Over the past two weeks, I’ve written several columns decrying the diseased popular culture that baits high-profile athletes to choose a mindlessly rebellious music culture over a superior, healthier athletic culture.
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I pinpointed N-word-addicted rapper-turned-sports agent Jay-Z as the heir to the cultural throne once held by Jackie Robinson, Joe DiMaggio, Johnny Unitas, Bill Russell and Michael Jordan. I argued that Jay-Z’s ascension symbolized America’s dangerous and pervasive love affair with pop-culture anti-heroes such as Tony Soprano and Walter White.
Criticizing Jay-Zesus is a sin in the black community. He’s been approved by our President. Jay-Z’s wealth, to some, means he can do no wrong.
Predictably, my email inbox and Twitter timeline filled with angry black men and women calling me an Uncle Tom, a sellout and a hater. People who are in no way offended by Jay-Z’s constant use of the N-word were outraged that I labeled the Jigga Man a n*gga rapper.
To my surprise, one very important person was not offended at all. Dahveed Nelson, formerly David Jordan Nelson, the driving force behind The Last Poets, emailed me to praise my column. Nelson and The Last Poets are the fathers of rap/hip hop music. The politically charged, pro-black poems they performed over drumbeats in the late 1960s and early 1970s birthed rap music.
“Jay-Z is getting well paid,” Dahveed told me Sunday during a 90-minute Facebook Skype. “He’s one of the most wealthy people in America, certainly one of the wealthiest blacks and most influential, for being a n*gger, for putting on blackface and coo*ing. That’s what he’s getting paid for.”
It’s going to be hard for anyone to argue that Dahveed Nelson is an Uncle Tom and a sellout. The Last Poets were so militant and progressive that President Nixon had them placed under FBI surveillance. Nelson’s infamous poem, Die N*gger, inspired the title of Black Panther member H. Rap Brown’s autobiography. The rap group N.W.A. sampled Nelson performing the poem at the beginning of one of the group’s songs, Real N*ggaz Don’t Die.
Four years ago, Nelson moved to Ghana, Africa. He lives there now. He’s 74 years old and still an active basketball player. He’s a hoops junkie. That’s how he found my column. He reads my columns and listens to my podcasts from Africa.
He’s not a sellout. He’s appalled by what rap music has become. He sued N.W.A. years ago for sampling his voice and perverting the meaning of his poem (he regrets settling out of court).
“The message of my poem was just the opposite,” Nelson told me. “The message was for n*ggers to die so the real black man could be resurrected and seek salvation. This whole hip-hop generation, it’s the devil. It’s Satan. It’s hedonism. It’s the pursuit of pleasure. There’s no soul. They’ve captured our medium.”
I connected with Nelson on Sunday because I wanted to talk with him about the George Zimmerman trial. Although I believe the jury reached the only logical conclusion based on the trial, I’m highly disappointed Zimmerman was not held criminally responsible for following Martin, ignoring police instructions and shooting a 17-year-old kid after losing a fight his pursuit instigated. Zimmerman and the Sanford police force that initially bought Zimmerman’s explanation profiled Martin.
But they had an enthusiastic, unapologetic accomplice — N-word-addicted, gangsta rappers and the record companies that pay and promote them. They have branded young black boys and men within pop culture as criminal, violent and people to be feared. America is still a predominantly segregated society. We learn about each other through TV, the entertainment industry.
Thug rappers and their employers are partially to blame for Zimmerman seeing a black kid in a hoodie and immediately thinking “punk criminal.” The same group is also partially responsible for making young people think it’s cooler to pose as a wannabe thug than a wannabe scholar.
“More than partially,” Nelson interrupted me. “I think you’re being conservative. You can put the blame squarely on hip hop. It’s a marriage. It’s like the movie Django; you have those who collaborate with the enemy. The enemy has its responsibilities, but you’ve got the collaborators. That’s what the whole hip-hop culture is. I know the history of hip hop.
“The black cultural revolution that we had started was squashed by party and gangster rap music.”
Nelson isn’t afraid to call out the sacred cows.
“Russell Simmons was the first big pimp of hip hop,” Nelson said. “He had 99 million groups and only one of them had any positive words to put into it and that was Public Enemy. Simmons and Jay-Z are pimps and prostitutes.”
Nelson’s words read as angry, but they were said without animosity. He’s quite satisfied with his life in Ghana. He’s the acting president of the African-American Association of Ghana. He speaks to students. He’s a distance runner. He wants to put on a world tournament for basketball players over 50. His mind is sharp. He effortlessly sang old rap songs, performed his infamous Die N*gger poem and praised socially conscious rappers such as Lupe Fiasco.
Nelson even holds out hope that modern rap moguls such as Jay-Z and Simmons can change.
"I believe that righteous seeds gone astray can be redeemed, even pimps and prostitutes — I’m not angry with either of them," he wrote me on Facebook. "I hope they repent, pray for the Creator’s pardon and turn to a righteous path."
But Nelson can’t ignore the human and intellectual rot that is being caused by commercial American rap music.
“You can see it in the kids in Africa,” he said. “The influence of the music is global.”
It’s going to be tough arguing the father of rap music is a sellout. Nelson’s critics will just have to claim he’s too old to understand the brilliance of black folks defining themselves as N-words in music and all walks of life.
It’s George Zimmerman profiling and shooting black boys like a video game in Chicago and every other major American city. George-Z is the excuse we use not to check Jay-Z for profiling us for his ticket out of the ghetto and into the White House.