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The problem with the CNN Don Lemon & Nas interview

October 7, 2009

(Props to The Hood Nerd for his original post.)

CNN, we have a problem.

By now most people have heard of Derrion Albert, the 16 year old Chicago honor student killed in the middle of a gang brawl last week. The incident was caught on video and has sparked all the moral outrage, tears and calls to action such tragedies are known to inspire.

It’s a terrible situation any way you slice it and in situations like these there are always loads of valid questions, anger and finger pointing-merited or otherwise. People are hurt and looking for culprits, some unwavering boogie man to pin the issue on before burning them at the stake.  And it’s here that CNN steps in with the reporting equivalent of a sucker punch, landing a two piece right on the jaw of the hip hop community.

Over the weekend, CNN’s Don Lemon did a story package that included an emotional interview with Albert’s mother, a Q&A with a couple of Chi-town community activists and a sit down with the rapper Nas, who had penned a letter entitled “An Open Letter to Young Warriors” that addresses the violence and calls for young cats to rethink priorities, drop some of the stupid shit and and make more positive choices. All in all not a bad look, and so far it’s the most action taken by anyone from the mainstream urban entertainment community.

But coming from Nas it’s not really surprising. Anyone familiar with his work knows that for the last 10 years he’s been one of the smarter fish swimming in the mainstream hip hop waters, regularly injecting thought provoking ideas into his music, calling out BS and forcing heads to step their games up, both in terms of lyrical complexity and substance.

Of course, as an artist signed to a major label, there have been the requisite club bangers, thug anthem puff pieces and shake ya butt anthems, but these were always balanced with more introspective, conscious lyrics. This is the cat who’s penned songs challenging media manipulation, written Sesame Street style pick-me-up anthems telling kids they can achieve their dreams-”I Can”- and extols the benefits of black pride and African Americans having a connection to the continent-“If I Ruled the World.” It would be hard for anyone with any basic knowledge of his history to toss him into the thug rapper box.

But that’s the line CNN took, and despite efforts to steer the conversation in another direction, Lemon stuck to his asinine line of questioning-sucking the last bit of flavor off a very dry and tasteless bone. The conversation over hip hop’s influence on urban violence has been raging for years. It’s a tired argument, but still one that keeps getting tossed around recklessly.

From jump it’s clear that the piece is slanted. From Lemon’s opening – “so whatever you’re doing right now I need you to stop and pay attention”-to the selection of “Shoot Em Up”-one of the artist’s most violent, and oldest, tracks-to the opening question Nas’ violent lyrics, it’s clear that the segment was attempting to paint Nas as just another super thug 50 Cent clone.

No one has ever accused Nas of being slow and he shows that intelligence from the beginning. When Lemon asks him to address the violent scenarios in his music, as if that’s what he’s primarily known for, Nas points out the fact the station chose one of his most violent songs to frame the discussion.

Lemon ignores the response and continues with the same “you’re an irresponsible rapper. Are you going to clean up your lyrics” line of interrogation, even though Nas notes repeatedly that he HAS done positive songs and he HAS done things for the community. Lemon purposefully disregards these answers, talks over him and when Nas makes the inevitable verbal fumble-“I’m not going to change my music to make it more positive”-the shows’ producers immediately pull the soundbite and run it at the bottom of the screen.

Rule #1 in marketing and PR-always stay on message. And here the message is clear-rap is responsible for this killing.  No matter Nas’ responses to individual questions, this pull quote, the opening track, and Lemon’s line of accusatory questioning have already dictated the tone of the segment. It would have taken a media strategist the likes of Robert Gibbs (or on a grassroots level, someone like the brilliant Malkia Cyril) to redirect the biased argument.

Despite the media’s claim of being fair and balanced, the production team had an established viewpoint going in. “Shoot em up” is the 7th track from Nastradamus, al album that came out over 10 years ago. Who over picked it out did some serious crate digging. The song was never super popular and as far as I know never received much airplay. Also included on that Nastradamus album are songs like “The Prediction,” “Project Windows” and “God Love Us” all of which provide the more positive imagery and critical dialogue Lemon seems to calling for. Despite the fact that the show’s researchers had to dig through Nas’ back catalogue, it’s obvious they did so with extreme tunnel vision.

I get the impression that it would have been the same no matter who the rapper was. If Common had been on they would have played “A Film Called Pimp” and tried to make him out to be an abusive, womanizing player. If dead prez would have been scheduled they would have snatched lyrics from “Police State” and branded them as homegrown terrorists.

Hip hop has long been the go-to whipping boy for urban issues. If they’re young and black and something terrible happens then it must be hip hop’s fault. Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Nas or any MC is above criticism or shouldn’t be taken to task.  And I disagree with Nas in that music and popular culture have a huge influence on our decision making process.  Mainstream music, hip hop in particular, needs a gut check.  But that’s not what this was. This was a perpetuation of the same old “blame hip hop” line of thinking under the guise of an honest dialogue about youth violence.

As a working member of the media I understand the pressure and work it takes to put together a thorough reporting package-you’re on a deadline, you have to ask the tough questions, you have to dig for information and present a fair and balanced piece, not just offer a pat on the back for a rapper who wrote a letter. But the way I see it, this wasn’t a case of the media not having the time/resources to cover a story, this was a deliberate attempt to push a point of view on an audience. Mainstream media as unbiased news source? Riiiight.

The funny thing is that on his last album Nas has a piece addressing the media’s distortion of facts. And while the track-”Sly Fox” is directed mostly at Bill O’Reilly and his ilk, maybe to folks over at CNN should check it out. It might give them some things to think about next time they have an MC on air.

10 Comments leave one →
  1. October 7, 2009 8:02 pm

    This is beautiful. This is everything I wanted to say but couldn’t get out! I’m definitely inspired to step my writing up! Thanks so much for this!

    • Boothism permalink*
      October 8, 2009 5:43 pm

      Thanks dude. And I checked your writing. Yo ain’t half bad yourself. Keep it going.

  2. shin permalink
    October 8, 2009 7:35 pm

    Doesn’t it make your stomach turn to watch interviews like this? Is mainstream media really that out of touch with what’s going on with youth culture? I think that speaks volumes about why it took something so drastic like a death being recorded on video for them to even acknowledge the issue of street violence…

  3. Boothism permalink*
    October 8, 2009 7:53 pm

    I agree, and I think it’s a couple of things going on here. 1st the mainstream media largely ignores hood issues until something like this happens and it’s impossible to ignore. 2nd, when they do report on it it’s usually to repeat the same old platitudes over and over. I mean, from a journalists standpoint I understand there are a million things to cover but the stories they choose to promote and the way issues are covered is increasingly problematic.

  4. October 9, 2009 12:01 am

    Wow. Lemon acted like Nas spends his days advocating violence…and that Shoot Em Up was the only music he ever made…

    • Boothism permalink*
      October 9, 2009 4:13 am

      Exactly. And I’m really not trying to come down on another reporter but damn. It was just so obviously biased!

  5. October 9, 2009 10:53 am

    Nas is the best. that is all.

  6. October 12, 2009 5:01 am

    Plucking out ‘Shoot ‘Em Up’ or not, Nas has made well more than his fair share of tracks/lyrics invoking gun violence and imagery – hell, he jump-started his career doing so.

    He also takes stances framed in media soundbites so he can hardly complain when someone uses the same tactics on him.


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