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ALL ABOUT THE BEAT by John McWhorter


Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America

by John McWhorter

Pub Date: June 19th, 2008
ISBN: 978-1-592-40374-5
Publisher: Gotham Books

Bracing, though occasionally loosely argued, charge that the much-lauded political promise of hip-hop is at best a sham, and at worst a dangerous placebo that distracts people from enacting constructive change.

From his ivory tower high atop the Manhattan Institute, McWhorter (Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America, 2005, etc.) has long been tossing Molotov cocktails into the country’s perennially fraught dialogue on race, mostly in the form of conservative challenges to what he sees as the stifling effect of conventional liberalism. Here, warding off the impression that he’s just another black scold trotted out by the right-wing white establishment, McWhorter makes it clear that, while no obsessed fan, he does actually listen to hip-hop, which gives his words the sting of an informed critic. The genre’s devotees offer him a wealth of easy targets, from academics convulsing in delight when an African-American musician so much as name-drops W.E.B. Du Bois (a form of condescension the author particularly scorns) to writers hurling bucketfuls of praise over Public Enemy and The Roots for their supposed political awareness. Although McWhorter is usually respectful even of pop-academic blowhards like Michael Eric Dyson, he occasionally lets loose on the ludicrous idea that any music, not just hip-hop, could create a new civil-rights movement by itself: “We are infected with an idea that snapping our necks to black men chanting cynical potshots about the Powers That Be in surly voices over a beat is a form of political engagement.” The contention that rappers are complaining about the wrong things enters into trickier territory, mostly because McWhorter doesn’t give as much attention to this end of the argument as he does to his main thesis. It’s easy to prove that socially conscious lyrics on a hip-hop album won’t do much for the problems of black people; it’s a bit more difficult to elucidate what will solve those problems.

A sharp pin with which to pop the bloviating balloon of self-important cultural mandarins.