On Hip Hop, Blind Privilege and a Chronically Broken System

On my last full day in the midwest, I prepare to return east with a full heart, stomach, and no idea what’s next.

By now, my friends and family know that I visited this region to interview and write about the Twin Cities indie hip hop scene; understandably, many of them have asked if I know anyone who was involved in the recent shooting at Irving Plaza.

I do not. However, after the conversations in which I’ve engaged over the past several days, I certainly have some thoughts on the matter, with particular emphasis on the reactionary comments of police commissioner Bill Bratton.

When I had trouble falling asleep last night, I made the mistake of checking my email, only to discover that my father (quite thoughtfully wondering if it might help me with my research) sent me a New York Times article on the aftermath of the shooting. It included a quote from an interview with commissioner Bratton, who called the incident symptomatic of “the crazy world of these so-called rap artists who are basically thugs.”

If you’ll excuse my language, the spewing of this bullshit has got to fucking stop.

As a disclaimer: I will not even begin to pretend to be an expert on this landscape. I am not an economist, anthropologist, or a sociologist, and I most certainly cannot attest to experiencing anything even close to the lives of the individuals I’ve had the privilege of meeting in the course of my research. I am a white female who was raised in the upper-middle class suburbs of Washington, DC, and won’t deny the sentiment that there are certain things that I “will never understand.”

But I can try.

It’s that key word - privilege - that I wish to recognize in this preface. And for many people who have any degree of privilege, myself included, it is imperative that we cease treating certain issues with elective blindness.

My own privilege comes in many forms, including the good fortune of being invited into the homes and day-to-day lives of some major players within the Twin Cities indie hip hop scene. I was able to witness the creative process, to lend my own musical background to free-form recording and, perhaps most rewarding, listen to the stories of individuals whose own experiences sharply contrast my own.

As a result, I was able to clearly see and - for a few hours, at least - become immersed in the love, support, and unyielding sense of community that reaches far beyond any borders put in place by racism, poverty, or what society perpetuates and therefore expects from given populations. Thugs, Mr. Bratton? No. These are activists who use their art and talent to break the cycle.

This community is not one that perpetuates violence. The vast majority of the rappers with whom I met are also teachers or mentors for at-risk youth, using their own respective upbringings to end the very violence of which the commissioner speaks. These artists actively work to influence youth and, in their own words, “Keep them out of trouble.” They use music, in whatever form it comes, to blaze trails previously seen by younger generations as inaccessible, simply due to who they are and where they come from.

I am perpetually dumbfounded by claims that we do not live within a broken system. Quotes like Bratton’s - those that attempt to cast a generically wide net over a certain population or genre - only reflect an economic, educational and social infrastructure that is deeply flawed.

If we were doing things correctly, the owner of one such aforementioned home would not have feared for her life when a white, suited man in an SUV - merely a driver - arrived to give me a ride back to my hotel.

If we were doing things correctly, the cycle of physical and verbal violence against minority youths (often at the hands of white police officers) would not be on repeat.

And on the heels of the acquittal of yet another officer involved in the death of an unarmed young black man, I must ask the commissioner, using many of his own words: Are all cops white, racist “thugs,” who “celebrate violence” against those who look different than they do, with that “violence manifesting itself” in the “so-called” line of duty?

I didn't think so. Blanket labels are dangerous, no matter where applied.

Check yourself, Mr. Bratton. This shit has got to fucking stop. This blind privilege, and its consequential ignorance, is what fosters a chronically broken system.

How (And Why) The Mighty Weight Watchers Has Fallen

Weight Watchers just can’t seem to catch a break. It’s a downward trend that, as someone who once lost 20 pounds with and worked for the company, I face with mixed emotions. Is an uncontrollable string of bad luck to blame for this demise, or did Weight Watchers simply have it coming?

