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Excerpt: 'Know What I Mean?'

Know What I Mean Book Cover


Hip Hop and Its Critics "Sir, please turn around and face me," the Hartsfield-Jackson airport security employee directed me. As I complied, he continued to methodically search me at the security checkpoint. This tall, taffy-faced figure barely out of his youth reminded me of my son. As I caught his eye when he frisked my outstretched arms, he whispered to me while maintaining his professional demeanor. "Man, I really feel your work on Pac," he gently stated, referring to my book Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur. "Plus, I've seen Thug Angel and Tupac Vs. [two documentaries on the slain rapper in which I'd participated], and you be puttin' it down."

"May I please place my hands on your chest since my detector went off?" he quizzed me more formally without missing a beat.

"Sure, no problem," I replied. "That's where my suspenders are. And I'm glad you like the work."

"Fo' sho', fo' sho'," he said as he effortlessly slid back into his vernacular voice. "I'm just glad to know that somebody from your generation cares about Pac and hip hop, and takes the time to listen to what we're saying.

"All right sir, I'm finished. You're done. But could you do me a big favor?"

"What's that?" I asked.

The young man retreated to a portable booth tucked away at the end of the security line and fetched a dogeared paperback copy of my book. His action was all the more remarkable because there was a long line waiting as he handed me my work.

"If you don't mind, please sign this before you go."

I was moved by his heartfelt compliments. He was eloquent proof that not everyone in his generation is illiterate, destructive, and materialistic. We weren't in school, and he wasn't reading my book for extra credit. Like the best students, he read for passion, and for the pleasure and pursuit of intellectual stimulation. He read because he wanted to better understand his life, his world, and why this music mattered to him the way it did. He wanted to find inspired ideas to explain his feelings. Most importantly, he seemed hungry for a sign that intellectuals and older folk understand the importance of hip hop. He also wanted to know that his culture hasn't been blanketed by contempt or smothered by undiscriminating enthusiasm. And his delight in me taking Tupac seriously was an unspoken nod to the fierce crosswinds in which hip hop is presently caught.

There are some, like jazz great Wynton Marsalis, who dismiss hip hop as adolescent "ghetto minstrelsy." Critics like Marsalis see rap as little more than ancient stereotypes wrapped in contemporary rhymes. Other prominent observers, such as social critic Stanley Crouch, claim that the deficits of hip hop blare beyond the borders of ugly art to inspire youth to even uglier behavior. Crouch contends in his column for the New York Daily News that hip hop's "elevation of pimps and pimp attitudes creates a sadomasochistic relationship with female fans." It's true that those who fail to wrestle with hip hop's cultural complexity, and approach it in a facile manner, may be misled into unhealthy forms of behavior. But that can be said for all art, including the incest-laden, murder-prone characters sketched in Shakespeare's Macbeth and King Lear. It makes no sense to stop critically engaging an art form or cultural movement because some kids think it "cool" that 50 Cent got shot nine times.

In fact, that's even more reason to clarify what an art form does well, and what it does poorly. Such balance is woefully lacking in many criticisms of hip hop. For instance, some critics protest that, stripped of politics, history, and racial conscience, hip hop is little more than sonic pathology and all it does is blast away the achievements of the civil rights struggle. But hip hop music is important precisely because it sheds light on contemporary politics, history, and race. At its best, hip hop gives voice to marginal black youth we are not used to hearing from on such topics. Sadly, the enlightened aspects of hip hop are overlooked by critics who are out to satisfy a grudge against black youth culture and are too angry or self-righteous to listen and learn.

