- The Washington Times - Wednesday, May 27, 2009

CITIZEN JOURNALISM:

At its inception, hip-hop was a multidisciplinary art form based in African, Latin and Caribbean culture created and adopted by black and Hispanic lower-class youths hailing from the Bronx in New York. Traditional dances became breaking, traditional marking became graffiti, drumming became DJing and chanting evolved into rap.

Fast-forward 40 years and hip-hop has come to dominate popular culture. From music to fashion to movies, its constant presence validates its trendiness.

Yet within the hip-hop community itself, there is a growing number who are unhappy with the direction and content of hip-hop music and are working to change it. These “hip-hop warriors” say that most of the new mainstream rap simply promotes ignorance in the forms of violence, misogyny and consumerism.

As a former concert promoter, Real Hip-Hop Network President and Chief Executive Officer Atonn Muhammad is all too aware of the perceptions and the reality behind them.

A native Washingtonian and Howard D. Woodson High graduate, Mr. Muhammad, 34, spent several years promoting hip-hop after his football-playing career at the University of Miami.

“One of the things that forced us out of the business [of promotions] is that the violence that had taken place as a result of some of the negative elements that were in the music forced venues to stop allowing hip-hop music to be played in them,” said Mr. Muhammad. “It also forced the insurance rates to go up higher and made me look for another job.”

That other job turned out to be creating and developing the Real Hip-Hop Network, a Washington-based television network dedicated to redefining the images popularly associated with hip-hop.

By exposing the public to a greater variety of hip-hop culture, Mr. Muhammad said he can expand the popular perceptions of the music and affect change within the hip-hop community itself.

“As a promoter, I’d often heard many artists say they would produce better material if they had resources to be able to have it exposed,” he said. “I wanted to be able to eliminate the excuse that there was no outlet available.”

Initially launched in February on D.C. regional broadcast station WIAV, Mr. Muhammad expects to have contracts finalized with Direct TV by the end of the summer that will expose RHN to about 50 million viewers. Mr. Muhammad said the station programming will include a mix of documentaries, live shows and original content that are currently available through a live streaming feed via the Web site www.rhn.tv.

Washington-based filmmaker and musician W. Ellington Felton said the commercial success of many hip-hop artists has negatively impacted the quality and content of hip-hop.

“Commercialization is what drives hip-hop, and unfortunately, it’s what inspires a lot of the people who are creating hip-hop,” Mr. Felton said. “[Hip-hop] has now become the soundtrack for capitalism, mental slavery, addiction to consumption, and consumerism.”

Originally an actor, Mr. Felton has transitioned from the stage to focus on music and has collaborated with such artists as Raheem Devaughn and hip-hop legend Prince Paul. Yet he has chosen to remain independent throughout his musical career.

Mr. Felton said many mainstream hip-hop artists don’t always operate with the community’s best interest in mind.

“You have hip-hop artists now, that even when they have a platform, they don’t responsibly use that as a hip-hop artist to let people know about what’s going on that’s not being shown or not being exposed,” he said.

Although Mr. Felton is disappointed in the current state of hip-hop, such as Mr. Muhammad, he said he believes that access to more media for “some of the truer and quality hip-hop artists” can make a difference.

“It’s possible for a shift to occur, but it’s going to take media,” he said.

Yet, with some of the most commercially successful music-format television stations - including VH1, MTV and BET - refocusing toward reality-based programming, the question remains whether audiences even want music-based television.

Bob Thomas, director of DCTV, has nearly 30 years of experience in the communications and TV industries, including a stint as a producer of BET’s “Cita’s World” video show. He said that a network like RHN can be successful but that it will be difficult because of the amalgamation of media ownership.

“I think the concept is good. The problem is that because you have seven or eight companies running all media, it doesn’t leave a lot of room for independents,” said Mr. Thomas.

Mr. Muhammad said programming decisions are made without the audience in mind.

“I think that a lot of times these music industry executives have been far removed from what the people want,” he said. Some “probably couldn’t tell you who Lil Wayne is or what his latest song was.”

Mr. Muhammad and his staff at the Real Hip-Hop Network are confident that they’ll be able to capitalize on their knowledge and love of hip-hop culture.

“I’m going to make a prediction,” Mr. Muhammad said. “Within three to four years, the Real Hip-Hop Network will be the predominant music and entertainment channel of kids 18-21 of every race. We will supplant the MTVs and BETs as the No. 1 channel in the game.”

c Ra-Jah Kelly is a senior at the University of the District of Columbia.

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