Music on a Mission

Soul Genesis hopes to reengergize hip-hop by lending it a life-affirming purpose.

By Kia Gregory
Add Comment Add Comment | Comments: 0 | Posted Oct. 3, 2007

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The feud had all the clamor of pro wrestling--the villain vs. the good guy. 50 even vowed he'd retire from his solo career if West outsold him.


The stunt worked.

According to Nielsen SoundScan, West's Graduation sold almost 1 million copies its first week, the year's best debut. 50's Curtis came in at No. 2 with 691,000. It was the first time in more than a decade the top two albums in the country each moved 600,000 units, giving the ailing music industry a much-needed boost.

But according to Billboard, hip-hop album sales are down by more than 40 percent compared to the same period in 2000, which for some proves that hip-hop fans are fed up with degrading guns/money/hos lyrics.

"Common said it a couple of years ago," Ewell says. "'Why it's over for the gangstas/ Why it's over for bling/ Why they hype Britney up/ When they know she can't sing?' People want more. There are people out there who want to hear music that has some substance and has content that makes them think and move--movement music."

Even Kanye West agreed. "I think my music is really inspirational," he told the Associated Press, "and I really made it for the people."

For 50, his Curtis album features songs like "My Gun Go Off," "Man Down," "I'll Still Kill," "Fully Loaded Clip" and "Curtis 187." As with his previous albums, the rapper known for his nine gunshot wounds glamorizes a lavish world of violence and sex.

"50's act is tired," says Temple University urban education professor Marc Lamont Hill, who's teaching a class on Jay-Z and Nas. "But he outsold Kanye in Europe, and around the world he's still a phenomenon."

Hill adds that critically acclaimed hip-hop artist Talib Kweli released his album Eardrum in mid-August, and moved only 100,000 units in the first week. Conscious rapper Common, who released his Finding Forever in July, has sold 370,000 copies of his album to date.

"Those are solid albums," says Hill, "but those two together haven't sold what 50 sold in one week, and his is an inferior album. But the public conversation is such that we don't consider buying those two because the media shapes our desire. We thought we had to choose between 50 and Kanye. The media never said you could buy neither.

"We say we want better hip-hop, but we don't buy it or support it. The problem is people genuinely don't have access to it. But we can't let people tell us what matters. We have to figure out what we want, and not buy stuff we don't care about. Movements shift upon what we do."

During the historical week in hip-hop when both albums were released, for nearly two hours hundreds of people protested outside the Washington, D.C., home of BET chief executive Debra Lee. Led by a local reverend, the campaign demanded that the network stop airing what they call demeaning and offensive portrayals of African-Americans, and that corporations divest in hip-hop culture that portrays blacks as gangsters, pimps and hos.

Two weeks later BET hosted part one of a three-part series titled "Hip-Hop vs. America" in which rappers T.I. and Nelly, cultural critic Nelson George, Rev. Al Sharpton and Georgetown academic Michael Eric Dyson debated the influence of hip-hop culture.

Hip-hop is perhaps the most powerful movement in the 20th century. It's a global phenomenon that influences how its followers dress and talk. It's also big business.

At a recent T.I. concert at New York's Madison Square Garden, the self- proclaimed king of the South was joined onstage by Jay-Z, Diddy, 50 Cent and Kanye West, representing $1.5 billion in hip-hop wealth.


The mainstream formula of hip-hop that Ewell describes as "I've been shot," of rappers exaggerating and glamorizing life in the 'hood, has been profitable not just for artists, but also for record companies, leaving critics to say the culture has been co-opted and exploited by corporate interests.

"The reality is when you sell 500,000 records, you're selling to white people, and we live in a world where black degradation is profitable," says Hill. "It's profitable because it's entertaining. Black uplift doesn't sell. As Gil Scott-Heron said, everybody loves peace, but you can't make any money off it."

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