Sensational headlines trumpet the moral transgressions or violent deaths of hip hoppers like Tupac Shakur and Jam Master Jay. John McWhorter, a social critic and widely read black conservative author, has made a career of twisting perceived black misbehavior into a provocative, if flawed, analysis of contemporary race. For instance, he lambastes black folk for our victimology and anti-intellectualism in his book Losing the Race. McWhorter eloquently weighs in on hip hop culture with lopsided moralizing in New York's City Journal. "By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks," McWhorter argues, "and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly 'authentic' response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success." The fate of black success is a heavy burden for black youth to carry. That's especially true for the black youth who make a cameo in the anecdote about eight unruly teens who had to be kicked out of a fast food restaurant that fronts McWhorter's essay. For McWhorter, these youth embody the "antisocial behavior" encouraged by hardcore rap that preaches "bone-deep dislike of authority."

Many critics, including McWhorter, don't account for the complex ways that some artists in hip hop play with stereotypes to either subvert or reverse them. Amid the pimp mythologies and metaphors that gut contemporary hip hop, rappers like Common — and Xzibit in his wildly popular MTV series Pimp My Ride, devoted to upgrading broken-down automobiles — seize on pimpology's prominence to poke fun at its pervasiveness. But its critics often fail to acknowledge that hip hop is neither sociological commentary nor political criticism, though it may certainly function in these modes through its artists' lyrics. Hip hop is still fundamentally an art form that traffics in hyperbole, parody, kitsch, dramatic license, double entendres, signification, and other literary and artistic conventions to get its point across.

By denying its musical and artistic merit, hip hop's critics get to have it both ways: they can deny the legitimate artistic standing of rap while seizing on its pervasive influence as an art form to prove what a terrible effect it has on youth. There are few parallels to this heavyhanded and wrongheaded approach to the criticism of other art forms like films, plays, or visual art, especially when they are authored by nonblacks. These cultural products are often conceded as art — bad art, useless art, banal art, but art nonetheless. There is far greater consensus about hip hop's essential artlessness. Such cultural bias and unapologetic ignorance reinforce the racial gulfs that fuel rap's resentment of the status quo.

Not all the barbs aimed at hip hop are meant exclusively for its artists. Some are directed at "members of the post-civil rights era generation of Black academics" who matured as writers and intellectuals during the rise of hip hop culture. This group includes scholars like Tricia Rose (author of Black Noise), Todd Boyd (Am I Black Enough for You? ), Mark Anthony Neal (What the Music Said), Juan Flores (From Bomba to Hip Hop), Murray Forman (The Hood Comes First), Cheryl Keyes (Rap Music and Street Consciousness), Imani Perry (Prophets of the Hood), S. Craig Watkins (Hip Hop Matters), Gwendolyn Pough (Check It While I Wreck It), Felicia Miyakawa (Five Percenter Rap), Kyra Gaunt (The Games Black Girls Play), William Jelani Cobb (To the Break of Dawn), T. Denean Sharpley-Whiting (Pimps Up, Ho's Down), and younger scholars such as James Peterson, Meta DuEwa Jones, Dionne Bennett, Dawn-Elissa Fischer, Kyle Dargan, H. Samy Alim, Rachel Raimist, Scott Heath, Marc Hill, Angie Colette Beatty, and Sohail Daulatzai.

