2004 Year End Thoughts
Why They Gotta Do Me Like That: Hip-Hop and Kobe Bryant in 2004
hart dominance and cultural ubiquity aside, haters persist in arguing that mainstream hip-hop merely recycles a tired spiel of bitches, blunts, and bullets. In 2004, however, rappers actually stuck to two time-sensitive themes—the election and Kobe Bryant.
In the former camp you had Diddy’s Vote or Die project, much (and rightly) maligned but still a positive indication of mobilization in the community. More importantly, you had several pointedly skeptical emcees who nonetheless acted like a pro-Kerry/anti-Bush vote could make at least a little bit of difference. Eminem’s missive “Mosh” may have called out Kerry as well, but it’s clear Dubya was the real mark, while Jada’s hyper-scrutinized “Why” notoriously blamed the Prez for 9/11. Qualms with the system were duly noted, but most hip-hop icons identified the dire need for immediate political action.
Just check these quotes from Sixshot.com:
Juelz Santana: “I feel that it’s just the world is in a state of emergency right now. I am saying with what’s going on we all need to be aware and we all need to know that we need to all go out and vote and that our voices do count as a whole or one.”
Young Buck: “All I can say is that: GO VOTE THIS YEAR! You might not have another chance.”
Slim Thug: “I ain’t trying to vote for Bush at all—I need to vote so most likely it’s going to be Kerry.”
Outcome notwithstanding, the runup to Decision ‘04 showed hip-hop eager to embrace a changing of the guard, ostensibly believing that institutional progress was more than just a pipe dream.
Of course, Kobegate gave the lie to that bit of wishful thinking, proving that while rappers may have put a modicum of faith in new leadership, they weren’t fooled for a second into thinking the playing field had truly been leveled.
Kobe’s alleged rape of a 19 year-old hotel worker in Eagle, Colorado last July was as close to a fair and balanced litmus test of prevailing hip-hop values as you’re ever likely to find, if only because predisposed partisan bias in favor of the accused didn’t really factor into the equation.
Face it, I hate Kobe, you hate Kobe, Shaq and Phil hate Kobe. Thanks to a recent tiff with wifey, now even the Mailman hates Kobe. From the moment he entered the league, KB’s never been a favorite in the streets either. For proof, look no further than the five-year, $40 million shoe deal Bryant, an established star and arguably the NBA’s most talented and exciting player, inked with Nike back in June of ‘03, and compare it to the seven-year, $90 million love the shoe giant gave LeBron James before he even stepped on the pro hardwood.
At least initially, the hip-hop response to Kobe’s scandal logically followed his less-than-exalted status. Basically, Bryant got clowned, the indirect butt of jokes ranging from Medaphoar’s “my niggas take no like Kobe” on the Madvillainy LP, to Kanye’s oft-quoted vow to “give you ice like Kobe wife” on Twista’s hit “Overnight Celebrity”.
As the year wore on, however, the Kobe meme took a darker, more dramatic turn. It all started with the aforementioned “Why”, arguably the most lyrically-dissected hit of the year, hip-hop or otherwise. Surrounded by prescient meditations on the PATRIOT Act, the prison system and the record industry, Jada’s unsavory query “Why did Kobe have to hit that raw / Why he kiss that whore?” stuck out like Karl Malone in a cowboy hat. As far as thug misogyny is concerned, the serious-minded Jada's barely a blip on the radar, which only meant his spiteful indictment of Kobe's victim left us with far more questions than answers.
Answers were forthcoming, however, beginning with Talib Kweli’s “Back Up Offa Me”, a surprisingly nasty aberration from the nominally uber-conscious hip-hop vet’s September release, The Beautiful Struggle. Sagely cautioning up-and-coming emcees against the schemes of underage females, Kweli lauds his own Teflon act before turning his attentions to the far-less-savvy Lake Show superstar:
It's a master-slave relationship, but guess who's Toby?
It's the white girl in Colorado, but guess who's Kobe?
Tried to tell you not to fuck with these debutantes
That's more Kobe beef than Japanese restaurants
Don't need diseases or cases, ain't trying to catch nothing
And when they're throwing pussy best believe you catching something (hey)
Invoking the slave name of Kunta Kinte’s character from Alex Haley’s iconic novel Roots, Kweli doesn’t exactly posit Bryant as the victim, chastising him instead for not knowing the lay of the land. Kweli takes it as a given that Kobe didn’t actually rape Katelyn Kristine Faber, but merely made the mistake of thinking he could get away with having an extramarital tryst with a white girl without getting pinched for sexual misconduct.
Not only that, but once the allegations were made public, Bryant’s fate and his guilt were essentially secured, both by the media and within the public court of opinion. So reads the subtext of “These Are Our Heroes”, a caustic and mostly brilliant meditation on accepted modes of blackness in mainstream white culture from hip-hop’s street poet par excellence, Nas. Extremely critical of Kobe’s obeisance to white America and his subsequent betrayal of impressionable young fans of all races, Nas nonetheless opines:
But there's somethin' they don't say
Keep gettin' accused for abusin' white pussay
From OJ to Kobe, uh let's call him Tobe
First he played his life cool just like Michael
Now he rock ice too just like I do
Yo, you can't do better than that?
The hotel clerk who adjusts the bathroom mat?
Now you lose sponsorships that you thought had your back
Yeah, you beat the rap jiggaboo, fake nigga you
You turn around then you shit on Shaq
Who woulda knew, Mr. Goodie-Two-Shoes
He love a little butt crack, got enough cash
Little kids with they bus pass who look up to you
To do something for the youth, stupid spoof
But you let them use you as an example
They would rep, but our heroes got they hands full
Notice that Nas admonishes Kobe not for his sexual impropriety or his violent behavior, but simply for being a dupe, for trusting white corporate hegemony to have his back, for putting himself in a position to be "accused for abusin' white pussay" in the first place. Kobe allowed white society to sell him as a safe, non-threatening icon, then watched helplessly as his guilt was presupposed and his image irrevocably tarnished, as if to remind white America (at least in Nas' interpretation) that no black man, no matter how seemingly benign, can truly be trusted.
So what does it all mean? Well, fundamentally it all depends on whether Kobe Bryant really did commit sexual assault, but that's a question only two people can ever genuinely answer. In broader terms, hip-hop's reaction to the scandal showed that centuries-old scars have not fully healed in this country, that many in the community see the distorted visage of the "Brute" caricature as being alive and well. The memory of lynchings, which were publicly justified on the irrational, incorrect basis that black men habitually targeted white women, hasn't subsided from historical consciousness, and for good reason, considering that Emmett Till, Willie Horton, Charles Stuart, Susan Smith and O.J. Simpson have all passed across our collective field of vision in the past 50 years. Regardless of hip-hop's willingness to support domestic regime change, the saga of Kobe Bryant says less about a male-dominated genre's troubled relationship with women (though that's certainly an attendant issue) than it does about rap's lingering distrust of institutional treatments of race and sex.