(Soundbite of "What Is Hip?")
TOWER OF POWER: (Singing) What is hip? Tell me, tell me, if you think you know. What is hip? If you're really hip, the passing years will show.
ED GORDON, host:
I'm Ed Gordon, and this is NEWS & NOTES.
What is hip? Well, if you don't know, you're probably not. But if you want to learn about hip, John Leland is your man. He's the author of "Hip: The History." Leland explored the origins of hip with NPR's Farai Chideya.
(Soundbite of "What Is Hip?")
TOWER OF POWER: (Singing) ...fame with just the right faces.
Mr. JOHN LELAND (Author, "Hip: The History"): I think that hip is the awareness that the outsider has, the unique awareness of both his outsider circle and of the mainstream or the broader circle.
FARAI CHIDEYA reporting:
And you traced the word `hip' back to roots in West Africa. Let's hear a little snippet of your book.
Mr. LELAND: This is about the origins of the word. `The linguist David Dalby traces the origins of hip to the Wolof verb hepi, meaning to see, or hipi, meaning to open your eyes. So from the linguistic start, hip is a term of enlightenment, cultivated by slaves from West Africa. Hip begins then as a subversive intelligence that outsiders developed under the eye of insiders. The feedback loop of white imitation, co-optation and homage began immediately.'
CHIDEYA: I love this quote from Frederick Douglass. He's talking about minstrelsy, and he says, quote, "The filthy scum of white society who have stolen from us a complexion denied to them by nature in which to make money and pander to the corrupt tastes of their white fellow citizens." And then in Norman Mailer's 1957 essay, "The White Negro," he writes, quote, "Hip is the sophistication of the wise primitive in a giant jungle." What do you think that white people are looking for when they try to be hip, John?
Mr. LELAND: I think they're looking for several things, and it's a very complicated thing, and one of the things that makes hip interesting is that it works psychologically on several levels. The one thing is that it is tremendous stress for us all to be under this idea that we're divided, because it's an artificial idea. It's a neurosis and it's a neurosis at the heart of America. So I think one thing people are looking for when they look across the line, from one side or the other, is a kind of health, which is a connection.
CHIDEYA: Now in America today, we're moving away from a black-white assessment of race towards this more free-for-all multicultural, and it's not as if America is in one place or the other. We're kind of in between. So how does hip function when, theoretically at least, in America, everyone is an insider and everyone is an outsider?
Mr. LELAND: It gets much more interesting. It's no longer white people borrowing from black people, black people borrowing from white, but we have a very complicated mix of sexual identities, class identities, as well as ethnic identities, and the hip person is the person who can be fluid and comfortable moving from one of those categories to another to another to another.
CHIDEYA: Let me go through a few people with you and let me know if you think that they're hip or not hip. J. Lo.
Mr. LELAND: Boy, that's a tough one. J. Lo's hips are to marvel at, though.
CHIDEYA: Howard Stern.
Mr. LELAND: Howard Stern, I think, is unhip.
CHIDEYA: 50 Cent.
Mr. LELAND: 50 Cent I think is pretty hip.
CHIDEYA: Zadie Smith.
Mr. LELAND: Zadie Smith is totally hip, the hippest character we've talked about so far.
CHIDEYA: Barack Obama.
Mr. LELAND: The enthusiasm that he inspired is very much of a piece with hip. It's this love for this idea that we are not divided in the way we are often told we are.
CHIDEYA: What about you? You've got a teen-age son. Are you hip or not hip?
Mr. LELAND: At the very beginning of the book, I say I make no claims for myself. It's sort of like that old joke. You know, those who can do, do, and those who can't, teach, and those who can't teach write a book about it.
CHIDEYA: All right. Well, John Leland is the author of "Hip: The History." Thank you for joining us.
Mr. LELAND: Thanks.
CHIDEYA: Farai Chideya, NPR News.