For those of you that were around in the mid ’90s, how many of you remember “Gangsta’s Paradise”? It was a single in 1995 by a rapper named Coolio and it was a massive hit at the time. Perhaps you are more aware of “Amish Paradise”, the parody of this song by “Weird Al” Yankovic. The parody went on to be a massive hit for Weird Al too. Despite the good reception that “Amish Paradise” received from the public, Coolio himself did not respond kindly to it. He said publicly that Weird Al’s parody “desecrated the song”. Geez, sensitive much? Who could hate on Weird Al? This is his M.O.; he’s just a harmless clown. Why waste energy being mad at something so inconsequential? You know what? In retrospect, I can see why Coolio initially reacted negatively to Weird Al’s remix. I think this contentious interaction between Coolio and Weird Al represents more than just a chance interaction between two musicians.
I absolutely love hip-hop. I love the way that hip-hop finds creative and innovative ways that it recites poetry. I love the sport-like aspects of battle rapping. I love the way it created music from what aren’t seen as “traditional” instruments. I love the way it take snippets of older songs and places them in a completely different context and mood (who would have ever thought that a minor snippet of a laid-back jazz fusion song could turn into something as hard-hitting as “Fuck Tha Police”?). Most of all, I love the way hip-hop provided a platform for the impoverished and downtrodden in society to express themselves and tell their stories. Unfortunately, hip-hop is and has always been all too often written off by many outside of the culture for one reason or another. Hip-hop is certainly not without its problems (especially after the genre went completely commercial), but many of its critics viewed those problems as a valid reason to ignore the stories these artists are telling. These rappers have been trying to tell the wider public about life in the inner-city and in Black America, often stories of turmoil, despair, pain, desperation, and adversity and the contradiction of their experiences and America’s touting itself as the beacon of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness”. The following song is an excellent example of this:
Note the juxtaposition between the optimistic title/upbeat tone of the sample used and the absolute bleakness of the lyrics. The most striking moment of the song is the end of second verse. Isn’t it alarming to hear Treach end that by saying “how will I make it? I won’t, that’s how”? Isn’t it more alarming that he said it in such a flippant manner, as if he has accepted his fate to die in the gutter a long time ago?
Which brings me back to “Gangsta’s Paradise”. I’m not gonna analyze the song too much; my reference point is this brilliant breakdown of it by RapCritic (http://blip.tv/rapcritic/rap-critic-gangsta-s-paradise-by-coolio-ft-l-v-7005965). “Gangsta’s Paradise” is a song in which Coolio literally sits White America down (represented by Michelle Pfeiffer) and talks frankly about how the conditions of life in poverty and abject hopelessness have effected him psychologically and turned many black men just like him into what someone like Pfeiffer would offhandedly call a “gangster”. And how did White America react to Coolio’s story? They turned it into a joke (hello, Weird Al!) and the message of the song got lost among all the yuk-yuks about Amish people.
Unfortunately, this story doesn’t just end with “Gansta’s/Amish Paradise”. The song itself and Weird Al’s co-opting of it for comedic reasons are a microcosm of what eventually happened to hip-hop. Since “Gangsta’s Paradise”, hip-hop became completely commercial. As such, it quickly learned that it can co-opt the imagery and attitudes of black culture without addressing, understanding, or caring about the sociopolitical conditions that fostered those images and attitudes associated with black culture in the first place. Twenty years after “Gangsta’s Paradise”, mainstream hip-hop has been so watered-down that a song like this would never be a hit. Hit songs these days only portray caricatured views of black culture as materialistic, decadent, self-centered, high on drugs, hyper-violent, and hyper-sexualized.
Twenty years after “Gangsta’s Paradise”, more and more white people and gone much further than Weird Al’s parody ever did. Nowadays, many white pop stars are appropriating black culture as a superficial way of making themselves look cool or edgy to the mass public.
Here is Tom Hanks’ son Chet, who is an aspiring rapper that believes his use of the N-word is what ties him to hip-hop culture and black people. This is what hip-hop’s message has been reduced to in white culture.
Twenty years after “Gangsta’s Paradise”, unarmed black men and women are being killed by cops or vigilantes once every 28 hours. Majority black areas like Ferguson, Missouri or West Baltimore, Maryland are still as economically destitute as they’ve always been. And unlike Michelle Pfeiffer in the video, much of White America isn’t even willing to listen to what Black America has to say. A modern version of that video would have her shouting “SHUT UP, YOU THUG!! ALL LIVES MATTER!!” over Coolio’s verses.
I suppose I’m being too cynical. I should just lighten up. After all, Weird Al was just trying to have a little fun. It was all just a big joke. That’s all it ever is, right Al?
DISCLAIMER: I know this blog is supposed to be dedicated to cartoons, but this is a subject that was important for me to write about. And this is my blog, so…