Editor’s note: The following article is an op-ed, and the views expressed are the author’s own. Read more opinions on theGrio.
The state of hip-hop journalism has been a recurring conversation over the past few years. Folks from Elliott Wilson to DJ Akademiks (and presumably many more in-between) have pointed out how many of our larger-than-life artists seem to be going elsewhere for interviews and appearances than the very outlets that used to be lifelines for hip-hop artists to be heard. There was a time when The Source, XXL and their ilk were the only spaces that would not only discuss the significance of the culture and the art form but do it with the appropriate reverence for hip-hop. To some, though, it feels and looks like hip-hop artists of a certain level are eschewing the type of writers and outlets that care about the culture and their stories in favor of outsiders — voyeurs with a passing interest in the celebrity that guarantees views.
The latest journalist to weigh in on this paradigm shift is Jemele Hill, whose journey and accolades include stints at ESPN and The Atlantic as well as an Emmy Award, among others. She’s a podcaster and, ultimately a voice of note in cultural conversations that center Blackness. Hip-hop is one of those communities, and when she saw the rapper Offset, formerly of Migos, join Bobbi Althoff for an interview, what she saw compelled her to speak about this trend she noticed. Taking to X (formerly Twitter), Jemele Hill shared this comment: “I don’t find these types of interviews particularly enjoyable or interesting. Instead it just sadly points out how real hip-hop journalism has been practically erased. Some of the media teams behind these artists aren’t interested in them sitting down with credible people who know how to tell stories and do quality interviews. Then they wonder why an artist’s real story goes untold, neglected or that artist is misunderstood.”
There’s a ton to unpack about what she said; she really waded into all of the waters. The fact that she unleashed so much heat in one tweet (X?) is truly fascinating. But first, let me say this: I don’t actually think hip-hop journalism has been erased. I do think it’s been transformed into … something else. Much like when former athletes waded into the sports commentator waters (lending a more in-depth and practitioner perspective), I would imagine that many sports journalists felt something was being lost; athletes are athletes, not journalists, but their vantage point gave the viewers an entirely different way to see a game. I think the same thing has happened now in hip-hop. So many rappers and artists (think Questlove, Joe Budden, Noreaga, Yung Miami, Tank, etc.) have jumped into the “journo” pool that it seems like we get not only more stories because of the familiarity with the host but even BETTER stories. I’d much rather hear Kanye West talk to Noreaga than I would Tucker Carlson or even most journalists. The proximity and understanding have created so many moments we probably wouldn’t get from a traditional journalist.
To that end, I actually think hip-hop journalism is fine, it just looks … different. I struggle with Fat Joe and Noreaga as journalists, but honestly, I have struggled to call myself a journalist before. The truth is, they get stories and information and provide compelling interviews. To that end, I don’t really think hip-hop journalism has been erased, I just think MOST of it has moved from print to podcasts and to podcasts run by rappers. The fact that I enjoy watching Cam’ron and Mase talk sports more than anybody on ESPN says something — I’m not sure what, but something.
Where I think Jemele Hill is right, though, is that in search of exposure, at times, rappers do hop onto weird spaces like Bobbi Althoff’s show (odd since the only rappers who would be on these voyeuristic platforms are the ones who probably need it the least). I can’t pretend like I know much about Bobbi. I don’t watch her show, and the little bit I have seen has been because some moments from the interviews with Drake or Lil Yachty, and now Offset, have gone viral. She seems weird and her schtick doesn’t work for me. But truly, if the artists want to go on those shows for whatever their motivations may be, then so be it. Offset, though, seems like a really fun individual (I’m not sure when that happened) and him going on Althoff’s show to do exactly what he did seems like he completely controlled that narrative, which is another facet of this conversation.
Rappers have WAY more control over their imaging and messaging now than ever. If anything is erasing hip-hop journalism, it’s social media. Rappers make their own docs now, decide when to share things and do it on their own terms via Instagram or whatever platform. If a rapper like Kendrick decides he wants to give an interview, then he does, and he chooses the outlet that perhaps his team selects for whatever reason. I don’t know what would make Kendrick decide to do a joint interview with Tems for Interview Magazine but so be it. When you are big enough to control your circumstances, you do. I think that’s been the biggest takeaway; some of the personal connections with the rappers or folks who get the best interviews have soured or don’t exist and they find spaces that they want to work with to tell their stories. Or not.
This gets to the last thing Jemele said: “Then they wonder why an artist’s real story goes untold, neglected or that artist is misunderstood.” It’s been a while since I’ve felt like I didn’t get a rapper’s real story. I feel like there’s so much information out there about most rappers (save for those who are intentionally elusive) that it’s kind of interesting, on occasion, to see rappers with certain images in fish-out-of-water spaces, like Migos’ turn on “Carpool Karaoke.” It was fun. Sure I didn’t learn anything about them as humans, but I got to see them react to some shenanigans. Was that journalism? Eh, I have no idea, but it made for compelling television.
If a rapper feels misunderstood now, it’s usually their own fault. They do so much talking on camera that their words aren’t being misconstrued, and they’re not held hostage to the whims of the story the journalist wants to tell any longer. If they sound crazy, it’s because they sound crazy. If anything, we probably need fewer interviews. Obviously, there are still amazing journalists writing profiles of rappers; David Dennis’ amazing piece on former No Limit rapper, Mac, is still something I refer to in reference to amazing journalism. Shamira Ibrahim’s pieces on, well anything, are masterclasses in storytelling.
Ultimately, I get what Jemele Hill was saying and because of who she is, I respect the thought, commentary and point. I just don’t have as dire view of hip-hop journalism as she does; it just looks way different than it did when I was WAITING for the new issue of The Source, Vibe, XXL, etc., because there was nowhere else to really find the interviews that mattered to me. Now, I can find a litany of content everywhere to learn about my favorite artists and some interviews are better than others. It all still feels very much hip-hop, but I suppose the big issue is this: Maybe hip-hop itself has just changed. And maybe that’s the real issue here.
Panama Jackson is a columnist at theGrio. He writes very Black things, drinks very brown liquors, and is pretty fly for a light guy. His biggest accomplishment to date coincides with his Blackest accomplishment to date in that he received a phone call from Oprah Winfrey after she read one of his pieces (biggest), but he didn’t answer the phone because the caller ID said: “Unknown” (Blackest).
Make sure you check out the Dear Culture podcast every Thursday on theGrio’s Black Podcast Network, where I’ll be hosting some of the Blackest conversations known to humankind. You might not leave the convo with an afro, but you’ll definitely be looking for your Afro Sheen! Listen to Dear Culture on TheGrio’s app; download it here.
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