Opinion » Bill Cope

Imus' Bad Rap

Beware what you say; someone may be dancing to it


If you're sick of the Don Imus affair, I apologize for bringing it up again. But in all the discussions over what he said and what became of him, I believe an insidious untruth was reinforced by its repetition, and it's unlikely I will ever have a better opportunity to set the record straight. What I have to say must be said, and if I lose my job for saying it ... oh, well.

Imus is only incidental to the untruth I'm out to correct. He doesn't interest me. I don't believe guys who think they have to wear rumpled old cowboy hats (or brand-new, wrinkle-free cowboy hats, for that matter) have much to say worth listening to. If they did, they wouldn't need the goofy hat to get people's attention.

I've never even heard his show. On those rare occasions when I listen to radio, it's not to hear randomly spewed crud from obnoxious snots who talk too much. I can't help but feel there is something fundamentally unseemly about people who do nothing else for a living than talk. As I understand it, Imus was on the radio, talking, four hours a day. That's 20 hours a week of nothing but talking. It's no wonder he said something offensive. I suspect if Jesus himself had to talk for 20 hours every week, he'd eventually say something that would get him fired. That's why I prefer writing. It gives a person a chance to think about what he's just said before anyone else hears it.

Nor do I care much that Imus lost his job, not that losing his job will keep him from talking. I'm sure he'll always have plenty to say. Only now, not so many people will hear him say it. As I regard free speech the Golden Rule right that gives birth to all the other rights and allows them substance, I am concerned the Don Imus affair comes uncomfortably close to censorship. But my concern for one man's right to insult people is insignificant next to my concern over race relations in America. Besides, as Tavis Smiley (another radio personality) said, "The First Amendment guarantees Imus the right of free speech, not the right to have a syndicated talk show."

I'm assuming by the time you read this, the Don Imus affair will have been replaced in America's shifting attentions by some other affair. We'll never run out of affairs, not with so many cable news mouths to feed. Still, it's good that we spent a couple of weeks talking about race relations, though I don't believe anything noticeable will change because of all that talking. We've been here before and we'll be here again. It took 400 years or more to get us into this mess, so we can't expect a few panel discussions over a boneheaded remark from a guy who wears cowboy hats to get us out of it.

It's also good that we took a serious look--however meaningless that look will prove to be--at the hypocrisy in our society. There's no getting around it ... it's hypocritical to punish Imus for saying what he did, yet not punish the hip-hopsters from whom he stole the line. The only pure and fair way to handle the situation would be to shun all people who say the same sort of thing Imus did. But that won't happen. Our society can only correct itself in teensy-tiny increments, and that usually means by making examples of one person at a time. This time, it was Imus. We have no procedure for shaming entire subcultures. It's hypocrisy, indeed. But were we to eliminate all hypocrisy, our species would freeze up like a computer with too much input. Hypocrisy is the price we must pay for being around one another.

But none of this has to do with the insidous untruth I must--absolutely must!--address while the subject is still fresh in our minds. Over and over, while the talking panel mouths were discussing the Imus affair, we heard them refer to the rap music industry from which comes such demeaning crud. The rap music industry. Rap ... music? Get it?

Surely you see what I'm hinting at? Do I have to come right out and say it? Must I offend an entire generation of young human beings, stretching around the world, who labor under the mistaken belief that "rap" and "music" belong in the same phrase together? Can't we all just agree that, whatever else rap is, it's not music? Do I have to lay my head on the block, because no one else has the guts to tell their adolescents the truth? Must I be the next Imus?

So be it. I can live with a great deal of hypocrisy, but not so much that I can call rap music "music." I know music. Music is dear to me. I can express my regards for music no better than Kurt Vonnegut (who, incidentally, died for real on the same day Don Imus died so figuratively) when he wrote as his own epitaph, "The only proof he needed for the existence of God was music."

I ask you, have you ever heard a rap song worthy of such a tribute?

In an article on rap in the April National Geographic, author James McBride (who admits to detesting it, probably even more than I do) writes, "hip-hop is the legitimate heir to a rich tradition of African-American music--the latest in a continuum of music that mirrors the social conditions in which it was created." Near to that statement is one of those National Geographic-y charts that starts in Africa and continues on through Scott Joplin, Armstrong, Ellington and Parker. It ties in jazz, blues, soul, Motown and funk, and all the separate threads (according to the chart) lead to rap. Nowhere does the chart stipulate that all those remarkable black musicians came to be called "musicians" because they either sang remarkably or played an instrument remarkably. Nowhere does it say there is much more to music than "the social conditions in which it was created." For instance, melody. Harmony. Inventiveness and structure. The rich spectrum of audile color that real music provides and the discipline it takes to achieve musical transcendence. Nowhere does it indicate that rappers' only claim to musical accomplishment is their talent for talking a lot.

Oh yes, there's a tad of music-ish stuff in the background--particularly if one considers drum machines to be musical instruments. But the essential nature of rap is talking. And talking isn't the same as music. If it were, we'd all be musicians, and Don Imus would be a virtuoso. He could teach at Julliard and perform at the Lincoln Center, now that he has the time.

OK, I've said it, and don't ask me to apologize. If I've offended any young people for saying that horrid crud spewing from their cars next to me at stop lights is not music ... good.