Nov. 21, 2008—Sometimes I like to shut off my iPod, turn on the radio and see what kind of tripe is filling the FM airwaves. It's subversively entertaining to me. And since I hold popular radio in such low esteem, there's not much that can alarm me—not even cuts like "My Neck, My Back" or "Wait (The Whisper Song)."
But recently, a DJ dropped the new Busta Rhymes track, tragically entitled "Arab Money," featuring producer Ron Browz singing what amounts to Arabic gibberish for a hook, as he boasts, "We gettin' Ay-rab money!" Ay-rab? How can a song this ignorant be in heavy-rotation?
Now, I grew up on hip-hop, love hip-hop, often defend hip-hop; but a song like "Arab Money"—no matter it's intentions—is indefensible. It's as bad as hearing emcees randomly, indiscriminately, brazenly call white people "crackers" in their rhymes, as if being black means being above the law of even a very modest level of racial decorum. It should be no less offensive for Souljah Boy to run with a cat he calls "Ay-rab" than for the Jonas Brothers to hang with a dude they called "Blackie."
Rapper Omar Offendum, an Arab American from Los Angeles, listened to "Arab Money" while he was on tour in Damascus. He said he was immediately struck by three things: the ignorant and fake-Arabic chorus, the ignorant mispronunciation of "Arab" and "the stereotypical depiction of Arab culture, with the focus on some of the extreme opulence you might see in a Dubai or a few other places. The song combines lines about playing golf in the desert, seven-star hotels and money as long as Arab beards with quips about "gambling with Arafat" and "security on camelback."
Busta, defended the song, on ContactMusic.com saying, "Sometimes, people like to twist things. We ain't mockin' the culture. We ain't tryin' to be disrespectful. Ain't no racism going on right here. If you listen to the song, you see that we are actually acknowledging the fact that the Arabian culture, a Middle East culture is one of the few cultures, that value passing down hard work and riches that's been built amongst the family…So, we are actually biggin' up the culture."
But this Busta track is not satire, nor is it an uplifting cultural critique. It's pure ignorance. With art imitating life, hip-hop is often a musical vehicle to drive this ignorance. My SLAM colleague and XXL editor Bonsu Thompson said that the hip-hop community is emboldened by a sense of audacity that comes, in part, from a victim's complex. But in cases where rap artists toss out hateful racial slurs for no fundamental reason other than to exploit boneheaded stereotypes, Thompson says, "instead of teaching, they're playing to an ignorant base of their fans."
In Busta's 'hood, Arab Americans, Middle Eastern immigrants and blacks coexist in a somewhat-tense relationship, like in many neighborhoods in urban centers along the northern Atlantic coast and Great Lakes regions, where blacks are the consumers and immigrants are the ubiquitous business owners. The interaction isn't always neighborly, and the proximity doesn't necessarily breed much mutual enlightenment. Black patrons often derisively refer to the Arab-owned delis, bodegas and marts as "the Habibi" or "the Ay-rab store." Like many neighborhoods of predominantly one ethnicity, varied manifestations of xenophobia fester and ethnic and cultural ignorance pervades.
There is work to be done in these neighborhoods to calm existing tensions and, of paramount importance, inform the ignorance. Songs like "Ay-Rab Money" don't help.
Busta, a proclaimed Muslim, would undoubtedly be miffed if he was in a conversation with a record exec and the suit called him a "Mooslim." Yet, here he was, a grown man, a Brooklynite familiar with Arab Americans, calling people with middle eastern backgrounds "Ay-rabs" and spitting trivial rhymes about stereotypical excess found in certain corners of the Middle East.
Recently, before he performed the song at NYC's Knitting Factory, Busta hit the crowd with this bit of profundity and cultural call-to-action: "We ain't stackin' chips no more…we ain't makin' it rain no more. After Nov. 4, we gettin' so much new sh**, we gonna call that motherf$#%&@ Ay-rab money."
Busta, please, be better than this.
Vincent Thomas is a columnist and feature writer for SLAM Magazine. He is also a frequent commentator on ESPN.