It's Not a Black Thing
The witch-hunt against Ice Cube and his Death Certificate album has escalated in the past month, while the issues raised continue to be ignored.
In a November 23 editorial, Billboard called Ice Cube "racist" and urged retailers not to sell Death Certificate. Camelot Records, one of the largest chains in the Midwest, took them up on it, thus joining the many stores that never carried Death Certificate in the first place. When James Bernard, senior editor of The Source, wrote a reply to Billboard’s editorial and asked that it be run as a commentary, Billboard replied that Bernard's words weren't "of substance" and would appear only as a letter, although Billboard has found censor Jack Thompson and the Parents Music Resource Center substantial enough.
The state of Oregon made it illegal to display Ice Cube's image in a retail outlet, even as St. Ides Malt Liquor made the point moot by pulling its ads featuring Cube. In England, Island Records, which distributes Ice Cube's Death Certificate there, deleted two tracks--"No Vaseline" and "Black Korea"-- from the album without consulting Ice Cube (Priority Records, Ice Cube's US label, approved). The Guardian Angels compared Ice Cube to David Duke as they picketed MTV to try to force his videos off the air. The LA Weekly's R.J. Smith made the same comparison and, in the Village Voice, Robert Christgau lectured Cube about how he--and other blacks--should speak to whites.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of other people have had a more positive reaction. Despite almost no airplay and a meager $18,000 promotion budget, Death Certificate came on the album chart at number two. Its success was across the board--from inner city mom-and-pop stores to the mall-dominated, 1,000 store Musicland chain, where Death Certificate was the best seller during its first week of release.
"Rap music in the 90s has politicized whole sections of the community--black, brown, yellow, and white--to the reality of Bush/Gate's America," writes Brian Cross in his article on Ice Cube in the December URB. "If this reality is fraught with contradictions and problematic, so be it. But please don't expect us to believe that rap has nothing to do with these realizations."
Ice Cube has earned this rainbow audience because the problems he describes are no longer the sole province of blacks. Death Certificate's "Alive on Arrival" describes the horrors of going to the emergency room at Martin Luther King Medical Center in South Central LA, where doctors reportedly have had to resort to stealing medical supplies to keep the place going. The story and imagery are "black," yet the majority of the 39 million Americans who no longer have health insurance are white. While the hospitals where they seek admittance may not be as bad as MLK, that distinction's meaningless if you're turned away. In 1991, only one in three poor children live in the inner city, and the suburbs--where Death Certificate was number one at Musicland--have the fastest-growing poverty rate.
In buying Death Certificate, Ice Cube's audience is putting its foot down in anger, frustration, or despair. As we slide into a catastrophic economic depression, our goal has to be to find ways to unite them and others in the same boat, even as their conflicting prejudices loudly bang into each other. The hard edges can only smooth out as we learn to fight together against the government (the Uncle Sam who adorns Death Certificate's cover) which is abandoning us all.
Cube's critics say that's bullshit, that the first priority is for everyone to be polite. But we're rude to each other for a reason--until recently America assigned people their place based almost entirely on color or nationality. Now the world is changing rapidly and people are scared shitless about the future. They lash out at the first person who steps in their path, hurling every insult at them they can think up.
A lot of people get offended in the process and, if you're one of them, you should say so. But we can't fight the larger battles if we have rules of etiquette for who can join our army. Don't fail to extend a hand to the next guy even if you hate the language he uses. Some people live in a world where to mellow your attitude for even an instant can be fatal, while others live in a world where conversation is impossible without the proper, "politically correct" words. Each is unavoidable right now, but ultimately we've got to make them converge. But that can only happen in the trenches, not in the ivory towers where armchair pundits fiddle while our home burns.
Rock & Rap Confidential / 1992