'Deconstructing' Black Men and Hip-Hop

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Natalie Moore and Natalie Hopkinson discuss their book Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation.


A few years back, one of the biggest hits on the radio was Erykah Badu's hit song, "Tyrone," remember?

(Soundbite of song "Tyrone")

Ms. ERYKAH BADU (Singer): (Singing) I just want it to be you and me, like it used to be, baby. But ya don't know how to act. So matter of fact I think ya better call Tyrone.

CORLEY: The name Tyrone has almost become an archetype for black males and black masculinity, at least in some circles, and especially in the book "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation."

Two women wrote the book. Journalist Natalie Hopkinson is a staff writer at the Washington Post and joins us from our studios in Washington, D.C. And Natalie Moore is a journalist as well, and a teacher in Chicago, and joins us from my usual stomping grounds, NPR's Chicago Bureau. Welcome to you both.

Ms. NATALIE MOORE (Co-Author, "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation"): Thank you.

Ms. NATALIE HOPKINSON (Co-Author, "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation"): Thank you, Cheryl.

CORLEY: Well, your book takes a look at black masculinity by focusing on different black men, by looking at relationships between black men and black women; it includes a chapter on black gay men, which you didn't name, but what I like to call Tyrone and Tyrone.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CORLEY: And there's much more. So first, what spurred you to write this book, and why did you feel that Tyrone needed to be deconstructed? Who's going to - Natalie H., why don't we begin with you?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Okay, well, we decided to do this project a few years ago because we wanted to do something outside the daily grind of the newspaper business. We wanted to do a project that reflected our experiences as black feminists of the hip-hop generation. And we felt that Tyrone, as you said, it has become this archetype, and it often has very little to do with the reality of most black men's lives in our generation. So this project really looks to dispel some of those myths and complicate our ideas of what Tyrone is.

CORLEY: Well, you have so much in this book. There is "The Pole Test," interviews with strippers about their relationships with their fathers, the whole phenomenon of what we call babydaddy, black men at work. And I was just wondering, what chapter was the most interesting to both of you? Natalie Hopkinson?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Well, there were surprises in every chapter. There are a few that are our favorites. Probably the chapters that are bookends are "Boy Born Friday," which is about Debo Ajabu, who's serving 180 years in prison, and "Boy Born Saturday," which is a profile of the mayor of Detroit, the so-called hip-hop mayor. These are two black men born in the mid-'70s, raised middle class in the pan-African traditions, which is how they got their names - Boy Born Friday is - Kofi is a name for boys born on Friday, and Kwame is a name for boys born on Saturday.

But their lots couldn't be more different. One is the mayor of Detroit, the other is in prison. And both of these profiles really complicate the views of our generation of leaders, as well as those who have gotten caught up in the criminal justice system.

CORLEY: Natalie Moore? For you, any favorite chapter?

Ms. MOORE: I think one that's really surprising and that gets people's ears perked is "the pole test," where we talked to women about their relationship with their fathers - strippers. And we're playing off of Chris Rock, who said, They don't grade fathers, but if your daughter's on the pole, you basically get an F.

And talking to these women, there was abuse that was involved, or one woman didn't even know who her father was. They were in some ways just casebook studies of what you would expect one's background to be, having to go onto the pole. But none of them blamed their fathers. And that was really surprising.

CORLEY: How difficult was this book to write as women?

Ms. MOORE: I think the problems that we ran into writing was just we wanted to be fair. We didn't want this to be a love song to black men, but we also didn't want it to be a screed against them either. And so finding some balance that's there - because we also are dealing with gender relations, and we - that was something that was very important to us as well to highlight.

CORLEY: I was intrigued by the fact that you talked to young girls about their perceptions of boys instead of talking with young boys. Why that choice?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Yeah, as Natalie M. just said, one of our goals was also to move gender relations forward. And it - the chapter could have worked from male perspectives, but when you're talking about black masculinity in the hip-hop generation, voices from young black men you're hearing now; voices of women not so much. So throughout the book you're hearing voices of women that you don't normally hear from - strippers who are usually silent on the pole, to video girls in the hip-hop chapter.

And also the chapter that you mentioned on the roundtable discussions with young girls is a way to look at the future of gender relations for a generation who is really - the girls we spoke to, ages 11 to 15, they're really inundated with these images more so than even we were as Gen-Xers.

CORLEY: Well, you take on the whole issue of hip-hop, and as you say, how men basically portray women in videos and how women involved in hip-hop walk a delicate line, if there's any line, really. Is hip-hop, from your discussions and interviews that you've done - is hip-hop changing for the better or worse in that regard?

Ms. HOPKINSON: I think that there are a lot of people who are stepping up to the plate to talk about these issues - Byron Hurt with his documentary, "Beyond Beats and Rhymes." There are some feminist hip-hop anthologies that are coming out. There is some scholarship that is coming, the women at Spelman, what they did. So you know, I'd hate to say that everything is totally bleak, because there are some voices that aren't in the wilderness who are speaking out against these issues, and they are getting some mainstream coverage, which we hope will move this issue, at least move the needle somewhat.

CORLEY: I'd like to ask you both what you found out about black men that may have surprised you as you were writing this book. Natalie Moore, why don't we begin with you?

Ms. MOORE: Well, we used to have this joke when we were writing the - writing the book - the black man ain't crazy.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. MOORE: You know, once you see what they're going through - not that we - we're saying black men never had it easy - but listening to some of their stories, like "Tyrone at Work," you know, here are professional black men in corporate America who are still fighting the same stereotypes, that they're thugs, that they're dealing drugs on the phone, that they're using slang, that their stature is intimidating to the establishment. So I think just hearing their narratives gave us a deeper understanding of what it's like for them.

CORLEY: And Natalie Hopkinson?

Ms. HOPKINSON: Well, I think that one of the things that really surprised me was the extent to which patriarchy can be corrosive for black men. And I think the chapter "Boy Born Friday," about Kofi Modibo Ajabu, who is serving that 180-year life sentence - this sort of outdated, you know, idea of, you know, the black men delivering, you know, alone, delivering the race from oppression. And he was reared on these traditions where that was the expectation for him, that he was going to be leading the revolution.

And that could be so harmful, and it really highlighted the fact that, you know, these unrealistic expectations of what being a man is is sometimes hard on women, but it's equally hard on men who have to live up or live down to them.

CORLEY: The book is called "Deconstructing Tyrone: A New Look at Black Masculinity in the Hip-Hop Generation." The authors are Natalie Moore and Natalie Hopkinson. Ladies, thanks for joining us on NEWS & NOTES.

Ms. HOPKINSON: Thank you so much.

Ms. MOORE: Thank you, Cheryl.

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