Hip-Hop and Political Change? Apparently Not

by B.J. Delas Armas on 6/23/2008 11:16:00 PM 0 comments Print this post

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The Manhattan Institute's John McWhorter says that hip-hop is not a vehicle for positive change, but rather a destructive force for black Americans.

Another one of those "reformed" black guys who act as a vehicle to legitimate conservative, and moderate white America's history of racism and paternalistic, third-person omniscient solutions.

I generally can't get myself to like anyone who can easily dismiss something that is important to a chunk of the population. He seems to goes out of his/her way to hate on something he doesn't really understand, kind of like a spy...or...a stalker. He reminds me of Steve Bowman's piece "You know what's stupid? Everything I don't understand!"

However, upon reading more of McWhorter's material here and listening to an NPR interview, I can't help but feel sorry for the man. I truly do.

Why? Two things: He's a stalker and he's passive-aggressive.

1) Keeping true to that identity as a stalker, he doesn't actually speak to anyone to uncover any truth.

In his main article against hip-hop, he leads with an observation about some kids at a KFC. The kids are loud and annoying in a public or quasi-public space, behavior virtually unheard of from any group or subgroup of teenagers in America. So, what's to blame?

You guessed it! The ASSUMED soundtrack of their lives. These Black kids at KFC...must be that damn Hip-hop! A-HA!

In his radio interview, he mentioned that when he speaks, everyone has been supportive and no one has bothered him. No one, except maybe "one hothead" gets riled up at his talks, probably because he bores his supporters or would-be supporters and he passively aggressively hides from those who want to call him out.

2) When explaining his avoidance of opponents and potential detractors, he calls himself a "homebody", code word for divorced-from-reality, scared, linguist.

I feel bad for him mostly because behind the flowery high-falutin' language and the degrees from Stanford and Berkeley is just a scared, passive-aggressive stalker.


Even though the writer of these books and articles is kind of pathetic in his attempts to disparage hip-hop, what he says is essentially still the same stuff that critics of hip-hop from casual to extreme haters use, so its still worth a response.

I can agree with a few things he says:

-Some of the most promoted and commercialized are those without real positive messages. But I can see where it comes from and I don't think it goes anywhere.
-I agree that we could do without the sexism and violence but they'll keep saying what they want to say
-People do need to adapt to their life circumstances

Where he and I differ is that he seems bent on extracting the worst elements of hip-hop and subsequently, rooting it out based on that.

It's kind of like trying to ban Christianity because you don't like the KKK or Terry McVeigh. In each case, you're trying to look for the worst elements of something you don't like without fairly weighing its good elements.

From this vantage point, this attempt to extract the worst of the genre, his argument boils down to two things:

1) According to him, Hip-hop is responsible for the destruction of the black American.

You'd think that the arrival of hip-hop caused the destruction of the 'hood.

"The rise of nihilistic rap has mirrored the breakdown of community norms among inner-city youth over the last couple of decades. It was just as gangsta rap hit its stride that neighborhood elders began really to notice that they’d lost control of young black men, who were frequently drifting into lives of gang violence and drug dealing. Well into the seventies, the ghetto was a shabby part of town, where, despite unemployment and rising illegitimacy, a healthy number of people were doing their best to “keep their heads above water,” as the theme song of the old black sitcom Good Times put it."

He seems to operate on this romanticized and historicized viewpoint that the 'hood was a rough place but still a place where this "healthy number" of people were doing their best.

Healthy numbers?

I remember a talk with the LA Times Homicide Blogger, Jill Leovy where she said that the black man murder rate has always been staggeringly high from Jim Crow until now. Her point was that there's deep a history of homicide within the black community.

In 1976, before talks of handguns, gangs, crack stuff, the black male homicide rate according to the US Justice Department was still 7x higher than those of whites. In, 1960, according to the Centers for Disease Control, death rates for black man were 14x higher, and in 1950 black male death rates were 17x higher than those of whites.

So bad things were still happening before hip-hop. I think the only difference with hip-hop in the picture is that it gives people like him to pick at and justify structural injustices and hegemonies.

2) His conclusion: hip-hop is antithetical to "helping people help themselves..."

He takes aim at those who try to spread the positive messages. Cites the Dead Prez as an example of conscious hip-hop. He mentions that they're pretty good at noting the insufficient employment opportunities. But he criticizes them for advocating civil and social rights, i.e. standing on top of Capital Hill.

The classic pull-by-the-bootstrapping man, he advocates a personal anecdote to a social and structural problems. He says that plenty of UPS jobs and delivery boys do not require college degrees and they can live perfectly legit middle-class existences. Guess he missed the talks about the disappearing middle-class, here, here, and here.

McWhorts then goes on to criticize those who do try to make their money in the underground economy. I would've thought that he'd think the underground is the adaptive way of making money, and would've applauded them.

Ultimately, Dr. McWhorter's prescription for his fellow black man is a whole dose of mediocrity. He offers a hellvua lot less that than the rappers from the neigbhorhood with the money and the women. He's essentially telling them to become drones of everyone else while other people get their action.

In the end, rap and hip-hop is only a medium of expression. It's a piece of marketing, but it doesn't drive any widespread violence that wasn't already endemic. If people want to destroy, that's usually a highly personal decision. I doubt that people make negative life or death decisions based on what they hear from an artist.

Hip-hop is mostly a tool for empowerment because it breeds expression. It has the potential to inspire. A tool for empowerment because this is where people can find their strength.

But ultimately, it's only a tool, it's not going to be the only thing that will make or break a segment of the population.

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