hop because it airs our dirty laundry. It's progressive and profane. It is beautiful and it's ugly."

Yet because it is a reflection of black life, some say the genre is missing a chance to convey lessons. "What might have Ghettopoly told us about the ghetto?" asks Murray Forman, a communications professor at Northeastern University. "It could have been an opportunity to discuss a guy selling crack on the street corner, just trying to put diapers on his kid's bottom..."

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