November 12, 2003, was a momentous day for hip-hop. For the first time ever, a rapper sat down with Fox News personality Bill O'Reilly for what the host snidely introduced as an “intelligent conversation.”
The rapper: Cam'ron, the same guy who made purple mink coats and “no homo” fashionable.
The topic: Is gangsta rap hurting America's children?
Cam'ron's first words: “Pimpin' and bitches.”
To be fair, Cam'ron was merely quoting O'Reilly, who was paraphrasing Cam'ron. The entire interview lasted all of 12 minutes, without a single conclusion drawn about whether gangsta rap had in fact hurt any of America's children. Instead, the lasting element from the conversation was a soundbite that can still be heard in high school hallways across the nation. “You maaad!” the rapper teased O'Reilly.
With Fox News' parent company News Corp now facing conspiracy and bribery charges in the UK, and broader race-baiting accusations at home, O'Reilly's questions about media and morality might have been better directed at Rupert Murdoch. But the show marked an important milestone for Fox News: The discovery of a brand new “track” for the taudry practice of tapping into America's deeply held assumptions about and fears of black people. This new ploy transformed mild think-about-our-kids rants into direct allegations of hip-hop's role in perpetuating American racism and terrorist sentiment. Over the years, we've seen rappers—particularly black male rappers—from throughout the genre's political spectrum interrogated for the content of their lyrics, their relationships with President Obama, and (in a most meta development) their sentiments about Fox News itself.
In the most recent episode, we saw something very similar to Cam'ron's 2003 appearance—except this time it was Lupe Fiasco sitting in O’Reilly's hot seat. And it was in fact Fiasco who was calling Obama a terrorist and criticizing his policies, leaving O’Reilly to defend the president.
This debate came shortly after Fox News created an uproar over rapper Common's appearance at a White House poetry night, calling to attention the favorite Fox theme of fretting over a given rapper's relationship with Obama—something to which Jay-Z, Ludacris, and Young Jeezy have all been subjected.
So if Fox is mad when a rapper affiliates with Obama, and Fox is mad when a rapper criticizes Obama, what is Fox really mad about? Is Fox's beef with hip-hop just another form of coded language used to indirectly criticize the black community? Or is there something still more cynical behind the network's insistence on framing hip-hop as a culture of ho-slapping wall taggers, despite the fact that it has become an enterprise of business-owning White House guests?
Even Bad News Is Good News
Beyond Fox's vendetta with Obama, its outlandish race-baiting, and even its staunch conservatism, is one top priority: ratings. But what happens when a network has developed a rigid narrative against one of the most globally influential departments of pop culture? To simply ignore hip-hop would counter Fox's steadfast public image of being in tune with the common American. Yet to embrace it would be counter to the reactionary brand Fox News has built. So how do you ride and strangle a horse at the same time? In Fox's case, you simply pick a fight.
Jay-Z, Nas, Kanye West, Lupe Fiasco, and Lil Wayne are among pop music's crème de la crème today. To imagine them all on a show's lineup is enough for Carson Daly to envy. Yet Fox has managed to play these artists' music, promote segments about them, and even have guest appearances from them without paying a single booking fee. Fox's perverse-yet-genius method of riling rappers up until they feel tempted or obligated to make an appearance on the network has allowed for a unique balance of ushering top celebrities through the network’s rotating door while letting viewers wag their fingers at them. In the end, Fox's narrative is intact, its core following is satisfied, and its opponents can't resist making their show clips go viral (albeit through YouTube dislikes).
But the network isn't the only one playing the game. Over the years Fox has provided hip-hop artists a platform to reach viewers who never paid them any mind before. For some, it's an opportunity to promote an album—as demonstrated by Cam'ron's plug for “Purple Haze” during his closing statement with O'Reilly. For someone like Lupe, it's a chance to prove himself for hip-hop by demonstrating the intelligence and eloquence that earns a “Lupe OWNs O'Reilly” viral video title. Even an artist like Common—who remained intentionally aloof and declined to make an appearance on the network—benefits from having his name sloshed in the mouth of a public figure like Sean Hannity.
In more recent years, Fox's confrontations with rappers have increasingly been initiated by the artists themselves. Jay-Z, Nas, and Lupe Fiasco have all seen their latest album releases make headlines when talking heads at Fox got hot and bothered about being called out. Nas' track “Sly Fox”—a response to the network's racket over his controversial album title “Nigger”—was in all regards a traditional-style diss record, but the impact was much wider. Where a traditional battle track against another emcee might have earned you a spot on your local radio station, rappers have quickly learned that gunning for Fox will earn you much larger media hits.
Yvette Travillian of the Future of Music Coalition says that O'Reilly's response to Lupe's anti-Obama riff hints at this relationship becoming even more complex. “It appears that Fox/O'Reilly gets off from hearing a rapper publicly diss someone they are expected to support,” explains Travillian. “I think they figure since Obama is black, and Lupe Fiasco is black and a rapper, then naturally, he will support anything Obama says or does.”
But with O'Reilly going out of his way to praise Obama in order to oppose the rapper, one has to wonder just who Fox is fighting for, and why.
Protect the (White) Children
Watching Fox News cover hip-hop is like…well, it's like listening to Sean Hannity rap—”decontextualization” doesn't begin to describe the gear-grinding sound of Hannity attempting Common lyrics. But forget the offensive handling of a decidedly black vernacular, or the reduction of a career spanning nearly two decades into three bars, or even the transformation of a Gap-commercial rapping, “Just Wright” acting, PETA-endorsing vegan like Common into a militant cop killer.
What is most disturbing about Fox News's developing coverage of hip hop is the subtle narrative staked at the end of each segment. The backdrop for every accusation made against someone from the hip-hop community is a story about moral virtue and an overwhelming concern for young listeners. Over the years we've seen rap icons transform from niche muses to household names, and their following looks more and more like the children of the white suburban demographic to which Fox caters. Hip-hop has become a convenient and likely resonant enemy for that audience.
“Hip-hop allows Fox News to play the race and the youth card at the same time,” explains Jeff Chang, author of the book “Can't Stop Won't Stop.” “These pseudo-controversies are modeled on the same narratives that have been used since the late 1980s.”
Truly, the demonizing of rap (or black youth culture in general) is nothing new. The aggregate of Fox's strained relationship with people in the hip-hop community, however, is a growing narrative about upstanding moral character that is increasingly difficult to challenge. For the Hannity's and O'Reilly's of talk TV, the argument seems to go: I am a white person against using the N-word, and calling women the B-word.
Fundamentally, I can't be against that. I am unequivocally for white people who markedly distance themselves from racism and misogyny. The danger, beyond inappropriately vilifying rappers who actively use the N-word, is continuing to outline a protracted culture war that relegates hip-hop specifically and black culture more broadly to bad-guy status.
A Timeline of Fox's Battle with Hip-Hop
For your viewing pleasure, I’ve compiled a brief list of some of the more memorable standoffs between hip-hop artists and Fox News over the last decade or so.