Sunday, July 6, 2008

book review: all about the beat

today was one of those days...when i realize how important my research is.  i know i've spoken on it before.  i've mentioned in previous blogs my disdain with the current body of hip hop scholarship because of its refusal to acknowledge the members of the culture and focus on song lyrics and music video images to understand the culture; after tireless work on my literature review and the interviews, sometimes i ask what's the purpose, then i read john mcwhorter's latest book. 

i knew from the title "all about the beat: why hip hop can't save black america" that i wouldn't like the book but i felt the need to read the latest propaganda to know what i'm up against. 

mcwhorter's biggest claim is that hip hop is really neither good or bad but that it's just music.  empty lyrics that don't provide listeners with any solutions to the problems that we face in black america.  to support his claims, mcwhorter carefully picks one line snippets from artists like ranging from young jeezy to the roots to show that they are promoting counterproductive perspectives about how to improve things in black america.  he claims that the hip hop idea is that the white man is the problem and having no respect for authority and being destructive is somehow revolutionary.

through out the book, mcwhorter interprets the meaning of hip hop lines, which are rarely used with the context to pick up the full point that the emcee is trying to make. he quotes black though from the roots' game theory album sayin: 

 "false media seems to be the [song] everybody finds especially significant.  the message? ' if i can't work to make it, i'll robe and take it' because i am ' a monster y'all done created."

now anyone who has listened to this album has to wonder how mcwhorter has come to this conclusion after hearing the song 'false media'.  the song is about black thought's purpose of rhyming to educate.  the song overall is a critique of how we buy into the things that the media tells us.  well that's what i got from it but maybe i'm wrong.  click here to listen/download the song.  

the rest of the book continues the same way, with mcwhorter making assumptions about the meanings of song lyrics, and then showing how counterproductive those messages are to improving the conditions of blacks in america.  he also speaks about "hip hop scholars" as if they are using the lure of hip hop to further their careers and are grabbing at straws to even make claims that hip hop has any political or revolutionary elements.  

when he's not using rap lyrics to show the emptiness of hip hop's promise to be revolutionary, he's using statistics.  in defense of the claims from many rappers about the problems with employment in the black community, he cites clinton's 1996 welfare reform that put a 5 year limit of time for single mothers receiving welfare benefits.  he claims that as a result of that program, the welfare numbers have dropped 60% and that the former welfare recipients have been finding work in numbers not seen since the 1970s.  

  i have soooo many problems with this approach.

1.  mcwhorter writes in such a tongue in cheek manner that it implies that anyone who doesn't understand and agree with his arguments can't be an educated or rational person. 

2.  his claims that he listens to and actually likes some hip hop seem like an insincere attempt to gain credibility with readers that he is not someone speaking about hip hop who is unfamiliar with it, but after reading only a few pages, it is obvious that he doesn't get it.

3.  he assumes that the interpretations that he gets from the music are the representations that everyone gets; even after he acknowledges that he is not part of the hip hop community.

4.  he takes lyrics out of context to prove his point.  any position i have heard can be supported by SOMEBODY's lyrics, i honestly have the belief that i could look in the jay-z catalog and find a quote for ANY SITUATION (try me if you want and we can see where this goes).

5.  by limiting hip hop to just rap music lyrics, he completely misses the purpose of the culture.  forget the fact that he ignores the majority of the culture's members,  he doesn't even TRY to consider the work that artists do to improve their communities.

6.  not saying that i am in support of our current welfare system; but it seem obvious that if you take people's benefits away after 5 years, the number of those receiving it will dramatically decrease.  that does NOT ignore the problem that many single mothers who are able to find jobs have problems finding living wages, the number of black men with criminal backgrounds that make it almost impossible to find gainful employment.  rappers continue to point out these issues in our community because those like mcwhorter refuse to acknowledge that they exist

7.  for someone who critiques scholars like michael eric dyson for capitalizing on the popularity of hip hop to advance their careers, he has done the same thing; taking the position of those like stanley crouch.  the title is definitely one that will grab your attention while browsing through barnes and noble, and it seems to have been written quite quickly considering he makes reference to other texts written only a year before this book.

8.  hip hop cannot save black america but then again, NOTHING can save black america.  it would be the equivalent to me writing a book entitled "crown of thorns: why christianity can't save black america"  the problems are as diverse as our community is and there is not one simple solution.  i do know that people in my generation who are doctors, engineers, designers, lawyers are products of hip hop so his claims that it has no positive effect on its listeners is simply not true

like i's experiences like this that drive me to do the research that i'm doing but honestly  it's bigger than hip hop (c) dead prez.  my overall purpose is to push for silenced populations to be able to speak in academia instead of being (mis)represented by outside scholars often with their own biases and ulterior motives.  glad this book reminded me of my purpose.

FINAL WORD: don't wast time even reading this book


Anonymous said...

i saw the book thursday at the store and the hairs on the back of my neck stood up.

and in regards to the roots lyrics...i always interpreted it as black thought accusing george bush of presidential gangsterism

leandra said...

i'm so happy that you're doing this research and that you were once again reminded of the importance of your research. we need it!! i wanted to be a hip hop i'm passing the title to you. :)