I've been writing professionally for a good while now. And although mentioning that my byline has appeared in some of the bigger magazines certainly does something for my ego and the 15 year-old girl who still lives inside of me and wants nothing more than to be a hip-hop social/political writer like her old hero Kevin Powell, I honestly get more pleasure writing for the "other" pubs these days. You know, the mid-sized lifestyle weekly. The small black-owned newspaper that's been in the city forever. The college-geared magazine.
I'm frustrated by a lot of things in this business that I think have had a significant bearing on our overall culture and the interpretation of culture. I've been meaning to write this for a while and now I finally have.
Here is my short breakdown of the Problem With "Urban" Magazines:
1. The word "urban
All of these magazines are targeting the "urban" experience, have an "urban" audience are going after "urban" advertising dollars and want writers who write in an "urban" style.
What does "urban" even mean any more? Black? Black and Latino? Black, Latino and Asian if you're in a Gwen Stefani video? People living in cities? People living in inner-cities? What? If you're "urban" does that mean you don't like things like skate boarding, soccer or John Mayer/Maroon 5? Does it mean you do like that American dance hip-hoppy show hosted by the dude from Saved By the Bell? Is Randy Jackson more "urban" than say... Adam Levine or Nelly Furtado? Or are they equally "urban"?
Bottom line: The term is too loose and therefore the interpretation and application will always be off, corny and damn near offensive. Throw it in the garbage. Or better yet, just figure out who your core audience is and speak to them without the tag line. Your product will be much better, trust. Look at Better Homes & Gardens, Sports Illustrated, Maxim-- all of these magazines know who they're talking to. They have a clearly stated targeted demographic, and because of it, they win consistently.
2. Too many menI'm speaking mostly for music/entertainment magazines that are geared toward young "urban" folk. XXL has never had a female editor (except in the movie Brown Sugar). They currently have no female bloggers on their website. The Source has had one and her term ended in a sexual harassment lawsuit being filed. This is 2008 folks. I mean, really. And no, I'm not saying that men that hold the aforementioned positions are not qualified or doing their jobs well-- I'm just saying that women can do them too.
We've all seen what's happened to Hip Hop over the past 10-12 years that women have pretty much been silenced. It's gotten crappier and very, VERY Gangstalicious. Women bring balance to the equation- and these mags/sites would do well to have a feminine perspective brought to their feature stories, cover selections and the overall tone of their editorial content.
3. Too many non-blacks (code: white folks)Let me start off by injecting some white sensibility by saying: I have lots of white friends! White people are neat! Why, a couple of white dudes is providing me with some dope beats right now (seriously- thanks Kel and Spank).
Seriously though, think about it-- why are so many white editors dictating black culture right now? Slam has one black editor. Now I know, the NBA isn't black culture but aren't like 80 percent or more of the players black? It's like how for a long time there were no NBA black coaches- it just didn't make any sense.
As far as Hip Hop culture is concerned I of course know many white people who are walking rap encyclopedias. If you were to name any random Big Daddy Kane or Rakim song they would immediately begin quoting lyrics. Really, they damn near have to be rap encyclopedias to feel justified for loving Hip Hop. What I'm talking about is the perspective when writing stories. How is this artist going to impact the community at large? Why is what the artist is saying important or detrimental? How can you shape and craft this story to make sure that speaks directly to the "urban" audience that is digesting it? Throwing around a few slang words that you heard in a Lil Wayne song ain't speaking to black folks or being down. Sorry.
I'm not suggesting that white people should not be editors, or that all white people are clueless about the black experience and unable to convey it on paper. Not even close. Again, this is just about balance. Real balance that goes beyond the numbers game and instead is visible in the production and tone of publications.
4. No Black ownership
This ties into the previous point but there are no black owned magazines any more. Upscale, Black Enterprise and Ebony/Jet. We see in music what no ownership means-- the effects are just as powerful, if not more so in media. Who better to tell our stories than us, at the end of the day?
