Hip Hop Bringing Political Change? Think Again A new generation of activists have used hip hop music and culture to get young people into politics. But author John McWhorter has a new book, which argues that hip hop provides hindrances, not help, to black America.
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Hip Hop Bringing Political Change? Think Again

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Hip Hop Bringing Political Change? Think Again

Hip Hop Bringing Political Change? Think Again

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I'm Farai Chideya, and this is News & Notes.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Person: What we've got to say Yeah Power to the people No delay Make everybody see In order to fight the powers that be Fight the power.

CHIDEYA: Truth to power, underground history and a path to political empowerment. Some people argue all of those are hallmarks of hip-hop. Not John McWhorter. The best-selling author has a new book called "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America." He's here now to tell us why we shouldn't hold our breath for the hip-hop revolution. John, it's great to have you back on.

Mr. JOHN MCWHORTER (Author, "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America"): Thanks for having me, Farai.

CHIDEYA: All right. So I'm going to get a little tough here. You have written books including the best-seller "Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America," and the subsequent book "Winning the Race." But some other black writers and public intellectuals have criticized your politics. And it's not just black folks. Tim Wise (ph) is a white anti-racist activist. He called you a self-loathing black conservative, and the Hipster website Gawker (ph), which goes for everybody, lists you under its directory of hacks, and calls you a bizarre racial thinker and hip-hop hating intellectual.

Now the reason I bring all this up is because your book strikes me as being like a battle run. In the first 20 pages, you take on dozens of rappers, from KRS-1 (ph) to Kanye, and then you keep going. Quoting their rhymes, dismissing the impact of their politics. Now admit it, did you have some fun with that?

Mr. MCWHORTER: No, I didn't, actually. And as far as the people who write about me using terms like that, they've all clearly read about six lines of anything I've ever written. And as far as I was concerned, hip-hop was not really what I wanted to write a book about at the time, but I've come realize that a lot of people seem to be thinking a lot about it. And they're thinking a lot about it in ways that strike me as antithetical to helping people help themselves, especially poor black people. And the truth is that this is one self-loathing, right-wing hack who is very concerned with black people who have been left behind and what actually works in helping them get ahead.

I don't see that in the hip-hop lyrics that many people seem to consider prophetic or revolutionary or deep. And I just try to point in the book - and I do it very concretely - point to the things that are really helping people and show how that's different from the orientation that a lot of even the conscious or the positive rap lyrics seem to be telling us.

CHIDEYA: The book is structured with a kind of major through-line, where you quote a lot of these lyrics and then you have these sections that kind of rebut the overall political statements. Give me an example of something where you think that the hip-hop rhetoric has trumped logic.

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well, for example, if you ever hear any rapper saying something along the lines of, there are insufficient employment opportunities, or no significant employment opportunities for black men who decide not to go to college. And so if you hear someone saying that in any number of recordings - you can the Roots, for example, where you get that kind of theme - then as much as I understand where it's coming from, to preach that there aren't enough employment opportunities for black men without college is dangerous, because the fact is that lately - and this is based on actual statistics from the Bureau of Labor Statistics - there are more and more jobs that do not require college. And this is what's important. These are jobs where you can actually have a middle-class existence.

And so as I often say, what color was the person who installed your cable? What color is the UPS person? If you've ever dealt with a building inspector, were they a white person who spent four years at Northwestern? Those are the sorts of jobs that a person can have. And what I'm excited about is bringing people to the opportunities to have those jobs, to train for those jobs in vocational school which you can get scholarships for.

This is really important stuff. If someone who's being called prophetic and concerned is instead telling people there's just no way for you to get a job if you don't have college, and then there's also that kind of looming implication that that means that going and working on, shall we say, the black market and selling something else as something, that it's almost heroic, that it's a way of coping because society doesn't give a perfectly level playing field.

I think that's a dangerous message, because I'm so interested in connecting people with the jobs there are where you don't have to have a big education, and yet you can live a stable, middle-class existence. I don't hear that in the general attitude that conscious rap - and that's what a lot of the book is about - is putting forth.

