The recent controversy surrounding Lil Wayne’s mockery of Emmett Till has sparked a debate within the hip-hop community about how well current artists understand and respect the civil rights movement.
In February, the Cash Money Records rapper seemed to poke fun at Emmett Till, a 14-year-old African-American who was murdered in 1955 for reportedly flirting with a white woman, in the remix version of the song “Karate Chop” by rapper Future.
The lyric — “beat the p***y up like Emmett Till” — elicited condemnation from top artists like Stevie Wonder and sparked a conversation in music circles.
“The current state of hip hop is an intellectual vacuum,” said Dr. Terriel Byrd, president of the African American Caucus of the Academy of Homiletics of North America. “Most of these young rappers don’t know the history of the civil rights movement, the price that was paid for the type of equality we now enjoy. Lil Wayne is representing a greater problem — a lack of knowledge of the struggles African Americans had to endure.”
“This is Lil Wayne, what hasn’t he said?” asked fellow New Orleans rapper Dee-1.
“It’s the law of diminishing returns,” said Propaganda, an MC who made headlines this past October criticizing Puritans for their cooperation with slave trade. “You just have to keep pushing the line further and further if all you’re looking for is shock value.”
Epic Records, the company that released the track, pulled it and apologized, but Lil Wayne has yet to do so, despite the Till family’s attempt to bring closure to the controversy. The family wrote an open letter to the artist in the website VIBE, expressing how demoralizing the punch line was.
Cole Brown, author of the book “Lies Hip Hop Told Me,” does not think Wayne needs to apologize “because that’s what makes hip hop powerful. It is a place you can express yourself freely,” he said, before making it clear he does indeed believe what the rapper said was foolish.
Dee-1 said the lack of knowledge Byrd detailed stems from not experiencing the civil rights era first-hand.
“It’s totally different when you’re speaking from a life experience that you went through,” he explained. “Especially in 2013, none of the hip-hop artists were part of the sit-ins and marches in 1968. Nobody was alive and can remember when Martin Luther King got killed or did the ‘I Have a Dream’ speech, so we’re speaking of stuff that we read or heard, and there is a certain level of ignorance.”
Shai Linne, a catalyst of the hip-hop subgenre lyrical theology, believes fatherlessness is a major contributor to that ignorance. Like approximately 50 percent of black children, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, Lil Wayne did not grow up with a father.
“Wayne is of the age that if he had a father who was influential in his life, then I’m assuming his father would be of the civil rights generation, if not on the tail end,” Linne said. “So he would have instilled within him a proper understanding of history and why figures like Emmett Till are so important.”
Linne continued, saying that a lack of an understanding of history results in being focused too much on the present: “Eat and drink for tomorrow we die, life’s a B and we die.”
Propaganda doesn’t agree that hip-hop is ignorant of the civil rights movement, however.
“Hip-hop itself is a nephew of the civil rights movement, and it’s been a voice for that historically. … In a lot of ways [it] has carried the torch,” he said before clarifying that dumbed-down, pop-influenced hip-hop is removed from that. “Like mainstream in any genre, who really wants to think?”
While he questioned the mainstream artists’ effort to deliver intelligent content, Propaganda is confident Lil Wayne fully comprehended the message he conveyed.
“He’s from New Orleans. There’s no way in the world he doesn’t understand the civil rights movement,” Propaganda said, before stressing Wayne’s lone goal: to entertain.
Brown said that the Lil Wayne-Emmett Till controversy has reaffirmed that hip-hop possesses so much more power than to simply entertain, though.
“When hip hop is used well — as it is by many MCs, but not necessarily by Wayne,” he said, “[it] has the potential to be, in many ways, an instrumental voice in the modern civil rights movement.”