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Thursday, April 19, 2007

Has Russell Simmons Lost his mind?

I just was watching the Oprah Winfrey Show where Black leadership discussed the whole Imus controversy. In defending the misogyny and sexism in modern day Hip-Hop, Rap mogul Russell Simmons made the following statement: “Rappers did more for race relations than the current Black Leadership has done in years.” This statement to me was more offensive than Imus calling The Rutgers team “nappy headed hos.” It shows how much Mr. Simmons and his hip-hop associates are out of touch with the Black community.

Granted I have my issues with Black political activists and pundits, but Simmons’ statement about Rappers and race relations is pure hubris. If it weren’t for Black leadership working on race relations over the past forty years there wouldn’t be a Rap industry these past twenty-five years. In the context of things, if it weren’t for all the protesting by Black leaders like Jesse Jackson and the late Shirley Chisholm for affirmative action programs, there wouldn’t be any Black employees in TV, radio, movies or the recording industry. Without those Black executives, managers, writers, directors, and producers working behind the scenes over the years Rappers wouldn’t have access to the worldwide audiences they exploit today.

What Mr. Simmons has forgotten is Black leadership isn’t just the NAACP or Al Sharpton. Black leadership is the network of Brothers and Sisters who helped him establish the forum for Rap music twenty-five years ago. His ungrateful statement was a slap in the face to everyone who worked hard over two decades to turn rap music from a local “thang” into a multibillion-dollar international industry.

Black leaders are reporters for Black-owned newspapers like the Amsterdam News who covered the early days of hip-hop when papers like the Times and the New York Daily News didn’t have time. They were people like Gil Noble and Bill McCreary who granted interviews on their local TV shows when most mainstream talk shows blew them off.

Black leaders are the publishers of magazines like Right on!, Word Up! and Black Beat that offered ad space for Rap albums and granted promotional interviews and reviews when mainstream magazines like Rolling Stone and Spin tossed tapes from rap record labels in the trash. Before the Source, these magazines were the Source for information on Rap and Hip-Hop.

Black leaders are businesspeople like Shikulu Shange who own small independent record stores like the Record Shack and the owners of the now defunct Rainbow Records in Harlem that distributed and sold Rap albums when the big chains like Tower and Sam Goody at the time wouldn’t think of stocking Rap records on their shelves.

Black leaders are the Program Directors small independent Black owned radio stations like WBLS and WRKS back in the day that gave Rap albums airplay when top rated mainstream stations like Z100 and WPLJ were playing top 40 exclusively.
Black leaders are people like VJ Ralph McDaniels who created and produced Video Music Box for PBS here in New York. Without his show, Rap videos wouldn’t have had any exposure in a major media market during the 80’s. Outside of Manhattan there was no MTV or BET; the outer boroughs weren’t even wired for cable.

Black leaders are producers like Don Cornelius whose Soul Train gave Rap stars a place to perform in front of a national TV audience back in the 80’s when they couldn’t get their videos played on broadcast shows like Friday Night Videos and New York Tracks.

Black leaders are struggling directors Spike Lee, Keenan Ivory Wayans and Robert Townsend who put Rap songs on their low-budget movie soundtracks and gave regional artists national exposure.

Seems like Black leadership has done a lot for race relations that Mr. Simmons takes for granted. The hard work of all the faceless Black employees working together towards expanding media markets for Black audiences over the years took a lot of planning, organization, courage, tenacity and risk. Each of these individuals understood they were links in a greater chain that protected and supported the whole Black community. Each knew their work was important towards maintaining the network that provides Blacks with a forum Mr. Simmons and his hip-hop associates currently exploit. Without the network of black leaders working hard in the background to keep the dialogue open about race relations in the business world, he wouldn’t be in the foreground to manage a multi-million dollar empire like Phat Farm.