And don't be fooled by the words hip or cool.... that certainly has never translated into legitimate concern. Look at Bill Clinton.
5. Too industry
Remember back in the day when you used to be able to read articles on your favorite rapper WITHOUT having to know the explicit details of who signed them, how many units they pushed to get signed, the A&R they worked with, their manager's name, the length of the deal, etc, etc, etc? Remember when you could read and find out more about the artist as a person, or better yet, just read about their music and why it's relevant? Should the average person even know who Jimmy Henchmen, K.P. (outside of P.A.) or any of these other cats are? Like, really? It weighs down the story, and takes the attention away from discovering the importance of music on society at large and really devalues the artist to a large degree and the pen. The artist starts looking like a product on the stock exchange or something. That's not what music is supposed to be about. Go back and read Kevin Powell in his heyday at Vibe. Now that's inspiring. Go back and read the Source in the mid-90s... that was inspiring.
Of course, I know that with the surge of independent music, the knowledge of the business has become obtainable for everyone. Times have changed. The Internet has created an information overload. Everyone is a certified rap CEO-- but dude. Writers have the unique and coveted ability to shape things, to skip over things that aren't important- to magnify the things that are. Use your power for good.
Also, magazines don't have to imitate radio. Lil Wayne, Jay-Z, Snoop and Nas are not the only people who rap and have influence. They are not the only people who are cover worthy. How silly is it that E-40 has NEVER been on the cover of a major rap magazine? How insulting is it that everyone didn't do a UGK cover when Pimp died? Or put Redman on the cover when he, a rap legend, produced one of the best projects of the year in '07? The excuse is that the aforementioned artists "don't move magazines". I call bullshit. Stop being lazy and scared-- more people are searching for legitimate alternatives to the earlier 4 rapper mentioned you want to admit.
6. The writing imitates the music
As a journalist your job is to report the truth and be as unbiased while doing it as possible. As a writer, your job is to tell a story, as accurately as possible that provides insight into whatever your subject/topic. Your words should move people. They should inform people. If you're writing entertainment, they should entertain and hopefully inspire. Over the years, too many Hip Hop writers have started letting the music dictate to their pens. We all complain about radio and the lack of balance that exists in all realms of rap...so why keep perpetuating it, editors? If Lil Somebody's bio states that he was involved in "street life" before getting serious about music, what purpose or who does it serve for you to insist that the details of the "street life" make into the article? Think about it. You're certainly not dissuading youngsters from doing the same-- you're making it look like a viable foundation or starting point for a career in rap. It's called being responsible. Just because the music has gotten trite over the years doesn't mean that our writing should have to.
7. Too saturated
All of these little indie "urban" mags need to vanish. Actually, 90 percent of them never actually print consistently anyways, so I guess that was pointless. It just kills me how folks publish magazines but know absolutely nothing about the publishing business, and aren't willing to learn. As a publisher, your involvement w/ the editorial of a magazine should damn near non-existent, outside of ensuring that the content continues drawing advertising dollars.
Also, when you don't print consistently it makes people hesitant to want to spend with you. AND it's imperative that you pay your staff competitively. Yes, writers and editors do get paid. Some of us even have degrees. It's not okay to offer clips in exchange for currency unless you're dealing with green college kids looking to build their portfolios. Anything less than $1 per word is insulting. Anything less than $.50 per word is degrading.
And what makes you think someone is going to pick up your magazine, with the terrible graphics and mistake riddled content over a bigger one-- especially if you're not bringing anything new to the equation? Just a question.
8. Bloggers are not writers
Unless it's a writer that is blogging. "Urban" music/entertainment blogging is wack, misinformed, repetitve and really hateful, to be honest. Outside of a select few, they should really take a breather from the computer, put fresh air in their lungs, meet a girl and have some life experiences. After that, I'm hopeful that their perspective on what is funny, entertaining, important or worthy will have changed.