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All about the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America Hardcover – June 19, 2008
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From Publishers Weekly
In this uneven critique of mainstream and socially conscious rap and hip-hop, McWhorter (Losing the Race) pillories the genre for positioning itself as a political—even revolutionary—medium. In the author's analysis, hip-hop is typified by narcissism rather than altruism, a culture of complaint rather than creative solution and a willful blindness to the real problems affecting black communities; McWhorter demonstrates how frequently artists rail against police brutality and how few mention HIV/AIDS, the single biggest killer of African-Americans. The author's admiration for the genre generally keeps his criticisms from sounding shrill, but it cannot compensate for the book's flaws. While McWhorter lambastes rappers for failing to address real issues, he doesn't either: like the hip-hop artists he chides, the author romanticizes activism while appearing clueless about the nuts and bolts of grassroots work. Equally troubling are McWhorter's unsubstantiated theories, chief among them his claim that African-Americans are more inclined to judge a statement by how it sounds than what it communicates. More interested in skewering hip-hop than suggesting paths to substantive social change, this book ultimately frustrates more than it illuminates. (June)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved.
About the Author
John McWhorterÂs acclaimed books include the New York Times bestseller Losing the Race: Self-Sabotage in Black America; Doing Our Own Thing: The Degradation of Language and Why We Should, Like, Care (Gotham, 2003); and, most recently, Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America (Gotham, 2006). He is a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, a contributing editor to The New Republic, and has appeared widely in broadcast media, including Dateline NBC, The NewsHour with Jim Lehrer, and Fresh Air.
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I enjoyed reading it, I just wished he used other hip-hop artists too, such as Camp Lo and Blueprint. I feel like he attempted to use known artists, and didn't invite the reader to explore.
While slow, incremental change definitely plays its part, society has never actually transformed from slow, incremental change. What has actually moved society forward in meaningful ways in the history of this country has been actions that created visibility: civil disobedience, nonviolent resistance, and yes, riots and even violence.
Civil rights, gay rights, women's rights - none of these were achieved by slow, incremental change. People got out in the streets, people raised hell, people would not allow themselves to be ignored. Alice Paul's hunger strike in jail (after breaking the law through civil disobedience) was a big part in gaining media attention and sympathy. The Stonewall Riots were a huge part of the history of the gay rights struggle. And the Black Panthers aren't known for nothing.
I admit I might have missed some other great points the author may have had later in the book, but to place the foundation of your thesis on the fact that small incremental change is what is going to get the job done is ignoring historical facts, which doesn't bode well for how the rest of the book is going to go.
"Um, hey, kidz. Uh, do you ever feel like your parents just don't understand you? Let's hear what the Fresh Prince and D.J. Jazzy Jeff have to say about that!"
I just can't subject my students to that.
I'm also uncomfortable with the notion that we should substitute Jay Z for Shakespeare in the urban English classroom, the tacit assumption being that urban kids can't relate to the latter. Hm. Meanwhile, the suburban kids are learning the Western canon as well as the rhetoric they need to succeed in the current culture. That seems like a pretty raw deal for the urban kids, in my opinion. Plus, who are we to decide for them whether or not they can relate to Shakespeare?
I've always been interested in this debate, which is why I added this book to my wishlist. While McWhorter doesn't deal at length with education, I still found his premise to be relevant to my concerns as a teacher. He argues that hip hop is most effective as an art form and not as a platform to discuss politics. He stresses repeatedly that his issue is not with the vulgarity of rap, but rather its inability to usher in a revolution for the black community in the way that the Civil Rights era did. (He reminded me a bit of Neil Postman meets Lisa Delpit). Throughout the book, he analyzes the lyrics of both popular rap and underground, "conscious" rap, demonstrating that the lyrics do not reflect a thoughtful understanding of the needs of the black community, do not engage seriously in debate and are mainly about asserting a certain attitude rather than fighting the real fight for change.
The book is very engaging (even funny at times) and McWhorter's writing style is truly winning. I'm not sure I'm convinced by everything he puts forth; I would love to hear his opponents' counterarguments. But, even still, the book is a worthwhile read that provides food for thought. I enjoyed it.