New York Sun writer is ignorant about hip hop

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.

[Source: Gawker, NY Sun]

19 Replies to “New York Sun writer is ignorant about hip hop”

  1. Peace and Blessings.

    Family, i read what you all had posted and followed the links back to his piece. On the reals, i still don’t get the comparison to suburban sprawl… Anywho. I am not sure if they will dignify my words by reading them, let alone posting them, so i will share them here. Enjoy.

    One Love,
    C To Tha Kizzie


    Peace and Blessings.

    I am writing on behalf of many who Mr. McWorter seems to condemn as providing ‘little hope’ for the future. By way of introduction, i am a social commentator who views this world and speaks my truth through the marriage of Hip Hop and radio. I chose to respond to his editorial more to understand Mr. McWorter’s perspective than to dispute it. And despite it all would likely enjoy the opportunity to receive a review copy of his tome (my address is on OFF THE TOP and consider discussing the text on the air at some point in the not-too-distant future.

    With all that said, i would like to humbly dispute what appears to be his central premise that all Conscious Hip Hop is good for is an occasional verbal middle finger. To begin with, to paint all of our kulture’s music as either gangsta or conscious, still overlooks upwards of 60% of what is out there. There are plenty of Hip Hop musicians who speak without touching a microphone (Turntablists, DJs and those who funnel Hip Hop’s energy through more traditional instruments), those who choose to make their contributions through Hip Hop’s party musics (Bass Music, Hip House, Go Go) and numerous other examples that i will spare you in the interest of time. Regardless of which subgenre or discipline they employ, it is also an individual judgment call whether the musician chooses to go the route of signing with a major label or to stay independent (whether that means no label, signing with a small label or starting their own). When Mr. McWorter speaks of Kanye, The Roots, Dead Prez or Pete Rock he is speaking of artists who are at essence either philosophically or literally independent. Not necessarily conscious.

    While its true that independent artists don’t immediately have the reach that artists locked into a corporate contract do, that does not necessarily mean that independent equals ineffectual. I submit to you that Senator Obama’s presidential campaign owes more of its success to grassroots activism than corporate endorsement. I am not saying that we were the exclusive force behind that, however, it’s safe to say our voice didn’t hurt.

    As well, suggesting that we are ‘not a useful spark for the kind of activism that improves lives in 2008’ is an insult to the artists who use their microphone as a megaphone for their political beliefs. Artists like Immortal Technique, Truth Universal, Division X and Brothas Keepa back their rhymes up with activism. And personally i would rather salute these brothers (and numerous other of my colleagues who do their activism either with Hip Hop or with Hip Hop as a back drop) than pretend they don’t exist or are ineffectual. Frankly, to me that goes beyond being divisive and callously meanders into disuading those who would otherwise choose them as a source of inspiration.

    Getting down to specific backing points in his essay… If Hip Hop was so opposed to education, so many of our best poets and MCs would not be involved in it. Hell, Wize Intelligent [of Poor Righteous Teachers] is laying the foundation for a charter school as we speak. Many major label Rappers and their fans may be content to talk loud while saying nothing (RIP James Brown), but MCs and the rest of us who live and breath the Kulture of Hip Hop are intelligent people who seek to learn and educate. Our beef is not with the concept of education, more the use of it to keep poor folks and those of enhanced melanin counts from personal growth. Charter schools (Hip Hop or otherwise) succeed where their public counterparts do not because they address the student as an individual with a future, not a number destined to wear one.

    As for issues relating to youth violence and black-on-black crime, instead of naming artists who discuss these topics (and struggle against them off mic) i would ask Mr. McWorter what he proposes to do about them. At least Hip Hop brings them to light and discusses them in realistic terms. Does he attend rallies, organize food/clothing/book drives or at least promote events of that ilk in the five burroughs [of NYC]? Or does he raise these issues to sell books on the backs of the people he minimizes?

    I digress.

    Thank you for your time. I hope you choose to let others benefit from my perspective, as i would love to hear Mr. McWorter’s response to it.

    One Love,
    Curry Kid

  2. Thanks for the comment. You definitely make some pretty good points, and glad to hear our post at least provoked some thought!

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