Is Trinidad James an Artist or a Buffoon? Dr. Chistopher Emdin discusses
Dr. Boyce Watkins had a conversation about the impact that hip-hop is having on the youth that listen to it. To add to the conversation, he invited Dr. Christopher Emdin to weigh in on the conversation about what rappers like Trinidad James are actually doing to young people when they release records full of destructive messages.
Dr. Watkins: Hi. I’m Dr. Boyce Watkins from YourBlackWorld.com. Last week I was in New York City and I stopped by a radio station, in the City, called Power 105.1, which is a hip-hop station. One of my buddies is one of the hosts on the show called the Breakfast Club. His name is Charlamagne Tha God. So, I stopped through to talk to Charlamagne and we were talking about some of this nonsense with BET and whether or not it’s affecting our kids and stuff like that.
I asked Charlamagne,
“What do you think about this guy, this new rapper, Trinidad James?”
“Oh, yeah. Trinidad was here right before you got here.” I said, “I’m so happy I didn’t cross paths with him on my way in the door because I think that might have been my first arrest for assault because I probably would have tried to beat this brother down. His music just bothers me so much. But, then again, maybe I’m just a hater because he’s got more money than me.”
So, to kind of get some perspective on this, I wanted to bring in one of my buddies who is one of the scholars I respect the most in the country, Dr. Christopher Emdin. He’s not just a Professor of Education at Columbia University, which is impressive enough; but he’s also a very, very good hip-hop artist. I’ve literally seen him bust freestyle in front of a group of high school kids and at the same time talk to them about how the power of hip-hop can be used to teach them science. So, I’ve got Dr. Emdin on the line.
Dr. Boyce: How are you doing today, brother?
Dr. Emdin: I’m doing well, man. I’m really appreciative that you gave me the opportunity to share some insight on this situation with Trinidad James. He’s blowing up over night.
Dr. Boyce: Yeah. He really is. Is it true he’s been rapping for about 8 or 9 months?
Dr. Emdin: The interview narrative has been about 8 or 9 months but I think he’s been rapping a little bit longer. I vividly remember actually being in Atlanta about a year and a half ago and I was talking with some young people. Some of them were saying, “Yo. Trinidad James is next. Trinidad James is the truth.” So, I think he’s actually been rapping a little bit longer than the narrative that’s being put out to the public. His fan base has been there for quite a while.
Dr. Boyce: Really. Okay.
Dr. Emdin: Yes, sir.
Dr. Boyce: So, Trinidad just got a deal with Def Jam Records. It’s so interesting because I’m kind of, mentally, in that space. I literally had an hour and a half long meeting yesterday with Russell Simmons talking about bringing in hip-hop artists to support our campaign on mass incarceration. You’re also in that space because you just finished an extraordinary event with Gza from the Wu Tang Clan on how to use hip-hop to teach science.
So, what is your take on the legitimacy now – or the perceived legitimacy of this artist who is producing music that many people might call straight coonery and buffoonery?
Dr. Emdin: See, this is my take and I want to be very, very clear. I do not blame Trinidad James for his over-night success. I don’t blame Trinidad James for the fact that he is on every radio station across the country. Nor do I blame him for the fact that he has become an over-night phenomena. What I do blame is a record company that will sign this artist, support this artist, give him money, and continue in this trajectory or piggy back off of this underground success he’s made at the expense of promoting a caricature of blackness. I don’t blame the brother.
The black experience has its nuances. There is somebody who Trinidad James raps to and for. Just like there’s somebody that Gza raps to and for. There’s a wide array of that. There’s intellectual rap. There’s street rap. There’s pop and molly rap. I don’t advocate for the negative but I realize that it exists.
In my view, my issue is not with the artist himself. My issue is with a public and with a corporate hip-hop system. We call it hip-hop. We call it something — an institution that’s supposed to advocate for our culture only identifying the negative caricature and making sure that that becomes what the picture is of the entire culture. That’s what I have a problem with. I have a problem with radio stations choosing to take Trinidad James and put him on their station in New York City or across the globe as what is the newest and hottest artist in the country. Because they have the power to be able to identify another artist that is much more talented and perhaps has a different robust subject matter, and make that person be the picture of hip-hop.
So, I don’t blame the man. The man that’s speaking based on his experiences, or his circumstances, or what he sees in Atlanta everyday, or his
self-construction, however flawed that may be. I won’t critique that one publicly. I would like to have a conversation with him about why that is how he constructs who he is; why it is that he sees the world this way. I’ve heard interviews with the brother. He’s actually quite articulate. So, I’d like to talk to him about, “Why don’t you pull forth more of the complexity of who you are into your music?” That’s conversation between me and Trinidad James or anybody who loves hip-hop or loves black men and wants to see them be more then what they are portrayed to be. That’s a conversation between us and Trinidad.
My critique is not him. My critique is the system. My critique is the corporate system that allows us to force-feed this nonsense to our young people. My critique is of the fact that we are now at a point where we are advocating for these who are spitting nursery school rhymes as if that’s complex hip-hop. I don’t think Trinidad James is a product of isolation. He didn’t come out of nowhere. Trinidad James is the ancestor of Rick Ross. Rick Ross has a nursery school rhyme and he pauses and says, “uh.” And then, Trinidad James says, “Hot tamale, I’m sweating, whoo.” That’s the same cadence. It’s the basic baseline nursery rhyme cadence. You know, Trinidad James is the evolution of Rick Ross. And, there will be many more incarnations of that simplistic rap if we don’t get to the point where we start critiquing it and saying, “Hey, Company, there’s a brother right now, called “X”, who is spitting hip-hop on a consistent basis about every social dynamic of our time. Every social construction where he talks about black maleness, politics, the media, and corporate entity, he talks about all these things that really affect black men but you’re not going to offer him a deal. You won’t give him the debility. He won’t get spins on 105.1 or Hot 97. Then you blame the audience like the audience is asking for it. The audience isn’t asking for it. The audience is asking for complexity and blackness. You take that as the message you want to show us and then you blame us because we’re the one’s consuming. We’re consuming because you’re feeding it.”
