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There's self-defeating, and then there's Jim Crow

BY JOSEPH LITMAN
The low end theory
Published October 29, 2002

I hate idiots. Those who have decided to be absolutely devoid of redeeming qualities like thoughtfulness, intelligence or judgment completely irk me. And yes, I write "decided" because I am not trying to hate on people who have innate shortcomings which place them in disadvantaged positions. Rather, I have no tolerance for individuals who, knowing better, choose narrow, limiting niches.

With that caveat in mind, I offer this statement: I hate Jim Crow. The Jim Crow familiar to most refers to the blatant racism of the United States South in the 20th century. I certainly hate that Jim Crow. In fact, that Jim Crow and the scar which his brand of racism left in this country is precisely why I hate the other Jim Crow so much. Who is this other Jim Crow? More accurately, who are this Jim Crow? Mr. Mo, Polow and Cutty Cartel are the members of an Atlanta-based rap group that goes by the infamous name and their latest single, "Hot Wheels," is a prime example of idiocy and self-defeatism.

Three black men calling themselves "Jim Crow" is idiotic because it trivializes the historical implications of the name, especially when they know what it means. (Jim Crow have said that their struggle for notoriety as Southern rappers is akin to the African-American struggle for legal equality). While only a miniscule percentage of the high-school-educated population will ever associate the term with the "musicians" before thinking of history, there are still younger people who can watch TV tonight and decide that Jim Crow is their favorite rap group, ignorant of the weight which the name carries. This circumstance should concern people the same way that it might were a child to say, "Oh, Hitler? Yeah, they're my favorite band. I love Hitler." Simply, people shouldn't be learning that Jim Crow is about candy-painted cars and jewelry.

Aside from potentially changing the context in which people are introduced to the term, making "Jim Crow" part of the public's active lexicon is dangerous because it diminishes the term's significance. Slowly, if "Jim Crow" is said enough, the discomfort that might currently accompany any invocation of the term will fade away.

A similar argument can be made against using the word "nigger" colloquially, a common practice in rap music. Those who support its use in new contexts argue that it helps to ease the pain experienced when the word is heard and also takes ownership of the term from those who used it for oppression and gives it to the oppressed. That argument is valid enough until one hears Jennifer Lopez or too many white kids referring to friends as their "niggas." Then, it becomes frighteningly clear that many people have become desensitized to the word's original meaning. Do all people no longer care when the N-word is used? No. And more importantly, most educated people still find it deplorable. However, the United States is a place where the gap between the learned and the unlearned is woefully wide and this latter group does not always perceive the many facets of pop culture. It is harrowing to think, then, that another term, still painful for many, could become a commonly used part of some people's personal idiolects.

"Hot Wheels" compounds these problems. The song's primary foci are cars and the lyrics are everything which one might associate with the mindless hip-hop that has become too popular. Exhibit A is the song's chorus, "The ladies they chose / they love when I cruise / they all want to sleep/with me because of twenty-twos on my car / Some ride twenty-fo's / Avalanche with TV's/When you get up inside/don't spill no liquor on the seats of this car." Exhibit B is the rest of the song, replete with misogyny, idiotic assertions ("got a crib, but the car's where I live") and a ripped off melody from Fear Factory's "In Cars." (Sampling and stealing are different, and this song features larceny.)

The nature of the song is so damning because it perpetuates the worst stereotypes about hip-hop. Critics cite the culture as one that promotes blind consumerism, sexism, and compromised values. Advocates have responded that the music is an avenue through which social issues can be addressed and many kinds of people can be heard. These counters are correct, yet when MTV is playing Jim Crow instead of Talib Kweli, the supposed merits of hip-hop seem obsolete. Instead, critics can focus on a group stupidly called Jim Crow and the vapid substance of their work when arguing that hip-hop is bad. Self-defeatism has found new champions and I hate them.

Joseph Litman can be reached at litmanj@umich.edu.