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August 29, 2008

Rap is a megawatt samizdat - but it is doing immense harm, argues Richard D. North: All About the Beat: Why hip-hop can't save black America - John McWhorter

Posted by Richard D. North

All About the Beat: Why hip-hop can't save black America
by John McWhorter
New York: Gotham Books, 2008
Hardback, 11.99

If we weren't in such an unholy muddle about race this book about rap would be of small interest. After all, it says nothing very amazing.

What the book says
Here is my summary of some of its propositions (and some of its remarks in quotes):

"Belligerence is what makes the music good", but only as music.

Lots of rap celebrates misogyny, criminality, violence and drug abuse.

Some of it (often called "conscious") is better, but still merely dissident.

Rap negatively says: "Because of injustice, we niggaz are going to rise".

Rap hates culture, saying: "library broken down is lies buried".

Too many liberals try to see political point in this funky material.

Blacks should realise that America's racism is as beaten as it ever will be.

Welfare helped make the black lone mother.

Drug laws helped make the black drug gang.

Most good pro-black policy is promoted by whites.

None of that is surprising, though its being said at all (and said clearly and charmingly) is cause for delight. Its being written by a black adds a frisson and begs the question: would it take more courage for a black or a white to have written it? That's moot.

But the book really fails to tell us the next bit. This is surely that rap does harm.

For forty years society has been pussy-footing around the poor black world. Black and white leaders have never dared challenge the mountain of victimhood which has been piled onto many black minds until they are all but dimmed. Rap represents this effect. It is a hymn to failure. But it amplifies the failure, too.

It's worse than McWhorter says
John McWhorter argues his case well, but he doesn't address the dire significance of hip-hop. He tells us that it can't save blacks and that it is symptomatic of poor thinking. But he doesn't give us a feeling for whether he thinks it's done much damage to blacks (let alone whites). For my part, I suspect that it is rather dangerous for a generation of blacks to invest so much in a culture whose purpose is to represent the darker and wicked impulses of the society they live in.

It occurs to me that rap music is so popular with young whites because they live in a society in which nastiness has been driven underground. Racism, homophobia and misogyny have been banned as jokes and very nearly as any sort of utterance. That they have been is mostly a good thing, but it leaves an enormous appetite for forbidden speech. Rap is a megawatt samizdat. White society has licensed the black rappers to articulate wickedness, and educated and uneducated whites alike queue up to imagine, think, fantasise, shout and swear all the thoughts that are off-limits. So one could argue that rap is a safety valve.

More white exploitation
Even so, this implies that white society has found yet another way of exploiting blacks. And some blacks get rich, and their bling and furs and vast cars are further celebrated as the fabulous vulgarity we whites don't quite dare exhibit. We are not quite atavistic enough, not quite vigorously egotistical, enough. White boys, especially, feel themselves to be neither male nor animal enough.

All this is, of course, deliciously ironic because so racist. Hip-hop rappers appear as a self-appointed embodiment of all the racial stereotypes they say they labour under. Of course, this may be a wry, post-modern twist on their predicament, of the not-beating but joining sort. Or it may be that they too have enjoyed the special licence they have been given. They love to be rude, just as their audiences do. Or as John McWhorter says, they've found it a good way to get a living without ordinary labour or thoughtfulness.

And The Wire, too
I am inclined to suppose, by the way, that the hugely lauded TV show, The Wire, is a sub-set of this phenomenon. On the black website, The Root, there is lively discussion of this possibility.

America's prime entertainment trope (as in the Batman series) is that the country is Gotham City. It is Sodom and Gomorrah. Again, blacks are useful here. They and their misery are the guilty product of America's evil. "I'm a monster y'all done created" goes one sophisticated rapper, says McWhorter. Blacks have become in their own words the worst of America and they bring out the worst in America.

Of course, there is courage and nobility amongst them, and wit. No-one's saying they're stupid (indeed, there is often a larger quotient of black intelligence on-screen than is humanly plausible). Occasionally the riffs include great dollops of charm, as in the Toons in Who Framed Roger Rabbit? But the black is most artistically valuable when enacting the evil that happens when victims become villains in revenge, and the blacks in the hood have stepped up to the plate for that role. We remarked some of this in a review of American Gangster.

McWhorter tells us what rap won't do, and what its apologists should stop claiming for it. But he doesn't tell us the uses to which it is put, either by whites or blacks. This is a weakness.

In one area, though, McWhorter seems spot on.

Blacks and politics
John McWhorter notes that the better sort of "conscious" rap argues that blacks should register to vote but does so on the assumption that people will then go and vote Democrat. McWhorter doubts it has actually produced many voters or much political awareness.

McWhorter rightly worries about various mistakes that rappers make. For starters, he notes:

Hip-hop is, in its very essence, angry. That can't help us.
He wonders if it can be wise to pretend that turning anger into dissent, and dissent into violence against authority, might be effective:
The Black Panthers tried. That was forty years ago, and where are they now?
McWhorter says it is folly to suppose that to vote Democrat is to keep the protest going. Finally, he thinks it's a mistake to suppose that to raise political consciousness is synonymous with voting Democrat (or any single party).

Letting blacks off
There are hints that the author feels that the entire academic establishment is barking up the wrong, lefty, tree. He takes a gentle swipe at the sociologist William Julius Wilson on these grounds. (Even more obliquely, so did Wilson's former student Sudhir Venkatesh in his Gang Leader For a Day.) McWhorter feels that blacks should not be allowed to believe that their lives are so tough that bad behaviour can be excused. Their grandparents had it tougher and mostly behaved much better.

McWhorter argues that a different sort of activism is needed. Above all he notes that there are many schemes (including welfare and education reforms made by Clinton and Bush Jnr) which have made a positive difference to blacks. He notes that at every level of improvement - philanthropic or political - it has too seldom been the black world which has understood what might work or started to do it. Activism should not be what McWhorter calls "oppositional". It should be constructive.

McWhorter brilliantly spells out why it is useless for blacks to pump out the bad stuff, and what a crying shame it is that more of them don't do real good. He points at a further tragedy. By caring enough about those who share his colour to discuss real solutions for their problems, a black is of course thought to have gone white. By being a bit of a right-winger McWhorter himself is thought to have become whitey's creature. The blacks really can't win - not like that, they can't.

Richard D. North is the author of Rich is Beautiful: A Very Personal Defence of Mass Affluence and Scrap the BBC!: Ten Years to Set Broadcasters Free.

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