David Banner joined fellow MC Master P, music industry executives and scholars to discuss offensive language in hip-hop music before the House Energy and Commerce Committee on Sept. 26. Reading from a statement, the 33-year-old Mississippi rapper/producer tenaciously defended hip-hop from its detractors. "Drugs, violence and the criminal element were around long before hip-hop existed," testified the rapper, born Level Crump.
It wasn't the first time Banner articulated his stance on the issue. A few weeks prior to the congressional hearing, he sat in on a panel discussion hosted by hip-hop Web site allhiphop.com, on which he debated panelist Master P, once known as a gangster rapper, for denouncing the use of profane lyrics. In recent months, Banner has taken the Rev. Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and Oprah Winfrey to task for their roles in the war against rap.
Through his own nonprofit, Heal the Hood, Banner has been at the forefront of a number of philanthropic activities-including, in 2005, the largest urban benefit concert for Hurricane Katrina victims. He also recently created his own Adult Swim cartoon, "That Crook'd Sipp," and is slated to release his fourth album, "The Greatest Story Ever Told" (Universal Motown/SRC Records), Nov. 20. In coming months, Banner is scheduled to work with Lil Wayne, Chris Brown and Quincy Jones, among others.
"Rap music is the voice of the underbelly of America," Banner said in the conclusion to his testimony. "How dare America not give us the opportunity to be heard." Here, he expands on his thoughts with Billboard.
In your testimony, you said, "when you fix our community, we'll fix our lyrics." What do you think society needs to do to change the situations in the communities, and in turn, how will that change the lyrics in hip-hop?
What you have to understand is our music is influenced by our environment. In Jackson, Miss., and metro areas, there's only one boys' club, no theaters, no recreational programs. But they don't want you to be gang bangers? I have friends who are college graduates that have to resort to other things 'cause it's so hard to find a job. You can imagine someone who doesn't have an education.
At the Katrina hearing one congressman asked, "Haven't we done enough for Katrina?" They live in a world we don't live in. It's hard to speak for the majority when you don't live under these same conditions. People don't want to party if they're broke. They don't want to sing happy songs if they're broke.
You said rap music kept you out of trouble growing up. Can you remember a specific instance when you turned to a rap song or lyric as opposed to turning to the streets?
I can tell you times when I was pissed off and wanted to blow up right now. I do things in the streets I can't do in business. I get frustrated 'cause there are many people in the industry that don't keep their words. So, many times I listened to Lil' Jon and got in the middle of the dance club with $200,000 worth of jewelry on. Rap music does for us the same thing gospel did for the slaves. We communicate our anger through music.
You also mentioned that growing up, some of the violence you witnessed was by kids that were sent down south from Chicago. Was that just one example of violence in your neighborhood?
That's only one example. You can only tell one story at a time. There are hundreds and hundreds of things that add to the equation. I remember watching dance groups in Mississippi turn into gangs. For us, gangs weren't all negative. It was a way of life. That's all I grew up around. That's all I saw with my friends. Not necessarily all that came with it was negative though. But, when black men get together in a group it's always a negative thing anyway. It wasn't a negative thing when it started. When they taking recreational areas and parks away from us, and gangs is all we have, wheat else are we supposed to do?
It's no different than America. The war we're in is about money. America points the fingers at young black men when the biggest gangster is unfolded in the war. When I say, "I don't care what you think about this war, I'm going to continue," that's gangster. For the president of the United States to say, "you've got 24 hours to get out my country," that's gangster. If I come to your country and say I just discovered it though you've been here for years, that's gangster. They brought Africans to this country and done stripped them of their language, their culture. We lost our traditions 'cause they beat it out of us. That's gangster.
So basically America is pinning the blame for social ills on hip-hop and trying to sweep the bigger problems under the rug?
Of course. Why if a kid in Cambodia gets pregnant by a chihuahua it's somehow tracked back to hip-hop? They said in Congress that stuff you see is more powerful than what you hear. But they don't criticize Martin Scorcese and the governor of California, who done killed more people on screen than anybody I know. The hypocrisy amazes me.
Back in slavery I didn't see them trying to ban words. They called us n*ggers back then and we just had to take it. Now that we taking ownership of it they want to ban it. Because we've taken ownership. Same way now you can go straight from high school to the pros in tennis and golf, but you can't in football and basketball 'cause that's the black way. I've seen dog fighting all my life growing up in Mississippi, but now that Michael Vick's doing it it's a national phenomenon and now they trying to say hip-hop started it.
Recently, you've denounced Rev. Al Sharpton for his efforts to censor hip-hop music. Is your stance still the same?
All he's got to do to make me go away is stop attacking the kids. Out of all the atrocities and stuff going on in the world like the Jena 6, why is rap so important? Come on, dude -- we're making money, and it's not against the law.
Why do you think some rappers like Chamillionaire and Master P have in their own way sided with cleaning up music? And what are your thoughts now after you and Master P argued over profanity in hip-hop at the AllHipHop panel?
You can't put Chamillionaire in the same boat as Master P. He made a choice to do this on his own. I don't want to strike out at Master P. He has the right to feel how he wants about things. But, if he feels so bad about the fact that he denounced black people in his music, then he should give some of that money back to the people. If you're a true leader, you have to sacrifice. I'm sacrificing my career. This isn't helping me sell records. It's because someone has to stand up for people. There is a problem in hip-hop, but there's also a problem in America.
Do you think the attack on hip-hop is an underlying race issue overall?