Outside of the academy, there are intellectuals and activists of hip hop and spoken word like Davey D, Rosa Clemente, Byron Hurt (writer/director of the documentary Hip Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes), Nelson George (Hip Hop America), Joan Morgan (When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost), Jessica Care Moore (The WordsDon't Fit in My Mouth), Bakari Kitwana (The Hip Hop Generation), Yvonne Bynoe (Stand and Deliver), and Jeff Chang (Can't Stop Won't Stop). Revered intellectuals and writers like Crouch, Marsalis, McWhorter, and Martin Kilson, the first African American professor to receive tenure at Harvard, cringe when they think intellectuals who engage hip hop don't embrace the values and styles of earlier arts communities or the civil rights movement. Kilson accuses the post-civil rights black intelligentsia of "tossing poisoned darts at African Americans' mainline civil rights tradition and its courageous leadership figures." Since he singles me out as a major culprit among "these civil rights tradition-offending" thinkers, I'll presumptuously respond on behalf of an admittedly big and complex group of scholars who, while holding some beliefs in common, also entertain varying, even contradictory views about hip hop culture. Kilson says that in a September 2002 op-ed for the New York Times about the controversial movie Barbershop, I claim to belong "to a new generation of Black intellectuals who consider leadership personalities like Martin Luther King Jr. and Rosa Parks fair game for anyone's comedic dishonoring." (I don't make any such claim.) Kilson says I engaged in this practice by defending the "Black people-offending MGM film, Barbershop." Kilson argues that I support "the mindless hip-hop style irreverence toward African-American civil rights leadership," and that I consider it "some kind of new freedom for Black actors and entertainers to verbally dishonor Dr. King, Rosa Parks, and others." Further, he says I approach the "analytically bizarre" when in my op-ed I claim that "the barbershop... may be one of the last bastions of unregulated speech in black America," and that, at their worst, civil rights organizations are "antidemocratic institutions headed by gifted but authoritarian leaders."

Kilson goes on to say that my "outright falsehoods" are "analytically wrong and serve as anti-Black ammunition for conservative opponents of African-Americans' civil rights agenda." He says that millions of black folk find voice through their leaders in civil rights organizations. Further, open speech was the point of "Negro spirituals, gospel music, the 'dozens,' dinner table-talk, street talk, [and] meetings of all kinds of African-American organizations." Kilson concludes that I might do "well to revisit the folk essence of African-American institutions" before I again contemplate "an affront to Black people's honor."

What Kilson fails to grasp is that the hip hop community has become a dominant African American institution. Where young black Americans once turned primarily to the church — and to the civil rights leaders that the church produced — to articulate their hopes, frustrations, and daily tribulations, it is fast becoming men like Jay-Z and Nas, and women like Missy Elliot and Lauryn Hill, who best vocalize the struggle of growing up black and poor in this country.

Nevertheless, Kilson captures what many black folks believe about hip hop, and those scholars associated with its defense. Many agree with Kilson that "there's nothing whatever that's seriously radical or progressive about hip hop ideas and values." Many support Kilson's view that hip hop is little more "than an updated face on the old-hat, crude, anti-humanistic values of hedonism and materialism."

Hip hop's critics make a valid point that the genre is full of problematic expressions. It reeks of materialism; it feeds on stereotypes and offensive language; it spoils with retrogressive views; it is rife with hedonism; and it surely doesn't always side with humanistic values. But the arguments of many of hip hop's critics demand little engagement with hip hop. Their views don't require much beyond attending to surface symptoms of a culture that offers far more depth and color when it's taken seriously and criticized thoughtfully. It is odd that so many gifted intellectuals should so resolutely stick to superfluous observation. Such critics seem afraid of the intellectual credibility or complex truths they might find were they to surrender their sideline seat and take an analytical plunge into the culture on which they comment.

It would be outlandish for critics to comment on, say, metaphysical poetry without interacting critically with its most inspired poets. At least read Donne. And if one were to make hay over the virtues or deficits of nineteenth-century British poetry or twentieth-century Irish poetry, then one should encounter the full range of Tennyson's or Yeats's work before jumping, or slouching, to conclusions. I'm afraid that many critics, including Kilson, haven't done their homework. That's characteristic of the sniping posture of many defensive elders who haven't put their gifts to good use in the guise of cultural critic. Like Kilson, many critics end up wearing their feelings on their peeves.