While Weight Watchers continues to reign as the #1 U.S. News Best Weight-Loss Diet, headlines pertaining to the plan have faced a negative decline over the past three years, correlating with falling profits. Just last week, it was announced that revenues were down 21% in Q4 2015: “The 12th straight quarter,” reported the Wall Street Journal, “that revenue declined at Weight Watchers.” But what happened? How did the once dominating weight-loss authority fall from a $6.2 billion value just five years ago, to a fledgling company facing a $2.2 billion debt?

Seven years ago, I would have unequivocally pointed to inexplicably poor fortune. “This makes no sense,” I would have said. “I’ve lost so much weight with the program, and it’s so easy.” That was before a combined series of moves - by Weight Watchers, individuals, and the entire wellness industry - set in motion a progressive loss of members, dollars, and enthusiasm for all things Points.

Financial experts have pointed to a number of explanations for the demise, particularly those rooted in the tech and mobile sector. Business analysts blame the greater availability of free weight-loss apps, for example, that many consumers deem just as, if not more effective than the Weight Watchers system. But the best insight, I believe, comes from those who have witnessed the deterioration first-hand: Former colleagues and members who, like myself, once proudly considered themselves poster children for the program, but strayed to watch the continued descent from a distance.

For many, it began in late 2011, when Weight Watchers replaced the long-established Points system with PointsPlus: A program that was intended to address the upward real food trend, and rewarded members for choosing whole foods, especially zero-point fruit, over their processed counterparts. The flaws were copious; despite the stated purpose of the new system, shelves at meeting centers were still lined with additive-laden snacks. Furthermore, the zero-point fruit offering was often abused by some members who would indulge in - true story - no less than a dozen pieces of “nature’s candy” every day, and were left bewildered by the lack of results. Then, there was the 2013 resignation of former CEO David Kirchhoff: A move mourned by those who were privileged enough to work under his tenure.

The biggest grievance I received, however, and also personally experienced, was that the introduction of PointsPlus served as an attempt made by Weight Watchers to fix something that wasn’t broken. Working in the meeting room and serving as a frontline for members following their weekly weigh-ins, I heard it repeatedly: “I switched back to the old Points program and, now, I’m losing weight again.” As an employee, I couldn’t comment; the PointsPlus rollout also came with an entirely revamped, highly corporate approach to customer interaction that emphasized sales more than support.

The desperation of Weight Watchers in the face of a financial collapse is painfully recognizable. Enlisting Oprah Winfrey, who, since investing in the program only a few months ago has taken a multi-million-dollar bath, is a strategy considered wise by few. It confuses and distorts the brand, illustrating a communications breakdown perfectly summarized by a joke I overheard: “Oprah’s new bread commercials are really weird.”

Weight loss efforts are highly personal and emotional. They come replete with introspection that leads to many questions, most of which are prefaced with, “Why?” Why isn’t this working? Why am I doing this? Why am I still lacking confidence, despite the so-called success on the scale? That mental scrutiny can lead to various forms of burnout. For many, that form is becoming good and sick of counting, and of assigning numbers - calories, macronutrients, Points, PointsPlus and, now, SmartPoints - to every single crumb consumed.

That was certainly the form of burnout I experienced, and I know that I’m not the only one. The latest trend? People are sick of counting, and many of us have seen the light, in that we know eating real food isn’t so bad. My personal revelation: Eating what’s local and in season isn’t going to make me overweight. And while I haven’t stepped on a scale since my January resolution to stick with that approach and relationship with food, I can say that I am generally less hungry, less inclined to binge, and my clothes fit just fine. A poster child, perhaps, I today am not. But come Saturday morning, I’ll be thrilled that I won’t have to deprive myself of food, water, or breath mints until I step on the scale.

NOTE: One thing I neglected to mention in the original version of this article, due to word-count parameters, were the monthly weigh-ins required of anyone on the payroll. Meeting room employees were put on probation if they ever went more than two pounds over their respective goal weights. It's an imperative aspect of the decline, in that the program's own ambassadors became extremely fatigued by the obsession with numbers, whether they were dollars or pounds.