While there are meaningful power shifts going on in Algeria (Boutefliqa swapped PM Belkhadem (the FLN chief) for former PM Ahmed Ouyahia (sec. gen. of the RND, Boutef’s party), I have been watching an interesting debate over the arguments put forth in Jon McWhorter’s recent book “All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America”. (I will post about the reshuffle later, when I have more information on it.) McWhorter’s position is fairly clear in the book’s title. Many academics and activists would disagree with McWhorter’s claim that hip-hop is not constructively political and merely represents “complaining . . . to a beat.” Hip hop has found a place in the discussions of foreign policy wonks, who often see it as a means by which American culture can penetrate such repressed societies as the PRC and the Muslim world.
While I think the idea of using hip hop as soft power in pushing America’s foreign policy is somewhat laughable — some of the most popular American hip-hop abroad is that which either allows struggling youth and those cheifing under American power to identify with the brutal experience of inner city African-Americans, in opposition to the “white establishment” that runs American foreign policy. While having Palestinian and Iranian kids be familiar with 2Pac or Mos Def or NWA might make them more favorable to American pop culture, when they start to learn English, something tells me that the image of America and the West they end up getting isn’t quite the same that Eastern Bloc kids got from the Beatles or Dave Brubeck. And French hip-hop has taken on a life similar its American sibling (and strongly influences North and sub-Saharan African hip-hop) in that is often quite anti-establishment, with its political focus in opposition to what governments would like to push. There is something sickeningly cynical about the idea of governments trying to use an art form that grows from societal and governmental failure. As Mos Def has already said (in “The Rape Over“), though, “Old white men is runnin’ this rap shit.”
Foreign Policy Magazine has prominently featured hip-hop’s world wide spread in recent issues and interviews, highlighting its potential and its success with regards to giving voice to political expression in much of the developing world, particularly China, Brazil, and black Africa. Michael Eric Dyson, whom McWhorter attacks in the book, enjoys lauding hip-hop for its political roots and its frankness (and conspiracy weaving) on black issues. I have seen him give talks in which he castigates contemporary “artists” for the negative examples they’ve set for young people and their viciously vulgar and simplistic rhyme-schemes. However, he often over looks the inconsistencies in the lyrics of so-called “socially conscious” rappers. Listening to the lyrics of any number of Common or Wu-Tang songs reveals quite a lot of variance.* In any event, no one is perfect. The only mainstream rap artist I know of that has put out a consistently “socially conscious” recording in recent years is Lupe Fiasco (Wu-Tang Forever comes in a close second). Most rappers do not regularly touch on social or political issues and reserve a couple of scattered tracks on otherwise delinquent and reprobate albums. If the hip-hop that has been so gluttonously devoured by many American young people over the past decade and a half to what is being produced in developing countries’ (particularly in South America and Africa; it is less true in China) hip-hop markets (as well as in France to an extent), there is a clear difference in terms of the level of social consciousness and the degree to which politics influences subject matter, a result of less corporate control and arguably more socio-economic pressure.
The point of this digression, though, is to end up saying that Adam Mansbach’s review of McWhorter’s book in the LA Times is lacking in substance and seems to deliberately omit any mention of the book’s first chapter where he establishes who he believes is claiming that “it [hip-hop] can” save black America (Mansbach claims that “no one” believes that hip-hop has transformational power), and that it uses a great deal of circular and halfway connected logic to render an unfavorable review (it does not explain why McWhorter’s points or claim are wrong, simply using “systemic racism” as the explanation for just about any injustice or social problem and he is at a loss as to why McWhorter sees the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network’s prevention of cuts in education spending in New York as a superficial victory (it is rather well established that big spending on schools does not make them better and that strategic and well managed spending is what really counts, as big cities tend to spend more per capita than better performing small cities and suburbs but still end up with mediocre results)). Though I have seen only excerpts of the book, and I do not agree with most of its thesis, I think Mansbach’s review is whack at best. Saul Austerlitz’s review in the Boston Globe is better, as it offers an equally troublesome review, accusing both McWhorter and Keli Goff of “misunderstanding” hip-hop culture as being “overwhelmingly concerned with struggle and protest.” Austerlitz claims that, for the past ten years or so, hip-hop has been nothing more than party music. Both reviews are weak, and seem to be preoccupied with lazily waving down criticism of hip-hop, and the latter review addresses none of McWhorter’s arguments directly. It does however make the very important point that “the book assails hip-hop for its lack of a policy plan, not realizing that, like any other art form, it cannot be held to such a standard. At its best, hip-hop can provide imaginary solutions to real problems; its task ends where that of government begins.” However, the rest of the review is too simplistic and offers no real insight into the book itself. Blogcritics offers a superior review.
[ * Compare, for instance the temperance pressed lyrics of “A Better Tomorrow” (the chorus of which runs thusly: “You can’t party your life away/Drink your life away/Smoke your life away/Fuck your life away/Dream your life away/Scheme your life away/Cause your seeds grow up the same way) with those of “As High as Wu-Tang Get“; or Common’s popular song “Go!” to those of the socially conscious “The 6th Sense,” in which the values Common claims to wish to forward through his music (I’d be lying if I said I didn’t want millions/More than money saved, I wanna save children/Dealing with alcoholism and afrocentricity) are directly and wholly contradicted by “Go!”‘s promotion of casual sex and uncouth club behavior. ]