I think that's a part of it, but we have to be careful of doing that because then people run and say we're pulling the race card. I pull the truth card. I pull the fact card. I try to use facts instead of using the black card. If you notice in my speech, they didn't expect me to pull all the facts that I pulled out at Congress. I researched, I went to the library, talked to lawyers, I asked questions and went and found cases. That's the problem -- we are much too emotional as black people. We must stick to the facts. We've got enough facts behind what we're saying -- we don't have to pull the race card. That's why I stop saying "black people" and now I say "poor people." We have to understand that we have to be truthful with the situations that we are in and look at it for what it is and act accordingly as grown men and women.
If a white teenager is picking up your CD because he likes your music and he likes hip-hop and is influenced by the culture, does he get a pass on the N-word? For the sake of clarity, where is the line drawn?
A white dude can't say n*gger to me. I always say, 'If you want to set me off let a white boy call me a n*gger." And the reason why is this. Can't you say stuff about your sister and your brother that can't nobody else say? You criticize America because you're American but a foreigner can't to your face because we have the choice to do what we want to do to ourselves. You can't do what I do. You can't talk to God the way Jesus can. That's not an excuse. You don't have that right. I can say what I want to about my brother, 'cause I'm one.
We gotta stop treating the American population like they're dumb idiots. So you mean to tell me that same person is gonna look at a Stephen King movie and go kill kids? That's an excuse. I hate when people do that, they being influenced by us like they're not grown. These are grown people we're talking about. If you are going to be influenced by Rap City you have that deficit in your personality in the first place. If I'm being influenced and I'm gonna go out there and do something wrong, then something's wrong with me inside.
Hip-hop is considered a reflection of what people in these communities live and see, but can the same message be delivered without saying the N-word, bitch or hoe?
Rap is an art. I can say whatever the hell I want to. And what you have to also understand is who are they to judge us and say what words we can and can't use? I use the words I use cause its graphic and it hurts, It's supposed to get people's attention. Michael Dyson that was on the panel with us yesterday [and] he said it -- he said the words we use we use to get your attention. Where we come from we speak that way.
And I said it in Congress too. You don't know the way that these cats transformed this word. Aren't there bitches out there? Don't they exist? Those types of women exist, and if they didn't it'd be different. When someone yells in a room full of women the word "dyke," my mother isn't insulted because she isn't one.
You talked about how some artists try to switch their music to be more positive and cleaner, but consumers won't buy it. Can artist like Talib Kweli and Common, who are considered conscious rappers, be compared, or is there a difference?
You can use Talib but you can't use Common because Common came through Kanye. And you can't use Kanye cause Kanye straddles the line. Talib, you wouldn't want to use him as example yet because he hasn't reached the level of success that he should. And don't think kids don't see that. That's what I hate about America, and that's one of my qualms with hip-hop. Hip-hop lies to kids. The truth is, why would you want a kid to be like Talib and not be like 50?
What we have to do is stop talking, and if you want better, music buy better music. We don't put the same type of standards on actors. We don't put that pressure that we put on Denzel [Washington] when he's acting that we put on 50 Cent as a rapper.
And, why is it that nobody reports on anything but the negative sh*t? I had the largest urban benefit concert in history. That was supposed to be on the front of Time magazine, [but] didn't nobody write about that sh*t. Y'all want us to fight against each other. There are magazines that have told me they don't want anybody on the cover unless they cause some drama. The crazy thing is they feed into it and then all the magazines spread out like they got nothing to do with it. They perpetuate this bullsh*t.
Do you think it's any different when magazines choose to put someone on their cover that's going to help them sell issues than rappers choosing to use the type of language in their music that will help them sell records?
The difference is we could do both in music -- that doesn't mean we have to put it out as singles. I did Talib and Dead Prez on my last album. Nobody bought that though. They don't even remember it. That was on the same album that "Play" was on. Michael Dyson said, "People sit around and talk sh*t and blog and sh*t, but they don't go out and buy the same records they talking about." Oprah Winfrey was at a birthday party, she had just done a story on the negativity and the bitches and ho syndrome, but she was bumping 50 Cent and dancing. If you want better music, stop complaining about it and buy it.
Why has it taken you two years to drop a follow up album?
I was tired of rap. I was tired of music. I got tired of all the fake dudes in the game. So I had to leave and get myself right again with God and get right with myself. I'm blessed to be a producer. I'm blessed to be a young, black, professional man. But, I never enjoyed my money. My little brother is a grown-ass man and the truth is I don't know him 'cause I've been running around trying to be a rapper. So, I took time to spend with my grandmother, to spend with my father before he died. I'm blessed to be an actor. That's one of the reasons I've got a better album -- cause I've got stories to tell.
You've always been socially active in your community. Is this reflected in this album at all?
It used to, but I think it doesn't anymore and it shouldn't. One of the problems we have coming from poor situations is we let our personal life bleed way too much into our business. The truth is I'm a rapper, so my duty first and foremost is to make hits and to satisfy my audience. That's my day job. The better I do that, the more I can do for my people.
This summer, you dropped off the Rock the Bells tour due to "creative differences." Can you elaborate?
Hip-hop is supposed to be about culture and where you're from. And where I'm from, my culture is 26-inch rims and strip clubs. We should just respect each other's cultures and learn from it. I think what Rock The Bells did was they put a couple of artists on their tour so they could suck in our fans and make some money. But, they really didn't want us on the tour in the first place.
What do you think should be next move as far as the debate about hip-hop lyrics goes?
What would make me happy is if people stop being hypocrites and clean up the communities. The thing is, why aren't people as quick to talk about Jena 6 or make Congress about Jena 6 or the situations in our hood or all the stuff we do talk about? We talk about police brutality. Why won't Congress talk about that instead of our music?
I'll tell you a story. I drink a little bit. But now that I'm training, I don't drink 'cause I don't have time for negativity in my body. The rest of my body is great. I'm healthy. I look in the mirror now and I love what I see. With that I say: If you change our environment, we'll be happy to talk about something else.