CHIDEYA: Now, you know, in the book you quote the group Dead Prez as, you know, one of the sort of conscious hip-hop groups, talking about going to Capitol Hill. So I've got kind of a couple things here. One, what do think about what's popularly called conscious hip-hop or conscious rap? And two, you know, when you hear people talk about going to Capitol Hill, isn't that a good thing? You know, isn't there something to hip-hop politics?

Mr. MCWHORTER: Well going to Capitol Hill of course, in itself would or could be a good thing. And the idea behind that and the tone of it is that something revolutionary needs to happen, as happened 45 years ago. And we can all thank God that what happened 45 years ago happened. But the question is, is it constructive, like how conscious is it really, to counsel that what we need to wait for, what we need to think about is something revolutionary, some sort of rupture with what's going on now? And it's not that I have some problem with rupture. It's just that looking at the way things are right now, as opposed to the way they were 50 or 45 years ago, I don't see it.

And so if you are going to go to Capitol Hill, it depends on what you're talking about doing on Capitol Hill. And so if you're talking about being on Capitol Hill and working like say Barack Obama has, and long before last week, on programs that bring fathers back into contact with children who they have not been helping to raise, well I say that's something to be interested in on Capitol Hill. But if what we're interested in on Capitol Hill is something like making it so that black kids are given something called a black education because white education doesn't include things like teaching the fact that George Washington was a slave owner, that kind of rhetoric. Or if we're talking about again, this kind of notion that we need to go to Capitol Hill and say there need to be jobs created for poor black men or otherwise, of course they're going to sell drugs and that's what society deserves, that's not something I think we need to take to Capitol Hill.

CHIDEYA: Now, you know, hip-hop has been around for decades now, and you point out that it's been around for most of your life. Let's listen to one or the pioneer songs.

(Soundbite of Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five)

GRAND MASTER FLASH and the FURIOUS FIVE: Rats in the front room, roaches in the back Junkies in the alley with a baseball bat. I tried to get away but I couldn't get far 'Cuz a man with a tow truck repossessed my car.

Don't push me 'cause I'm close to the edge I'm trying not to lose my head.

CHIDEYA: Now that's the message by Grand Master Flash and the Furious Five. I understand you've been lecturing on college campuses, which you do often, and that the student's, I'm sure, push back against you. What kind of dialogue do you have when you go on campuses?

Mr. MCWHORTER Actually, I don't do it that much because I'm actually more of a home body, and my audiences are as nasty as you might think. I mean especially as the years have gone by. I generally get like one hothead. But one thing I have not really done is go with the message from this book to college campuses. But I can imagine what the response might be. And one of them, based on in the response that's come in for this book even over this past week, is something that I want to get in very quickly. There's an idea that when I say that people are drawing implications of politics out of this kind of music and lyrics that it's a straw man that nobody's been thinking that way for about 20 years. And I have to beg to differ on that one. If someone stood up in an audience and said that I was just kind of shouting at the wind, I wouldn't understand because partly there is the hip-hop literature, as you might call it, where certainly these people seem to think that there is something more than just good popular music. And it is good music going on.

And then in general as we have been discussing, it's the implication of the lyrics where if you listen to what the advice is, if you listen to what the perspective is, the idea seems to be, we need to blow this whole thing up and start again. Something very drastic has to happen, as I say in the book. That we need a second civil rights revolution that the first one only went so far. And it's that implication that worries me, not because my suggestion is everybody just needs to get real and pull themselves up by their own boots straps. But because the sorts of things that really are helping poor black people all over the country now require something that doesn't have a beat, as I put it. It's not about sticking your middle finger up and being angry at the people up above. It's more complicated lately, and so it's just a matter of changing focus.

CHIDEYA: Well, John, great to talk to you, Thank you.

Mr. MCWHORTER: You too, Farai.

CHIDEYA: John McWhorter is a fellow at the Manhattan Institute for Policy Research, a think tank based in New York City, generally conservative. His new book is called "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America," and he joined us from NPR's New York bureau.

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