The MC as Strawman.

John McWhorter has carved out a niche among the commentariat, blasting hip-hop for contributing to the waywardness of black youth. Granted, it’s not exactly the loneliest ideological space, as Cee-Lo Green Stanley Crouch does the whole get-off-my-lawn-you-crazy-hippy-hop-kids act with unparalleled aplomb, and there are plenty of others. McWhorter, though, is pretty much alone in putting forth the notion that he actually listens to the music he’s criticizing.

What’s annoying is that he clearly doesn’t. A couple weeks back he penned an essay for The Root about The Roots arguing that their (supposedly) political music misses the mark. He self-consciously big-upped Philly and talked about being a fan to establish his hip-hop bona fides (I’m surprised he didn’t include his Okayplayer screenname). He then proceeded to misquote lyrics or take them out of context in order to hammer a point he’s been trying to make for years now: hip-hop can’t save black America. Lest anyone miss the point, McWhorter’s new book is called All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.

But, well…who ever said it could?

Adam Mausbach in the LA Times:

No one — academic, artist or critic — has made any such argument since roughly 1988. This puts Manhattan Institute senior fellow John McWhorter in the awkward position of playing provocateur to an empty house, and gives his prose the tone of a petulant undergrad being shouted down in a dorm lounge. It also raises serious doubts about his engagement with either hip-hop or the large body of scholarship about it. …

Finally McWhorter asserts that “being art, especially popular art, hip-hop is automatically disqualified from being meaningfully political.” If this were true, the specifics of McWhorter’s musings would be irrelevant — even to him. Why write a book detailing the case against a particular form if you believe no art can be political? Why not do something else with your afternoon? …

The idea that hip-hop in 2008 is “antiestablishment” and “by definition about protest” is equally perplexing, given that so much of hip-hop has embraced the trappings of materialism in recent years. McWhorter glosses over a complex reality in which rappers are record label CEOs and corporate pitchmen, small-business owners and schoolteachers. Where’s the rage and oppositionality in that?

As simple as it is, McWhorter’s thesis shifts considerably beneath his feet. How to reconcile hip-hop’s political impotence with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network’s success in preventing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg from cutting $300 million from the schools budget? McWhorter does it by changing the terms of his argument: “[T]his money . . . is not going to make a significant difference in how well children are educated.” So an effective protest is dismissed because McWhorter quibbles with its agenda.

dNa, whose web-presence is much missed, sounded the same note on Ta-Nehisi’s blog, referencing an article in The Economist last week in which McWhorter is quoted extensively.

The Economist said:

“Conscious rappers are often well-meaning. Dead Prez, a duo from Florida, sometimes toss apples into the audience to encourage healthy eating. But when it comes to more contentious political issues, hip-hop offers no plausible solutions; only impotent and sometimes self-destructive rage. In “Lost in tha System” by Da Lench Mob, for example, the vocalist says, of a judge: “He added on another year cos I dissed him. Now here I go gettin’ lost in the system.” The disrespect in question was a suggestion that the judge perform fellatio on him.”

To which dNa responded:

First of all, Dead Prez are socialists, and if the writers at the economist actually listened to the fucking music before they wrote this column their overbites would be chewing on their stiff upper lips in horror.

Second, that lench mob album predates the Clinton administration, and the song is a fucking cautionary tale! I own the album but even from the exerpt intent should be obvious. What planet are these people on? Would they engage any other art form with such profound, swaggering ignorance?

The rest of the article isn’t any better. But McWhorter did what he wanted to do. He became the voice of Hip-hop to an disinterested audience with no cultural literacy and a complete unwillingness to engage the subject with any seriousness.

The most grating thing, of course, is the intellectual dishonesty with which McWhorter approaches this argument. He quotes albums made in 1992 as examples of contemporary political sentiment. He employs the head-scratchingly vague ‘conscious’ without ever defining what ‘conscious hip-hop’ entails, and then goes on to use it to describe groups as disparate as The Roots and Da Lench Mob. (Maybe any MC who has ever name-dropped any political figure — like Sean Combs — would qualify as ‘conscious’?)

His argument assumes that the Roots or Dead Prez or KRS-One are commercial darlings getting tons of airplay, going platinum many times over and spreading their ‘erroneous’ politics. But The Roots’ have always had a hard time selling records; their label woes are the stuff of legend. Dead Prez’s commercial peak was in 2000, which didn’t go gold. KRS-One was exiled to Koch Records several years ago, which is like some kind of hip-hop Phantom Zone. (He may be somewhere else doing something else now, but does it matter?)

Either McWhorter is deliberately eschewing nuance to make his points, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Neither is a good look.



Gene "G.D." Demby is the founder and editor of PostBourgie. In his day job, he blogs and reports on race and ethnicity for NPR's Code Switch team.
  • Grump

    How niggardly would it be for McW to just open up and say “A Nigga has got to eat, somehow!!!”

  • Big Word

    [G.D]Either McWhorter is deliberately eschewing nuance to make his points, or he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. [/G.D.]

    I think it’s a little bit of both. Although I agree with McWhorter’s basic premise, I can’t believe he actually chose a group whose music and lyrics are so diverse and poetically abstract as the Roots to make it. That’s the beauty of the group and their art. Mausbach is right, hip-hop ain’t about trying to save black people. It’s bigger than that.

  • Tasha

    Is this an example of lax research and faulty thinking that is done to publish books(read:get money)…or the lack of research that is done before creating an article holding up a clueless poster child to exhort a culture you have a disdain for but no personal knowledge of (read: hiphop sells)

    meh… both

  • R. Hopkins

    The “Guerillas in tha Mist” album and ESPECIALLY the track “Lost in tha System” is truly ignorance with no redeeming factors.

    I disagree with “Lost in tha System” being a cautionary tale, because Jay-D acts as if he is a victim when he is the instrument of his own destruction throughout the track. He also has no problem stabbing a white man on the track because “the simple fact the muthafucka had the wrong skin color” and pretty much admitting he committed a hate crime, yet he plays the victim again when a “crazy devil with eyes full of hate” tries to kill him for what he perceives is because he’s a black man getting out. The only “caution” I see in this tale is, “Don’t drive with arrest warrants, shank people in jail, show no remorse for your crimes, insult the man with his life in your hands, and cause riots, or they’ll throw the book at you”.

    If that’s the case, Jay-D should change his handle to Captain Obvious.