The dead giveaway is that many critics like Kilson take on articles — op-eds to be exact — and not the books of the scholars I noted above. It is intellectually lazy of Kilson in particular to take such a tack, since he's renowned for his erudition. What better way to make a straw argument than by parsing words in a less-than-thousand-word article while refusing to engage a text that actually takes on these issues in far more sophisticated and demanding fashion — perhaps too demanding for one out to make book on thin premises. The major points in my New York Times op-ed on the brouhaha over Barbershop, stirred largely by civil rights leaders, were that films are not scholarly monographs; that folk have the right to express themselves, and if we don't like it, we can criticize them or make our own films; that one film can't possibly represent the entire black experience; that recent scholarship focused on mass movements in the civil rights era veered toward group dynamics being just as important as charismatic leadership; that civil rights organizations at their worst shut down free speech; that at its best an informal community gathering place like a barbershop offers politically incorrect black speech as a bonus with sheared hair; and that art is supposed to get in our faces and not simply soothe or reassure us.

What Kilson failed to mention is that I've written a book on rapper Tupac Shakur and one on Dr. King. But Kilson couldn't acknowledge that since it would ruin his argument, much as the critics of hip hop don't want to spoil their biases through concrete engagements with the culture they despise. I don't despise civil rights; I take it so seriously that I engage it at fair length, concluding that, despite his faults, King is the greatest American produced on our native soil. The goals and ideals of the civil rights movement are so important to me that I work feverishly to bring those concepts to bear on the debates happening in this country today. Rather than relegate our past leaders to the celebratory pages of history, I want to engage them and see what their teachings and their examples can tell us about our current condition. It is not meant as blasphemy to consult Dr. King when discussing Tupac; rather, it is an admission that King's message still resonates and has consequence though times are different and the culture has evolved. The study of hip hop is not a repudiation of the civil rights movement. It is an effort to bridge the gap between then and now, and to offer the insight of past icons to the younger generation while engaging young folks' criticisms of their elders.

Hip hop needs to be called out for its lesser qualities, for its abysmal failures. But hip hop's critics ignore how some of the sharpest criticism comes from within hip hop's borders. The first line of Jay-Z's inspiring comeback album, Kingdom Come, laments the sorry state of current hip hop: "The game's f***** up / Niggas beats is banging / Nigga ya hooks did it / Ya lyrics didn't / Ya gangsta look did it." And Nas's stirring Hip Hop Is Dead is an albumlength autopsy of hip hop's rapper mortis: "Everybody sound the same, commercialize the game / Reminiscin' when it wasn't all business / They forgot where it started / So we all gather here for the dearly departed." The difference between such criticisms, and those made by critics who fail to engage hip hop as a complex and immensely varied art form, is the balance and the historical memory at work in the best musical and literary commentary on the culture. Outside of the criticism offered on hip hop albums, rigorous engagement and sustained critique occur in the books that Kilson and other critics must wrestle with beyond tackling newspaper articles.

Kilson's shameless anti-intellectualism on this score is shared by other writers like Hugh Pearson, a Brown University graduate who is appalled by the fact that Ivy League schools like Harvard and Penn would dare offer hip hop courses. Writing in Newsday, Pearson condemns Harvard's Du Bois Institute for housing a hip hop archive because its scholars deem the art form and culture on which it rests to be worthy of study. Pearson's condescension is barely concealed; he rails at rappers with "a tendency to compose ungrammatical lyrics flowing from the ungrammatical speech patterns that are standard for too many African-Americans." Unlike earlier funk musicians, who "in those days no one considered... worthy of 'study' at a serious university," Pearson is galled that the Ivy League "will now treat hip hop as respectable."

Pearson has no sense of irony when he pinches a phrase from a man of manifest mediocrity, George W. Bush, who in accepting the Republican nomination for the presidency at its 2000 convention spoke of the "soft bigotry of low expectations." It was an unintended autobiography in précis for the future president. Pearson samples the line to suggest that's what studying hip hop in the academy amounts to. He argues that the study of hip hop, instead of "[raising] cultural standards... prefers to make chicken salad out of chicken necks."

