Cui bono: How Viacom Stole Black America’s Voice

Originally published Oct 17, 2012

I watched the 2012 BET Awards a couple nights ago. Of all the myriad, bizarre images to mark the night, and that includes rapper 2Chainz performing in front of a church choir, this one of Mike Epps introducing the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles may have been the most revealing:

Day-Day’s as confused as we are by this unlikely alliance

The sort modern day minstrelsy on display during the 2Chainz performance has long since become a sadly familiar part of watching BET these days. What I found strange in this instance is how openly and embarrassingly commercial the event was. Every award was sponsored by a smart phone, product pitches were worked into the presenters’ uncomfortable banter and each rapper in the Cypher had to drink out of 17 bright-green Sprite bottles between delivering verses. As a child of the 80s, I’m no stranger to commercial inundation, but the sheer slavering desperation for ad dollars taking place during the awards seemed beyond the pale even for a network like BET. I began to wonder: were broadcast award shows always this nakedly commercial and devoid of culture? More importantly, what in the world did the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles have to do with BET and Hip Hop?

As it happens, both BET and the Ninja Turtles are owned by Viacom, one of the “Big Six” media conglomerates that controls 90% of the market for mass media. The turtles popped up to cross-promote their new show on Nickelodeon, another Viacom asset (the complete list includes MTV, Vh1, Logo, Comedy Central and several others). This is hugely relevant and troubling information if, out of habit, you still perceive BET as what it once was: a network created by and for African-Americans.

The End of BET as an Authentically Black Network

The Black Entertainment Network was founded in 1980 by black entrepreneur Robert L. Johnson and in 1991 became the first black-owned business on the New York Stock Exchange. In 2001, Viacom acquired BET, assuring viewers that, even though it would no longer be a black-owned enterprise, the buyout would actually improve the network’s ability to fulfill its original purpose of representing and informing the black community. Somehow this commitment manifests itself as 2Chainz rapping about big booty girls in front of a church choir; just one example of the purposeful lampooning of black culture that happens with casual regularity on the network nowadays.

In fairness, BET’s problems did not begin with Viacom. Around 2000, the network faced massive debts and had already cut some of its most edifying programs. But it was the disdainful ousting of Tavis Smiley, host of the acclaimed public affairs talk show BET Tonight, that telegraphed the agenda of the network’s new corporate masters. BET-Viacom has since drawn harsh criticism from both coalitions of viewers and black entertainers for relying heavily on exploitative music videos and award shows while neglecting their public affairs commitments, even failing to cover Coretta Scott King’s funeral.

One shouldn’t be fooled by the fact that CEO Debra Lee is trotted out after every awards show. BET is firmly within the creative grip of its corporate bosses and has been rededicated to shilling an image of blacks that is less threatening (and more profitable) to the status quo power structure, falling back on old stereotypes of blacks as ignorant, inarticulate, self-indulgent, hyper-sexual, hyper-violent thugs, incapable of integrity, self-respect and personal responsibility. BET has become a platform to resurrect the coon, the brute and the jezebel for 21st century audiences. Here’s a sampling of lyrics from songs performed during the awards show:

Diamonds all in my brain, n-gga
Gold watches, gold chain, n-gga
Hundred dollar champagne, n-gga
Yeah, my money insane n-ggaDown in Atlanta, about to hit up magic
Throw some money in the air all the bad bitches gone grab it
Straight off the floor she gonna need a couple of bags
Like a broke atm I’m a spillin all this cashYoung and I’m getting it, young and I’m getting it
Young and I’m getting it, young and I’m getting it
I’m just young and I don’t give a shit
I just want the money, y’all can keep them bitches
Cause I’m young and I’m getting it, I’m young and I’m getting itYou might catch me in Atlanta looking like a boss
New Orleans and then Miami
Party in New York
Texas I be screwed up, chi town I be really pimpin’
But nothing like my hometown I’m forever living

Anyone else sensing a theme here? The homogeneity of the content of these songs (to say nothing of how they sound) is the revealing trademark of the sort of assembly-line manufacturing of art and artists that has become the norm in the world of corporate controlled media. Artists vying for time on BET or any of its sister stations had better stay on message, knowing that out in the hall are ten other starry-eyed kids who will happily contort themselves into whatever caricature gives them a shot at living the dream.

The New Minstrel Show

Why would grown men devote so much corporate cash and ad space to making blacks look stupid? To understand the point of such a disturbed initiative, you must recall the original purpose of minstrel shows to begin with. Minstrel shows were not, as most assume, a natural manifestation of anti-black racism, but propaganda used to fight growing abolitionist sentiment that threatened the livelihood of wealthy slave owners. Minstrel archetypes like Sambo were used to beat back growing objection to slavery by depicting blacks as carefree, lazy and irresponsible. Sambo was supposed to convince whites that blacks both wanted and needed the white paternalism slavery provided.

Even after the abolition of slavery, minstrel shows (which also included caricatures of the Irish and other immigrants) continued to stoke fires of racism and xenophobia, convincing working class whites to align themselves politically with the white elite instead of the immigrants and recently-freed slaves that shared their economic interests. The elite used minstrel shows to splinter class coalitions that might have otherwise threatened their political and economic power.

Little has changed. Politicians still use thinly-veiled racial attacks to rally middle class whites and, rather than slavery, Viacom-BET is just one outlet that peddles an image of blacks that justifies a structurally racist criminal justice system. Should anyone begin to raise questions about the inequality and inhumanity of the institution, as abolitionist sympathizers did, the proponents and profiteers of this system can point to their modern day minstrel show to cultivate fear of the new black brute.

Selling the Culture of Capital

In the case of Viacom-BET, their broadcasting power isn’t used just to perpetuate racism, but to foster a new generation of mindless consumers for their advertisers. To fully understand the breadth and scope of the agenda of companies like Viacom, observe the similarity in programming across Viacom’s other “subculture” networks like MTV and Vh1. Each of these networks has invested heavily in “reality” shows that glorify status and wasteful excess or reward self-degrading behavior with cash prizes or extra screen time. The goal is to create a generation of young people conditioned to exploit themselves to obtain fame and the things it affords; a generation without integrity or self-awareness that can be bought, sold and commoditized like interchangeable machine parts. For the message to be effective, viewers must continue believing it’s coming from their peers. This is the sinister brilliance of appropriating networks like MTV and BET that capture a specific demographic looking to be informed about their own niche culture.

The stranglehold giant conglomerates like Viacom have over print, broadcast, film and radio isn’t just a problem for blacks or BET Viewers — it threatens to completely stifle diverse viewpoints and dissenting opinion of any kind. The Internet is the last haven of authentic representation of those communities underrepresented in the mainstream. These media giants also have remarkable capability to manufacture superstars to be heralds for their agenda (like this not-too-subtle army recruitment video by Katy Perry) promoting them across the spectrum of media outlets they own. Can there be any other explanation for the rapid ascension of 2Chainz?

Luckily, the solution to this one is simple: stop watching. Simply choose not to support media that misinforms, divides and degrades. To reclaim our voices we must silence theirs. We can start in our own living rooms. Check out Frugaldad’s awesome infographic on The Big Six and the consolidation of mass media.

Cui Bono (latin for “To whose benefit?”) is an editorial series dedicated to analyzing the influence of neoliberal capitalism on culture, politics and social development.

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