News of the death at age 77 of Haywood “Little Sonny” Warner, a legendary, if relatively obscure, Gold Record singer and protégé of blues legend Lloyd Price, served as a poignant reference point for the heated debate that blew up last week over degrading “hip hop” lyrics in the wake of radio shock jock Don Imus’ racist remarks that led to his firing.
Following his 1959 Gold Record hit single, “There’s Something on Your Mind,” performed with saxophonist Big Jay McNeely, Warner routinely performed on tours and festival programs with the likes of James Brown, B. B. King and Etta James.
When, in retirement, he was “rediscovered” four years ago at his Falls Church, Virginia, home town by a local civil rights activist and agreed to perform at some area special events, I became an up-close-and-personal witness to his charm, talent and irrepressible entertainer’s spirit.
Warner’s success earlier in life was part of a meteoric rise of national appreciation for the blues and soul greats of his era, epitomized by Ray Charles, Brown and others. It did not occur out of context.
Their songs of love, yearning and, yes, an irrepressible and contagious spirit of humanity, caught on like never before at a time when the struggle for civil rights, often with pitched battles and mass protests, was grabbing national headlines. The national consensus in support of President Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” and “War on Poverty” initiatives was accented by the passionate speeches of Martin Luther King and personal convictions expressed in the posthumous publication of “The Autobiography of Malcolm X.”
No doubt it came as a deep disappointment to the likes of these blues and soul legends of this earlier age when the extent of degradation of recent years’ lyrics embedded in much of the music of the “hip hop” genre began to come to light. The late James Brown, for one, talked about it. That was confirmed to me by a friend, an area radio disc jockey who knew Brown personally. When I told her of my thoughts about writing on this subject, she exclaimed to me, “You go for it!”
These degrading “hip hop” lyrics and visual accompaniments in music videos go out of their way to demean women and use racially-charged slurs directed against Afro-Americans, even though the music is virtually all performed by Afro-Americans, themselves.
How has it come to this? The music industry, of course, insists that it is consumer driven. In reality, it is no more, or less, consumer driven than was the music of the 1960s. Does that mean that the musical tastes of Afro-Americans and those who support their music have become that much more degraded over 40 years?
Or could it have something to do with the fact that for 19 of the last 27 years, the nation has been under the political leadership of those who have systematically renounced and denigrated the notion of Johnson’s “Great Society” while implementing tax and other policies that favor the super-rich and licensing a personal ethic rooted in pure greed?
In this context, music appealing to the lower end of human nature, to “bling-bling” greed and lust for instant gratification, was allowed to overtake that which elicited and affirmed more positive human impulses toward love and fidelity.
In reality, the lyrics of “hip hop” are a reflection on deeply degraded persons, those with such little self-esteem that they can have no respect for anyone, not for women, not for themselves. It is impotence disguised as big-shot importance, a form of self-loathing and hostility that cripples individual initiative toward self-motivation and development for a better life for one’s self and community.
Cooked up in the top-floor boardrooms of corporate America, the lyrics and culture of “hip hop” are designed to politically nullify an entire class of Americans. As the ancient Roman ruling classes provided “bread and circuses” to pacify their subjects, nowadays it’s done with variants on “sex, drugs and hip hop.”
America’s ruling elites fear most an educated, politicized and motivated public, and especially any leaders, including entertainers, who rise up capable of inspiring such a public and generating a mass following. They work overtime to keep people’s minds in the gutters of their own lack of esteem and potential.
That’s what “hip hop” hell is all about.