Rev. Al Sharpton must have some serious man-love right now for Will Smith. Raise your hand if you remember the Fresh Prince. I'm not talking about the goofy guy from Bel Air, I'm talking about the kid who hung with DJ Jazzy Jeff and gave a generation of rap fans some of the most original and whimsical tracks ever recorded. The Fresh Prince didn't need cussing, womanizing or gang-banging to sell his albums or image, and look what happened: he ended up being one of Hollywood's hottest commodities in the mid to late 1990s.
In case you missed it, that same kid -- now grown up and known better as Will Smith -- released his newest album, "Lost and Found," in 2005. The album released during a time when hip-hop music was rife with unoriginality, vulgarity and crudeness, so "Lost and Found" was a definite breath of Fresh Air. This past spring I rediscovered my copy of the CD, brushed off the dust and have since given it regular rotation in my car. I bring this up not as a means of aging myself, but as a way to drive home the importance of Rev. Sharpton's latest crusade.
Yesterday, Rev. Sharpton called for hip-hop artists to clean up their act, to stop using the "n-word" and to refrain from demeaning women in their lyrics and videos. Will Smith would be proud. For that matter, so would Bill Cosby. At some point, a relevant, public figure in the African-American community had to say something about the atrocity that rap music is committing on our airwaves and in the minds of America's youth. Rev. Sharpton, to his credit, did just that.
One could say Smith's "Lost and Found" was different just for the sake of being different, maybe even to sell a few extra albums. But when you look at Smith's track record, he really is a different kind of artist, and he holds a different set of standards and morals than most of today's hip-hop crowd. However, he'd been gone from the hip-hop scene for so long that many people overlooked the album and thus missed out on its important themes and messages.
Likewise, Bill Cosby has said multiple times that today's teens and 20-somethings, fueled by the imagery promoted in hip-hop music, are themselves responsible for perpetuating certain stereotypes about the African-American community. Although harsh, Cosby's basic tenets are relatively logical. But like Will Smith, Cosby is often perceived as "too 1980s" or worse yet, as a "crazy old man," and thus his opinions are dismissed.
But Rev. Al Sharpton, by calling out the hip-hop community and demanding it hold itself to a higher standard, has infused Smith's and Cosby's "mission" with a sense of relevance. With Sharpton calling for the same basic changes as Smith and Cosby, their message may finally take hold. Before hip-hop had Young Jeezy, it had Young MC. Before it had Ludacris, it had Kool Moe Dee. Before it had radio edits and explicit-lyrics labels, it had good beats, creative themes and clean language. In essence, it was an honest-to-God art form, not a misused platform to talk wantonly about liquor, guns and sex.
"But hip-hop is popular, and it's selling more albums than ever." That's true, and it makes Sharpton's, Cosby's and Smith's message all the more important. If hip-hop cleans up its act, if it can preach professionalism rather than pimping, if it can espouse morals rather than marijuana, a large part of society will change its tune. Almost all of America's youth listen to hip-hop. In turn, if hip-hop artists return some of the decency they had during the 1980s and 1990s, almost all of America's youth could eventually aspire to (gasp) be moral, professional adults.
When was the last time you talked to a teen who wanted to be a doctor? A lawyer? A government official? The change is societal, but it's also a matter of what kids are taught it means to be a "role model." Hip-hop artists can't be blamed solely for creating society's problems, much like they can't change society on their own. But with hip-hop being such a large part of American culture, isn't it time for the hip-hop lyrics and videos to present something more, something inspirational and aspirational?
Rev. Al Sharpton's call to clean up hip-hop gives credibility to a message that less-prominent voices have been preaching for years. Raise your hand if you want to see more kids aspiring to great careers, great families and great relationships with members of the opposite sex. Now, give Rev. Sharpton a hand for speaking up and sending the hip-hop industry a message that's been long overdue for a relevant spokesperson.
-- Jonas Allen