In putting down the study of hip hop, and African American studies as well, Pearson contends that it's simply unworthy of serious examination. But I maintain that we should be willing to take a scholarly look at hip hop for no other reason than it has grabbed global attention and sparked emulation in countless different countries and among varied ethnicities. For example, when I was in Brazil to speak recently, I visited the Black Six, a hip hop club in Rio. I might as well have been in Harlem or Philadelphia, since the dance, dress, drinks, and music were all the same. The way cultural expression traverses international boundaries and is adopted in languages and accents indigenous to each region is itself a cause of intellectual curiosity.

It is telling that Pearson resists the impulse of true scholars and intellectuals to probe the cultural contexts and social meanings of art forms that demand the world's attention in the way hip hop has over the past quarter century. Pearson appears to be ashamed of hip hop, a feeling he shares with many blacks and others who decry its sordid images as the refuse of the culture that should be taken away with the garbage. Pearson's shame prevents him from acknowledging just how interesting and insightful the study of rap has proved around the world. His demand that world-class universities ignore hip hop is an odd cry for remedial provincialism: a return to a climate of academic curiosity where only a narrow range of subjects could be legitimately pursued.

This brief discussion should show just why the study of hip hop is so critical. By taking the time to explain a fertile culture of expression, students of hip hop place at our disposal some of the most intriguing investigations of a powerful art form. Unlike McWhorter, intellectuals who study hip hop don't shy away from probing the complex varieties of black identity, even those that skirt close to stereotype, as they undress its mauling effects in stunted visions of black female identity. Unlike Kilson, the best "hip hop intellectuals" dig deep into hip hop's rich traditions of expression to generate a criticism equal to the art that inspires it. And unlike Pearson, such intellectuals have no shame in poring hard and long over hip hop; they assume its intellectual value without being unduly defensive about its critical status.

The global impact of hip hop is being studied by scholars like Deborah Wong at the University of California — Riverside, who covers Asian hip hop, and Marcyliena Morgan at Stanford University, who researches hip hop in Cuba and England. The methodologies of examining hip hop are borrowed from sociology, politics, religion, economics, urban studies, journalism, communications theory, American studies, transatlantic studies, black studies, history, musicology, comparative literature, English, linguistics, and other disciplines. Hip hop has long since proved that it is no cultural or intellectual fad. Its best artists and intellectuals are as capable of stepping back and critiquing its flows and flaws as the most astute observers and participants in any other genre of musical or critical endeavor. As the academic study of hip hop enters a new phase — as it matures and expands, as it deepens and opens up even broader avenues of investigation — its advocates must wrestle with the many-sided features of a dynamic culture that demands serious consideration.

Hip hop scholarship must strive to reflect the form it interrogates, offering the same features as the best hip hop: seductive rhythms, throbbing beats, intelligent lyrics, soulful samples, and a sense of joy that is never exhausted in one sitting. The book you hold in your hand is my attempt to wrestle with the creative cultural expressions of often degraded black youth that have garnered them international acclaim. It is also my effort to pursue several other ends: to probe the vexed gender relations and sexual politics that have made rap music a lightning rod for wags and pundits; to explore the commercial explosion of an art form that has made it vulnerable to contradiction and a victim of its own success; to examine the political elements that have been submerged in the most popular form of hip hop while creating a vibrant underground; and to intellectually engage with some of hip hop's most influential figures. I also aim to match hip hop's verbal acrobatics and linguistic innovation with my knowledge of the culture in the form of the long interview, which I have sought to remake as the intellectual's version of hip hop lyrical invention. One gets a sense in interviews on hip hop of the improvisational flavor and rhetorical creativity that mark the genre at its best. Know What I Mean? is the first attempt to achieve such a goal between the covers of a book — in the style and format of a hip hop album. I hope to offer a rousing intellectual complement to an art form that has seized and colored the global imagination. This is my best argument for the study of hip hop culture, and for the intellectual examination and self-criticism that it provokes.

From the book, Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip Hop, by Michael Eric Dyson; Copyright (c) 2007. Reprinted by arrangement with Basic Civitas, a member of the Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved.

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