In 1969, while a graduate student at Notre Dame, I had a one night career on WNDU, the campus radio station. After I played Nina Simone’s “Mississippi Goddam!,” I was banned from the airwaves. Her song was in response to the murder of Medgar Evers in Mississippi and the bombing of the church in Birmingham that had killed four black girls. She cynically announced on the song that it was a “show tune, but the show hasn’t been written for it yet!” Now, just over 40 years later, rapper Lil’ Wayne has not only revived the show, but he has conjured up and sullied the suffering of one of the era’s main cast members.
Last week, the publicity of rapper Lil’ Wayne’s decidedly vulgar reference to teenager Emmett Till, whose scandalous murder in Mississippi in 1955 was considered by many as the impetus to the modern Civil Rights Movement, was, or so I thought, a teachable moment in my sociology classes at a black college outside Houston. But, to my absolute mortification, most of my students were relatively expressionless, seeming to wonder why I was so annoyed. Could they imagine, I asked, Klezmer musicians making a mockery of the Holocaust. When that didn’t seem to register with most, I asked them to envision the reaction to lyrics that blemished our collective memories of the aircraft flown into the World Trade Center on 9-11. How about a rap that patched the imagery of some sordid sexual act to the bombing of Pearl Harbor? It’s Black History Month, folks?
Then, it occurred to me: what does it say about the complex state of our educational system where African American youth are concerned, given the place of violence in the lives of many and the codes of behavior to which they subscribe, often subconsciously, values that are all too often generally anti-social and particularly misogynistic, yet normalized – in song and dance.
“Pop a lot of pain pills/Bout to put rims on my skateboard wheels/Beat that pussy up like Emmett Till.” Imagine that! Enough already!
Said megastar Stevie Wonder to the Huffington Post last week, “You can’t equate that to Emmett Till,” he said. “You just cannot do that … I think you got to have someone around you that – even if they are the same age or older – is wiser to say, ‘Yo, that’s not happening. Don’t do that.’”
Thanks, Lil’ Wayne, you have, however unintentionally, revived a conversation about how enormously powerful popular culture (music) is to our political culture. The beat goes on between the sacred and the profane! Now, to turn Nina’s phrase, not only do we know about “Mississippi” as a metaphor in African American history (the acts of inhumanity and insensitivity to suffering), we know more of what Lil’ Wayne and his unknowing fans don’t know.
William H. Turner, a one-time Winston-Salem resident, is a research professor at Prairie View A&M University in Texas.