Express Yourself 

It all comes down to understanding rap culture

After three brothers were suspended from Colleton County High School for having haircuts that promoted something called the "Jacktown Boys," school officials stood by their decision, while the students stood up to what they considered unjust discrimination. Claiming the boys have been unfairly labeled a "gang," the father of the students, Melvin Bowens, argues that the school district doesn't understand rap culture. "They want to express themselves with their haircuts," he says. "That's all it is, an expression."

And Mr. Bowens has a point. The image someone chooses to promote, whether it's a style of dress, the use of particular symbols, or a certain lifestyle, is no doubt a vehicle for personal expression. It is also only natural that others are going to form opinions about such "expressions."

Perhaps my favorite analysis of image perception is comedian Dave Chappelle's, who does a routine about provocatively-dressed women who get angry when men make assumptions. "OK, imagine I wear a cop's uniform and someone comes running up screaming, 'Officer, thank God, help us!' Wait, Wait, just because I dress this way does not make me a policeman. Women. Just because you dress that way does not make you a whore — but you are wearing a whore's uniform."

Chappelle's right. The image we project is the image others will perceive. We know for a fact that all Muslims are not terrorists, but Americans naturally associate certain negative traits with Islamic dress and imagery. But these perceptions are wrong, you see — we simply don't understand Islam. Southerners who have a reverence for the Confederate flag must assume there will always be plenty of misperceptions from others about this symbol. Fairness has little to do with it. It seems some people just don't understand Southern culture.

When it comes to understanding the "rap culture" that Mr. Bowens believes has been maligned in Colleton County, the same rules apply. Just look at the Michael Vick story for negative perceptions of hip-hop, which as sports columnist Jason Whitlock explains, "speaks to the grip the negative aspects of hip-hop culture have on young people. Vick is a millionaire athlete who has spent most of his NFL career trying to maintain his street cred."

Columnist Bryan Burwell of the St. Louis Dispatch seconds Whitlock: "Somewhere between Jackie Robinson and Michael Vick, things got all fouled up. 'Street cred' became the anthem of the modern black athlete (who adopted) the negative attitudes of the thug life popularized by black hip-hop/gangster rappers. Vick is accused of sponsoring the sort of gruesome dogfighting enterprise that is readily identified as a part of the dark side of that culture."

Popular rapper Jay-Z has openly discussed his affection for dogfighting and even included it in a video. Hip-hop artist DMX has admitted his album Grand Champion was a tribute to top fighting dogs, and when police raided the rapper's Arizona home over a week ago it was reported that 13 pit bulls were found living in inhumane conditions. Based on these examples, is it wrong, or unfair, to have a negative image of rap?

There was a time in this country when girls were not allowed to wear make-up before a certain age or wear skirts above the knee, lest they give boys the wrong impression. Now when young men dress or cut their hair in a "thug-like" fashion, that even Colleton County Police recognize as gang-inspired, the allegedly responsible adults in the matter — the parents — defend their behavior and retaliate with charges of racism.

One thing's certain. When Colleton County Police arrested 10 juveniles on the night of Fri., Aug. 24, including five who described themselves as "Jacktown Boys" — it was most certainly not for the crime of self expression.

There's nothing new about kids expressing themselves through music and clothing, but there is a dangerous new element to what some choose to express. You can't try and convince the whole world how "tough" or "bad" you are and then get angry when the world does indeed notice it. Believe it or not, grown-ups are allowed to express themselves too.

Catch Southern Avenger commentaries every Tuesday and Friday at 7:50 a.m. on the "Morning Buzz with Richard Todd" on 1250 AM WTMA.


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