And this is why I go back to what a great man once said, “It is that time that we turn off the radio, turn off the BS, and we get to the point where we start supporting artists who speak to and for us. And when we have those artists that don’t do that, we critique them individually; we critique them personally. We have a conversation about them because those brothers are hurt. They’re lonely. They’re speaking those narratives because they’re still trying to find themselves. I hear Trinidad James. I don’t get angry at the brother. I get angry at the circumstances that allowed him to feel like this is the only way that he can get some visibility.
So, where we are right now is to really focus on the entities who push these messages upon us. , that take one artist out of Atlanta and put him on a National billboard. And the question we have to ask ourselves is not why Trinidad James is creating that rap, it’s why is the public and the company and the record label and MTV and Viacom and Clear Channel and 105.1, 97.1, or whatever radio station it is that you’re listening to throughout the country, singling him out as what we should be showing our young people as an example. That’s who I blame, not the man.
Dr. Boyce: I’m in complete agreement with you. And, I’ll say this: anybody who hasn’t seen Trinidad James’ video has got to check out his song. The song that made him successful is called “All Gold Everything.” And, it’s about the biggest caricature of black manhood that you’ve ever seen in your life. Everybody in the video is pretty much running around with guns and money and drugs. Every buffoonish, ignorant, self-destructive stereotype that is fed to our black men on a regular basis is featured in this video. The next book that I’m releasing is related to what I call the gospel of black-male self-destruction, which is being fed to African American males through this music. It’s being played out all around us and we see black boys imitating this on a regular basis. It only leads them to either prison or the morgue. We’ve got to stop it and we’ve got to deal with it and get it where it stands.
Now, I want to ask you the last question, Dr. Emdin. One of the things that bothered me about Trinidad James is…I would have felt more comfortable if somebody had said, “Well, you know, he just doesn’t know what he does. The poor boy, his IQ is about 80.” Which is why his lyrics, as you mentioned, sound like kindergarten nursery rhymes. But, one of the hosts at Power 105 said to me, “You know, he’s actually quite articulate and very intelligent.” And, I said, “That is a damn shame that an intelligent black man has to be ashamed of his intelligence. He has to hide his intelligence in order to make a dollar.” That is pathetic to me.
So, what is your take on that, Dr. Emdin? How deep is this anti-intellectualism issue within commercialized hip-hop; within the broader culture? What is this doing to us as black men?
Dr. Emdin: Well, it’s ruining us. I mean… I’ll just be completely frank. I’ve listened to a bunch of Trinidad James’ interviews just because I’ve been curious about this man’s psyche. When I initially saw the video and heard the song, I thought the song was catchy. I’m not going to front; when I heard it the first time, I said, “Man, it’s a catchy beat.” I heard the song and I knew the lyrics were trash and I also watched the video. So, I started researching and listening to interviews. I heard him on 105.1. And, yes, he is articulate. Yes, he can form a sentence. But, the problem is why is it that we should be surprised when a black man can be articulate? Why does it have to be like, “You know what, he actually is.” Why can’t the stuff that he presents from the beginning be that articulate and that complex self? Why does he have to play a character in order for him to be able to be successful?
But the reality is…my solution and my take on it… and this is not something I’ve created: There’s a bunch of hip-hop scholars and African American scholars that have said this for a very long time. What I’m saying is we’ve got to reach the point where we start showing people that there is a different narrative. And the piece of that different narrative I’m talking about is that you can have the hypothesized identity. You can rhyme, speak intelligently through that rhyme, be articulate through that rhyme, be aware of politics in your environment through that rhyme and be validated for it. You don’t have to be stupid to be accepted. You don’t have to play stupid to be accepted. Because, what happens when you’re playing a character?
Psychologists tell us this all the time that individuals have core identities and they have role-like identities. The core identity is who you really truly are which expresses your intelligence. Your role identity is the identity that you have to construct in order to be successful in a social stair. If you have a role identity that you enact so consistently, what happens is that it begins to rot your core. You can have a core self and have played a character for so long that you play a game with your mind and you alter your true self by enacting a character for too long. And so, the big problem here is deeper than just this one artist. It’s in the fact that this artists creates a narrative that young people start emulating. And the more that they emulate that narrative, it becomes part of their self-construction. It impacts their core identity and starts to rot the intelligence that they have within them – that’s the issue.
Dr. Boyce: Wow. That’s really deep- life imitating art. Anybody who doesn’t believe that the music affects the minds of our kids needs to go to talk to a good psychologist. They will tell you that the repetition of mantra, laced over a smooth continuous repetitive beat, makes your mind open to suggestion and therefore it sinks so deeply into your subconscious that you don’t even know it’s there. Adolf Hitler said, a long time ago… and people said it before him, that those who control the minds of the people control everything. So when you look at what our kids are absorbing, you can’t help but feel that we’re in a state of emergency.
So, I appreciate you, Dr. Emdin, for stepping on the front line to deal with this issue and to provide that voice that so many of us need. Thank you so much.
Dr. Emdin: Thank you, sir.
Dr. Boyce: Thank you all for checking us out at YourBlackWorld.com. Until we meet again, please, stay strong, be blessed, and be educated.
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