Mr. Simmons needs to take a look back and do some self-reflection. He needs to take a look at Krush Groove, the low-budget feature that detailed his struggle to the top. The movie details how the mainstream producers and big-shot executives that he defends today so vigorously wouldn’t give him a break twenty-five years ago. In the film and in real life those same executives said this “Rap” thing wouldn’t sell back then. They told America it was just a passing “fad”. I remember reading stories of how most hip-hop producers back then had to beg, borrow, and steal to afford the studio time. When aspiring rap stars performed in hot sweaty clubs, house parties, and auditoriums. When producers promoted their rap stars by distributing flyers in Black-owned barbershops and hair salons. When they promoted new album releases by sticking flyers to lampposts and mailboxes in Black neighborhoods.

I don’t know whom Russell Simmons and his hip-hop associates define as Black leadership, but all those people meet the definition of a Black leader to me.

Thursday, April 12, 2007

Separate is equal in the African-American section of the Bookstore.

Separate is equal in the African-American section of the Bookstore.

Recently I heard some Black leaders complaining about the African-American section of the bookstore. They stated having a separate shelf space for African-American titles is a form of discrimination. Some called for an integration of the African-American section titles with all the other mainstream titles. In this case, I have to disagree with Black leadership. When it comes to the sales of Black books, separate and equal are good business practices for all.

Last year publishers produced over 172,500 new titles. This is down from 185,000 new titles published the previous year. From a customer’s perspective, searching for a single title in a bookstore during a lunch break can be frustrating. Even with the help of an experienced sales clerk, it can be difficult for a customer to find that one title in some of the smaller bookstores let alone the multileveled superstores. Bookstore managers know time is money, and each second a customer can’t find a product on a shelf the clock is ticking on a sale.

So managers of small bookstores and large chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders separated the African-American section from the mainstream literature. This was to help customers find titles faster and get their purchases processed. Managers understood that most customers didn’t have the time to search the shelves. Customers wanted to make their purchases quickly.

So is it racist for retailers to separate books by African-American authors from the rest of the mainstream titles? No. The African-American section is extremely profitable for publishers and bookstores. It moves titles off the shelves and into reader’s hands. Finding a title in the African-American section is a lot easier for a first time customer than searching the entire store by the author’s last name first.

Those who call for the integration of the African-American section of the bookstore don’t understand the retail side of the publishing business. Most bookstores, even the big chains like Barnes and Noble and Borders operate on a razor thin profit margin. Ninety percent of all new titles published in the calendar year will not sell enough copies to make a profit for the publisher or the bookstore. Retailers welcome any change in the sales floor that allows them to target niche audiences of customers. For them, separate sections for Black literature equals more profits overall.

I’ll give you two examples of the why a separate African-American book section is equal: Here in New York there were two Barnes and Noble stores. One was in the Manhattan Mall. Another was on 34th and Seventh. When both stores had their African-American Fiction and non-fiction titles separated from the “mainstream” titles they had lots of foot traffic and lots of sales. I’d watch as Black women frequently made their purchases from the African-American section. However when management of both stores integrated the African American authors in each store with the other mainstream titles last name first, I noticed foot traffic at the store dropped off dramatically and sales plummeted. Why? It just took too much time for customers to find a title.
In each case of title integration I saw, it was a disaster. First the Barnes and Nobles on 34th and Seventh closed. Then the store in the Manhattan Mall closed. A few years later A Barnes and Noble opened on 38th and Fifth. This store also integrated its African-American titles with the mainstream ones. It closed within two years.

While these bookstores were closing, street vendors all over the city were selling African-American titles exclusively. To the chagrin of brick-and mortar retailers, they had titles by African-American authors on their tables ready for purchase. On top of it they offered discounts in some cases the equal of retailers. Because customers could quickly make their purchases, many readers of African-American literature now do business exclusively with book vendors and not bookstores.

So while integrating Black authors with mainstream titles might be politically correct, it’s just not profitable. Separate shelf space equals access to mainstream bookstores for African American authors and equals more sales of books to readers.