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The Case for Black With a Capital B

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A Conversation with Professor Griff on the Legacy of Malcolm X

By Talia Whyte


Professor Griff of the legendary hip-hop group Public Enemy gave a lecture on Malcolm X's influence in today's black culture at Northeastern University's John D. O'Bryant African-American Institute February 12. I didn't know what to expect before attending his lecture, but I am so glad now that I was there. Griff presented the “Black History 101 Mobile Museum” along with his colleague, museum founder and curator Khalid El-Hakim prior to his lecture.  Inside the Cabral Center where the museum exhibit was held, there were tables with dozens of fascinating artifacts representing the last four hundred years of the African-American experience.

During his lecture, Griff told the audience that he wanted young people to not only learn about their culture, but to also be the “guardians of the culture.” He gave a multimedia presentation on the evolution, or rather the devolution of black culture. He told the audience that, unlike the socially conscientious activists of the 1960s and 1970s, young people today seem to care more about keeping up with the Kardashians than with keeping up with real problems happening in their communities. Griff was particularly concerned about the corporate takeover of hip-hop and the bad influences BET and MTV have had on today's popular culture.

I totally understood what he was saying. Twenty years ago, there were more rappers like Public Enemy who were more thoughtful about discussing critical issues affecting African-Americans. Today, most of the big name rappers seem to focus on more shallow topics like their bling, cars, money and women.

Recently, Harry Belafonte called out Jay Z for not using his platform to address more substantive issues. Jay Z responded by comparing himself to President Obama, by saying “my presence is charity.” Just this week Nikki Minaj got into trouble for using Malcolm X's iconic image in a poorly misguided single cover. Griff has even criticized Flavor Flav and his participation in reality TV, saying that Flavor provides the “lowest essence of what Public Enemy has to offer.”

“If hip-hop is the CNN of this generation, then who are the rappers addressing them?” Griff said. “Hip-hop is brain-dead. It needs mouth to mouth resuscitation.”

Just before Griff's lecture, Buffalo-based rapper Quadir Lateef performed for the audience. Lateef is a representation of what Griff would like to see in hip-hop today. Lateef's lyrics were filled with anger about racism and aggression. He questioned why the United States was fighting wars overseas when it has its own problems. “Crack is a weapon of mass destruction,” he said.

I talked to Lateef afterwards and he said thanks to social media, he has broken through corporate hip-hop and found an audience who supports him.

“The powers that be in the media focus on negativity and pimping the culture,” Lateef said. “But the power is with the people if they want it.”