No one who lives locally and goes to hip hop shows—that is to say, thousands of people in Sonoma County—could have escaped the shocking headline in last week’s local newspaper. “Phoenix Theater Bans Rap Concerts,” it declared, in a mystifying statement that was as bold as it was hard to believe.
That’s because it wasn’t true. The Phoenix Theater has not banned rap concerts.
Here’s what happened: in a letter sent out early last week, the Phoenix Board addressed the lingering issue of a 17 year-old from Concord who was found during a police dispatch after a Super Hyphy show starring Keak da Sneak and Mistah F.A.B.; while the kid was being tackled by police across the street, he allegedly tossed a loaded 9mm pistol through the doors of Pazzo, a nearby nightclub. In the letter, the Phoenix stressed that it would continue to do everything in its power to ensure the safety of its patrons, and noted that it had postponed three upcoming hip hop shows while its security measures were reviewed.
Nowhere in the letter did the word “ban” appear. If anything, the Phoenix’s dedication to future safety and promise of heightened security pointed directly to a continuation of, and a commitment to, presenting live hip hop.
When I first saw the headline I was mortified. Then, as I read the article, I realized that the people at the Phoenix probably just felt like they needed to address the complicated workload of the Petaluma Police Department, the concerns of parents, and the irate comments posted online by blatant racists. So they said they’d lay low for a while, reassess a few things, and wait until the whole thing cooled off.
I talked with a member of the Phoenix board that night, and a letter to the editor showed up two days later from the Board president clarifying things; it turned out that my hunch was more or less right, and the Phoenix already has some hip hop shows booked again. But why, then, the completely incorrect headline?
As a writer, I should understand how media works. I don’t, exactly, but I do know of the propensity for criticizing what you don’t understand and wanting it to go away. Wanting so much for it to go away, in fact, that you might tell everyone that it actually had gone away in the hopes that it will follow suit and leave you alone.
Naturally, accusations of racism have been raised about the general attitude towards hip hop in Sonoma County, and while there’s no doubt that that’s an active element, I don’t think it’s entirely accurate per se, or, at least, that simple. What I think is at the core of racism, however, is the same thing that’s at the core of most denunciation of hip hop: making an uninformed choice to hate something based purely on surface elements.
You can say, and you’d be right, that a lot of balled-out, gun-toting, hoe-slapping rap stars bring condemnation upon themselves (you could also make a case for the obviously over-the-top, unserious extravagance of such poses, but that’s a different story). But to be honest, I believe that most hostility towards hip hop comes from recoiling in disgust at the actual sound of the music itself. 30 years after its inception, an opinion still prevails among older people—and especially the large population of older, rich, white people in Sonoma County—that hip hop isn’t “real music.” It instantly annoys.
If they did give rap music a try, they might discover some that they actually liked. Like evaluating a bottle of wine, subtle nuances either make or break a rap song, and finding the good artists only means ascertaining these idiosyncrasies. To your grandma, say, Talib Kweli sounds just like 50 Cent, but if she actually trained her palate and listened—listened!—she might say, “know what, mu’fucka, this Kweli cat is on some other shit!” (Or, you know, the grandmotherly equivalent thereof.) But is she ever going to do that? Hell no, because people get old and closed-minded and see numbskulls like Kanye West blathering away on television and make up their minds that rap music is a scourge on humanity and that’s that.
Growing up in the 1980s, listening to rap music for me was revelatory. Albums like Raising Hell, Paid in Full and Paul’s Boutique made me feel, at 12 years old, like everything in the world was within my grasp. I assume that kids these days feel the same way too.
In fact, I know for a fact that they feel the same way. I’ve gone to lots of hip hop shows at the Phoenix. And I haven’t seen as much empowerment, positivity and unity in one room in the last five years as I have at some of those Super Hyphy shows, crazy to say. Whatever your take on the style performed, there’s no denying that those shows provide a face-to-face opportunity for teenagers to relate to each other in a positive way with music that is distinctly theirs. If you strip kids of that opportunity, you’re not only erasing from their lives some of the most important memories they’ll have of coming of age, but also saying that you don’t trust them to feel like individuals or to form their own opinions. What kinda shit is that?
Ultimately, anyone trying to ban or acquiescing to media pressure to ban hip hop—clubs that change their DJs, radio stations that change their format—they’re all just gonna look like total fools in the end. Hip hop is the most alive and popular form of music in the world. It has been for years and years. You could say, harking back to the same damn thing that happened 50 years ago, that it’s here to stay.
A few final things: I actually feel for the writer of the newspaper article; not a lot of people are aware that staff writers don’t come up with the headlines for their own articles. Blame the editor. And also, the first show that the Phoenix postponed was an Andre Nickatina appearance scheduled for the incredibly inconvenient hour of 3:00 in the afternoon, put on by Nickatina himself, which for some stupid reason cost an astronomical $35. No big loss.