All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America
By John McWhorter
Gotham, 186 pp., $20
Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence
By Keli Goff
Basic Civitas, 294 pp., paperback, $16.95
The hip-hop generation: The phrase has a certain summational ring, an aura of capturing a kernel of truth about American youth in the same way that Generation X seemed to define an earlier cohort. A nation of millions, raised on Public Enemy's "Fight the Power," Jay-Z, and Kanye West, will rise to seize power from greedy capitalist fat-cats and neoconservative warmongers. Hip-hop, the revolutionary art form of the past quarter-century, will expand its reach into spheres beyond music and culture, remaking politics in its image.
Or will it? Two new books examine the promise of the hip-hop generation, wondering what - if anything - will be its political legacy. John McWhorter's "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America" and Keli Goff's "Party Crashing: How the Hip-Hop Generation Declared Political Independence" reach diametrically opposed conclusions about hip-hop's political impact, but share a fundamentally flawed set of assumptions that cause them to misunderstand the relationship between culture and politics.
McWhorter, noted policy wonk and author of "Losing the Race," pets hip-hop with one hand as he slaps it with the other. How can mere music - particularly music riven by such inner contradiction - be capable of true change? "Actually listen to a rap track, even by a conscious artist, and then think about the real world. How many among us really believe there is a meaningful connection between that rap and making people think in new ways - ways so new that the nation's fabric changes?" The answer is almost nobody. McWhorter assembles a paper tiger in order to repeatedly lunge at it, and then waits for our applause when he has vanquished the beast. It is not that "All About the Beat" is fundamentally mistaken; hip-hop is not a likely precursor of revolutionary change, and incremental, piecemeal efforts to improve the lives of African-Americans are often ignored in favor of pie-in-the-sky theorizing. It is just that in 2008, in the era of Soulja Boy, few would claim otherwise.
Being a political theorist himself, McWhorter expects hip-hop to delve deeply into policy as well, and is disappointed when the likes of KRS-One, Das EFX, and Salt-N-Pepa fail to provide policy papers along with their latest singles. As the above artists indicate, his musical frame of reference is laughably out of date; McWhorter may drop the occasional reference to T.I. or Young Jeezy, but the range of examples he uses suggests he stopped paying much attention to music around 1993. McWhorter hears politics behind every beat, but his examples indicate how far behind he has fallen. For at least a decade, if not longer, hip-hop has been party music - for better or worse. To claim that it is still overwhelmingly concerned with struggle and protest, as both McWhorter and Goff do, is to misunderstand the culture.
More importantly, McWhorter makes the same fundamental error so many political thinkers do when writing about the arts, confusing the role of art with that of politics. The book assails hip-hop for its lack of a policy plan, not realizing that, like any other art form, it cannot be held to such a standard. At its best, hip-hop can provide imaginary solutions to real problems; its task ends where that of government begins. Little that McWhorter says is worthy of argument. A revolutionary art form assuredly does not equal political revolution.
Keli Goff is one of the few who might disagree with McWhorter's conclusions, but she is ultimately less interested in the music than the political sympathies of its fans. "Party Crashing" argues that after decades of lock-step Democratic voting, young African-Americans raised on hip-hop are beginning to rethink their loyalties. Registering as independents, or even Republicans, young blacks are seeking to make the parties work for their loyalty. The only problem is that the numbers do not bear out Goff's thesis: 88 percent of African-Americans voted for John Kerry in 2004, and does anyone truly think that Democratic presidential nominee Barack Obama, an African-American, will receive a smaller chunk of the vote? Goff's "growing contingency of black voters who believe that a candidate's party label matters a lot less than the candidate himself" appears to consist of herself and approximately 12 other insiders, to whom she turns over and over again for reassurance. As to what role hip-hop will play in this purported transformation, Goff cannot say.
Goff at last locates one independently minded black voter who has something nice to say about one of our least popular presidents: an entrepreneur and small businessman from Connecticut named Curtis Jackson. "Incredible . . . a gangsta," Jackson raves about President George W. Bush. Jackson goes on to note that he undoubtedly would have voted for Bush in 2004 if he had not been a convicted felon. You may know him better as 50 Cent.
What neither author wrestles with, in part because of the many months of delays inevitable to book publishing, is Obama. What does it say about the political impact of the hip-hop generation that the Democratic nominee is not only African-American but evidently fluent in hip-hop culture, and able to craft a message that speaks to the politically disaffected young people for whom hip-hop is the air they breathe? No more than rock 'n' roll, hip-hop will never revolutionize politics, but its ethos - of skepticism, of brash outspokenness, of unconscious diversity - will begin to seep into the mainstream of political discourse. Obama is at the forefront of the first wave of hip-hop's cultural infiltration of the political arena. It won't necessarily change the world, but the soundtrack will be a lot better.
Saul Austerlitz is a regular contributor to the Globe.