The hip-hop artist Lil Wayne and his collaborator, Future, are used to operating in a moral vacuum. It's not about good or bad with them. It's about what rhymes and what their audience will allow them to get away with in their pursuit of loot.
Recently, the duo remixed a song called "Karate Chop" that, like dozens of other Lil Wayne songs over the years, was "leaked" on the Internet. It is typical fare as far as it goes. This time, the performer, who is attempting to regain prominence in hip-hop's notoriously fickle recording hierarchy, mixes old-fashioned contempt for women's genitalia with disrespect for a 14-year-old boy lynched in Mississippi in 1955.
Somehow, Lil Wayne thought it would be funny to compare the mutilated corpse of Emmett Till, the teenager whose 1955 murder galvanized the civil rights movement, to a pulverized vagina. Dwayne Michael Carter Jr., aka Lil Wayne, is a man of some international renown and influence. But for all of his lyrical and musical prowess, the 30-year-old remains among the most criminally stupid and willfully ignorant of his generation.
Recently, Airickca Gordon-Taylor, a relative of Emmett Till's, wrote an open letter to the rapper decrying his insensitive evocation of the lynched boy's name in "Karate Chop."
"The words we speak are powerful enough for [the] preservation of life, but also have the capacity to destroy it," Ms. Gordon-Taylor wrote. "When you spit lyrics like 'Beat that [expletive] up like Emmett Till,' not only are you destroying the preservation and legacy of Emmett Till's memory and name, but the impact of his murder in black history along with [the] degradation of women."
Ms. Gordon-Taylor spent the bulk of her open letter attempting to persuade Lil Wayne to use his talent to raise the consciousness of a generation either too unfamiliar with or too indifferent to what happened to Emmett Till to be offended by his lyrics. While she never relinquishes the moral high ground, Ms. Gordon-Taylor put herself in the awkward position of petitioning someone incapable of responding to the morality of her argument.
There's something manifestly absurd about trying to shame a rapper into doing the right thing when even his own grandmother probably wasn't alive at the time a civil rights icon was lynched 57 years ago. While Epic Records quickly apologized for the "unauthorized" release of the song, the rapper himself has remained silent.
Ms. Gordon-Taylor continues to hope that "deep down" Lil Wayne cares, when it is far more likely that he has already moved on after having re-established his bona fides as rap's rudest lyricist. Meanwhile, there's nothing more ridiculous than asking someone with a truncated conscience to vouch for one's cause. The civil rights movement accomplished a lot before Lil Wayne came along and can probably scrape by nicely without him, despite his influence among young people.
Instead of expecting amoral multimillionaire rappers to have the self-awareness to refrain from misogyny and from insulting the memory of murdered 14-year-olds, Ms. Gordon-Taylor and everyone who was supposed to influence the millions of Lil Waynes during their formative years has to ask: How did we so profoundly fail this generation? Why is it so hard to educate the Lil Waynes of the world? Did we ever really try?
Forget the fact that Lil Wayne is a celebrity -- how does one account for a society that can routinely produce 30-year-olds capable of comparing lynched teenagers to traumatized sex organs for laughs? The lack of understanding of black history is obvious, but what accounts for the lack of empathy? What kind of poverty of imagination makes this heartlessness possible?
Lest one think this is exclusively a "black thing," the satirical newspaper and website The Onion is being justifiably criticized for its Oscar night tweet about 9-year-old Best Actress nominee Quvenzhane Wallis, in which she was referred to by a vulgar name for a woman's sex organ -- for laughs. Look at most of our entertainment-industrial complex -- it is geared toward producing soul-numbing excrement by the ton.
While the self-hatred that fuels the racism, homophobia, misogyny, vapidity and spiritual emptiness of much of popular culture is self-evident, the sheer dumbness of men and women Lil Wayne's age and younger is an indictment of a generation or two of failed parenting. Lil Wayne couldn't get as rich as he's gotten without a moral and educational vacuum aiding and abetting his self-loathing juvenilia. It has little to do with how much he's educated.
If you have to write an open letter to an adult about a point of common decency, chances are it's too late.
Tony Norman: email@example.com or 412-263-1631. Twitter: @TonyNormanPG.