John McWhorter is an “author” who writes for the New York Sun. He’s got a book coming out called About the Beat: Why Hiphop Can’t Save Black America and in an effort to stir up some attention about it he’s written an article claiming that conscious hip hop is a myth.
In his incredibly awkward (I’m talking puberty-level awkward) rant, he fundamentally misunderstands the argument in support of hip hop and conscious hip hop in particular. With a flawed understanding, it’s no surprise that he arrives at his arrogant conclusion.
Here’s what he says: “But conscious rap fans are making the same mistake as the suburbanists in Britain. They think of it as unquestionable that for black people, politics must be about challenging authority, taking to the streets, the upturned middle finger. The problem is that the days when this orientation fed or taught anyone anything are long past. They miss other kinds of black politics that actually help people in the real world.”
What he doesn’t understand is not that so-called black politics is about challenging authority, but rather that hip hop became a very useful tool for disaffected people to express their opinion. African American youth, in particular, were best able to use hip hop as a tool to make their voices known.
McWhorter picks lyrics from various hip hop songs and attempts to use them to prove his point. “For example, Pete Rock grouses that “library broken down is lies buried,” while Dead Prez tells us that high school is a “four year sentence” with teachers “tellin’ me white man lies.” Message: black people should be wary of education. Deep. “Politics.” Sounds good set to a beat.”
His hasty jump to an absurd and embarrassing conclusion is that these artists are telling black people to beware of education. However, in most circles the message is not that. The message is that the education system has been failing blacks. More importantly, it’s been failing individuals of any ethnicity who are forced to go through some of the under-resourced public schools, especially in low-income areas. He cites the charter schools in Harlem that are having remarkable success with their graduates. Perhaps, he’s actually not really arguing so successfully. If anything, the development of charter schools or any other alternative to the traditional crumbling P.S. 106 is exactly what dead prez or Pete Rock is talking about. Plus, as any student who’s ever seen a revisionist history book, libraries aren’t exactly always full of truth. There have been hundreds of examples of people trying to rewrite history to suit their needs or to erase their transgressions.
McWhorter picks and chooses particular lyrics that he feels would suit his petulant theory. He ignores the dozens of examples any true hip hop head could cite about conscious hip hop. Like KRS-One leading youth away from gangs through hip hop. Or hip hop activism trying to encourage black youth to vote. He could quote Common’s Retrospect for Life, where Com raps about abortion, an insanely difficult issue. Or Gang Starr’s What I’m here 4:
“A lot of shit has happened, since I started rappin
There’s been enough beef, and enough gat clappin
There’s been mad signs, for this brother to heed
and while some choose greed, I choose to plant seeds
for your mental, spirit and physical temple”
I could probably go for days and keep pointing out just how wrong this guy is. He accuses people that are “learning their politics from conscious rap” of being inferior. As any loyal reader of 4080 knows, I think we’ve pointed out more than enough examples to prove him painfully wrong.
And we all know that hi hop has done far more for politics and to raise social consciousness than Mr. McWhorter could ever hope to dream of. In the meantime, let him keep writing his books.