Prison Radio
Mumia Abu-Jamal

You remind me of my jeep, I wanna wax you baby. You remind me of my bank account, I wanna spend you babe. That’s from “You Remind Me of Something” by R. Kelly. The song is smooth, with a funky bottom and a sexy lead vocalist. Why does it grit my teeth every time I hear it? Well, it’s not because I’m, as one of my sons put it, an old man who just can’t interpret the young whippersnappers.

That said, I must admit I’m more at home with R&B, with a soft significance of an Anita Baker. Or even Brownstone, singers like Sade and yes, y’all, Whitney. I also enjoy much of rap for its vitality, its rawness, its irreverence, and its creativity. Rap is an authentic descendant of a people with ancient African oral traditions. From griots, who sang praise songs to their kings, to blues men who transmuted their pain into art. For a generation born into America’s chilling waters of discontent, into the 1970s and 80s, into periods of denial, cutbacks, and emergent white supremacy, one must understand how love songs sound false and discordant, out of tune with their gritty survivalist realities.

When their mothers and fathers were teenagers, Curtis Mayfield sang, “We’re a winner and never let anybody say that you can’t make it, cause a feeble mind is in your way. We’re movin’ on up.” Earth, Wind & Fire in exquisite harmony, “Keep your head to the sky.” And Bob Marley & The Wailers, thundered over rolling bassline, “Get up, Stand up. Stand up for your rights.” The hip-hop generation came into consciousness on Tina Turner’s “What’s Love Got To Do with It,” or an ego-centric mix that glorified materialism, like Run-D.M.C.’s “My Adidas” about a pair of sneakers or Whodini’s “Friends” how no one can be trusted.

Their parents grew up in the midst of hope and Black liberation’s consciousness. The youth grew up in a milieu of Doggy Dogism, of America’s retreat from its promises. Of Reaganism and white right-wing resurgence. In that sense, rap’s harshness merely reflects a harsh reality of lives lived amidst broken promises. How could it be otherwise? At its heart, though, rap is a multibillion dollar business, permeating America’s commercial culture, and influencing millions of minds. It is that all-American-corporationism that transforms rap’s grittyness into the gutter of materialism. A woman, a living being, reminds a man of a thing, a car. That to me is more perverse than the much criticized “bitches” and “hoes” comments. This is especially objectionable when one notes that in America, in the last century, in the eyes of the law, Blacks were property, chattel, things, like wagons owned by whites.

That a Black man, some three generations later, could sing that a Black woman, his God given mate, his female self, could “remind me of my jeep” amazes me. This isn’t, nor could it be, a condemnation of rap. The late Tupac Shakur’s “Dear Mama” and “Keep Ya Head Up” are shining examples of artistic expressions of loving oneness, with one’s family and people. Creative, moving, loving, funky, angry, and real are that late young man’s works as is a fair amount of the genre. Like any art form in America, it is also a business with the influences of the marketplace impacting upon its production. The more conscious it’s artists, the more conscious the art. Keep ya head up.

From death row, this is Mumia Abu-Jamal.