Trials of a Hip Hop Educator
Keeping Up With the Joneses: BET and the Subliminal Culture of White Supremacy
By Bro. Tony Muhammad
Since Viacom bought out Black Entertainment Television (BET) my attention towards the cable channel’s programming has diminished to a crawl. I noticed several years ago how as soon as the take over was complete the changes became obvious. Conscientious talk show host Tavis Smiley was immediately fired from BET Tonight and replaced by the non-threatening Ed Gordon, ultimately doing away with the late night news segment altogether. At the same time, Rap City seemed to have all of a sudden lost its edge on bridging the gaps between the old, new and true schools in Hip Hop. The predominant images in Hip Hop, especially on the famed 106 and Park became increasingly trendy; which actually meant more sexist, savagely stereotypical and violently vulgar. Alienated, I like many other conscientious loyal viewers made the decision to tune out. With the exception of special eye catching programs such as the Hip Hop Verses America panel series that aired last year, the only updates I would receive about what was shown on BET came through my students.
Flash forward to May 20th, 2008. It was late afternoon. A very close friend of mine who happens to be a pioneer in the music industry was visiting from out of town. He was flipping through channels on my living room television set and just so happened to land on BET. He quickly called me over to pay special attention to what was taking place on the screen. The first obvious thing I noticed was that this was a special 106 and Park show, promoting the release of the movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. The first thought that came to my mind was that this was rather unusual, considering that all of the main characters in the film are white. This is Black Entertainment Television after all right??? Not only this but the main character himself, Indiana Jones played by Harrison Ford, is supposed to be a famous anthropologist who is on a life-long journey to explore non-Western lands for precious treasures, which in his mind should be placed on display in Western (European) museums. Co-host Terrence J was wearing an Indiana Jones get up on the show; brown leather jacket, brimmed hat and all. The show was airing live from the Magic Johnson movie theatre in what was once known as the Mecca of Black intellectualism and culture; Harlem, New York. Today, Harlem’s population has been “whitewashed” as a result of rabid gentrification efforts. I automatically started making these connections in my mind and became concerned yet interested to see more. I then noticed two pillars, one on either side of the set, reminiscent of ancient Egypt (Kemit), which according to the Honorable Elijah Muhammad was one of the last greatest Black civilizations on Earth. It quickly dawned on me that the first Indiana Jones movie, Raiders of the Lost Ark, took place in Egypt (Kemit) and how many of its glorious ancient artifacts are today found in many Western museums and how European (white) scholars have historically discredited Black people from developing such a civilization; giving more credit to what has been termed as “North African Caucasoids” (if there ever was such a thing) or simply put, “tanned” white people. Knowing all of this is important in order to understand what was to come.
Ashanti was the first artist to perform between the two pillars. On one level she appeared culturally enriched, with makeup around her eyes symbolic of the great pharaohs of ancient Egypt (Kemit). Artistically however, it was obvious that she is being molded according to corporate-music industry research standards – trying to mold her to sound more like what’s presently “hot” (Keyshia Cole) rather than her own natural soft sensual musical self. After Ashanti’s performance Shia LaBeouf, who plays Indiana Jones’ sidekick Mutt Williams, was brought up on stage. He was asked to kick a freestyle, but refused. Instead, he did the “Crip Walk.” The audience cheered. Soon after, Karen Allen (who plays Indiana Jones’ ex-lover) was interviewed. Jim Jones followed with a performance of his hit song Ballin’ to authenticate the movie premier taking place in Harlem. Later on during a trivia segment called “Keeping Up With the Jonses,” Jim Jones taught all of the actors present, including Harrison Ford, how to do the “Ballin’ Dance.” Harrison Ford exaggerated the moves in a mocking way. All of the actors seemed stage fight and distant in front of a predominantly Black audience.
However, the most overt gesture of white supremacy was to follow. “Whip trainer” Anthony De Longis (who trains actors such as Harrison Ford in Indiana Jones and Halle Barry in the movie Cat Woman) was brought up on stage to demonstrate how to use a whip. After literally cracking a whip, he asked the trivial question “Why does the whip make a cracking sound?” He answered his own question by saying “Because it breaks the sound barrier.” He also mentioned how the tip of the whip moves at 700 miles an hour. (Imagine the impact on human flesh!) He then proceeded to perform tricks with the whip on a volunteer. Terrence J backed out very quickly as if experiencing a “flash back” from slavery and instead offered his co-host Rocsi. De Longis then proceeded to repeatedly crack the whip in front of her while she stood facing the audience in fright. He then lassoed her twice around her legs and pulled her into his arms and dipped her as if they were ballroom dancing. I know that this was the premier of the movie, but I constantly asked myself in disbelief “What is the meaning of all of this insanity?” On one end, your average person may think nothing is wrong with any of these images; after all, it’s celebrating the premier of a greatly anticipated movie right? On another end, I could easily envision white middle-aged Viacom executives laughing hysterically after placing the image of an overseer (or slave master) cracking a whip on a once Black-owned (now white-owned) cable network, subliminally rousing up the post-traumatic psycho-social stress of slavery. Not only this, this ridiculous display also denotes how the white man is still in control and continues to desire the Black woman sexually, while the Black man rendered powerless, sits back and watches. I thought it was clever how they slipped white supremacy in under the guise of it all just being “adventurous” entertainment.
The solution to this all? In the immediate, we must pay closer attention to what our children are watching and listening to. We must teach our children to question what they are watching on television and in movies, as well as the music they are listening to. How beneficial are these images (or sounds) to their own self-development, both individually and community-wise? How does it affect their self-worth? If they are taught to question, they will ultimately steer themselves on a path towards thinking for themselves. However, if history is not taken into account then we will continue to make the same mistakes as generations past. Our children will grow up ignoring the obvious and will continue to fall victim to stereotypical roles unchecked in all facets of society. It is up to us, who know better, to make time to make the difference.
More to come next month.