Hip-Hop Studies and The New Culture Wars


Every so often a few disgruntles with an agenda line up their cannons to take a shot at hip-hop. In large response to a hip-hop studies movement that is daily gaining momentum, the anti-hip-hop crusaders this time are Black scholars. The names have changed but not the game.

John McWhorter and Cecil Brown, both professors at the University of California, Berkeley, and Harvard historian Martin Kilson have a bone to pick with hip-hop. But rather than stoop to the level of attacking rap artists, whom they deem sooooo far beneath them, they've set their crosshairs on what they call hip-hop intellectuals. Specifically, they have beef with their colleagues who theorize that (a) hip-hop has a place in the university classroom and (b) hip-hop has the potential to have an impact on politics.

University of Southern California's Todd Boyd and the University of Pennsylvania's Michael Eric Dyson have been at the forefront of advancing the intellectual line of inquiry of the moment: hip-hop studies. That's the Joint: The Hip-Hop Studies Reader, by Murray Foreman and Mark Anthony Neal, is expected to hit college bookstores next year. The book, along with a host of others, will serve as the foundation for students to examine what has become in the last decade mainstream American popular culture and much more.

Add to that the groundwork being laid at Harvard University by The Hip-Hop Archive, a project headed for the last several years by professor Marcyliena Morgan. Among other notable events, the archive sponsored a symposium on Tupac Shakur last year. What the archive has formalized other colleges and universities around the country are also undertaking in some form, either at the behest of student groups like the Hip-Hop as a Movement annual conference at the University of Wisconsin-Madison or on the initiative of enlightened professors. Many of these professors themselves grew up on hip-hop and know firsthand its relevance in the lives of American youth. According to the archive, at least 75 colleges, the University of Florida, Georgetown University, Occidental College and the University of Maryland, to name a few, are currently offering courses either exclusively or that in some way incorporate a discussion of hip-hop.

Academy aside, a number of young activists—from the San Francisco-based Ella Baker Center for Human Rights' executive director Van Jones and League of Young Voters’ Billy Wimsatt to Selma-based 21 Century Youth Leadership Movement’s Malaika Sanders and deputy mayor of Newark, New Jersey, Ras Baraka—are advancing a new style of hip-hop activism both in electoral politics and at the grassroots level. Others are forming political action committees like the Chicago Hip-Hop Political Action Committee, the Urban Think Tank Institute in New York, and BUILD (Blacks United in Search of Local Democracy) in Cleveland. Others, like Kwame Kilpatrick in Detroit, Michael McGee, Jr. in Milwaukee and Will Mega in Philadelphia are running for office themselves. As the civil rights establishment has long been ineffective in addressing issues critical to the younger generation, from police brutality to living wage jobs, they envision themselves, equipped with new vision, rising to the challenge. They emerge alongside local rappers, djs, promoters, graffiti artists and the like who collectively represent a national youth cultural movement. Their mantra is a new politics for a new generation, where hip-hop's cultural movement plays a role. But Professors Kilson, McWhorter and Brown think efforts like these are wrong-headed. Each has penned scathing missives widely circulating on the Internet last summer.

Kilson is most upset by what he sees as the hip-hop attack on the civil rights tradition and its heroes. Placing himself among them, in a piece he published in the Black Commentator (“The Pretense of Hip-Hop Black Leadership,” July 17, 2003), he’s careful to catalog his civil rights movement participation and his age, 71, as he proceeds to whip the young whipper-snappers into shape. He calls hip-hop intellectuals like Michael Eric Dyson and Todd Boyd on the carpet for daring to not hold civil rights leaders in high enough esteem:

Todd Boyd commences his historically vacuous article with a cynical assertion that nothing associated with African-American life and history warrants reverence from today’s young Black citizens. He dismisses as valueless the courage, blood, sweat and tears expended by Blacks in the long and tortuous struggle to smash the cruel edifice of legal White supremacy. This intellectually thuggish outlook embraced by Boyd and his hip-hop followers—an outlook that honors nothing genuinely human—is packaged in slick commercialistic lingo that adds to its profanity.

He continues: “There’s nothing whatever that’s seriously radical or progressive about hip-hop ideas and values. It is sad that there are university academics among us like Michael Dyson and Todd Boyd... who fail to recognize the political emptiness of most hip-hop expression.”

Picking up where Kilson leaves off, McWhorter is angry about the anti-authority and anti-intellectual persona that he says dominates hip-hop lyrics. In an editorial published in a variety of publications in the summer of 2003 entitled “How Hip-Hop Holds Blacks Back,” he tells the tale of personally observing a group of young Black boys in a fast food restaurant (ironically enough, KFC) who refuse to behave until asked to leave by security. “What struck me most, though, was how fully the boys’ music—hard-edged rap, preaching bone-deep dislike of authority—provided them with a continuing soundtrack to their anti-social behavior... Rap was the running decoration in their conversation.”  He continues: "By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly 'authentic' response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.” McWhorter has found a kindred spirit in Cecil Brown—even though they are not politically out the same camp.  Brown charges hip-hop intellectuals with instigating a generation gap between hip-hop kids and their civil-rights-generation parents. In a satirical piece published in Konch magazine, he writes:

You know what these fellows remind me of? Well, we used to call em the coon singers.…  They would come out on the stage in blackface and white folks just loved them to death.…[Like] the early blackface minstrelsy, [they] profited from presenting caricatures of black culture, by making whites feel good themselves without doing anything about the suffering of African Americans.

Perhaps as an indication of how personally the alleged hip-hop assault is being taken, Brown even resorts to name-calling, referring to Todd Boyd in the title of his fiction piece as “Mr. Zip Coon Todd—as in Tired—Boyd.” (Konch magazine, summer 2003).

All three take issue with hip-hop's stereotypical images. They also wonder how hip-hop can be taken seriously by anyone either as a course of study or as a foundation for a political movement. They fail to consider the major impetus for hip-hop and the core reasons why youth identify with hip-hop in the first place. Moreso than pimps and bytches, hip-hop music reflects in large part a generation heavily influenced by public policy that negatively affected urban youth in the late 1970s. Along with bleak job prospects, American youth were saddled with rising incarceration rates and deteriorating education. Conditions for young people, especially poor, working class and middle class youth, only worsened in the 1980s and 1990s, extending beyond the borders of American cities into suburban and rural communities.

Familiarity with hip-hop culture aside, part of the problem with these Rip Van Winkles is that they are a decade late. In the early 1990s, folks like C. Delores Tucker, Dionne Warwick, Bill Bennett and Tipper Gore led the charge. Those unlikely bedfellows at least did a little more homework and weighed in on issues that mattered, like the use of the n-word and the denigration of women in rap lyrics, but even their attempts to derail the significance of hip-hop in the lives of young people fell flat. Surely we haven't heard the last from this ragtag brigade and their ilk. But before they shoot off their next salvo, perhaps they would be wise to consider the following:

First, actually read the full body of work of the new hip-hop intellectuals (not just an interview here or editorial there). Most are familiar with Tricia Rose’s 1994 Black Noise and Michael Eric Dyson’s 2001 Holler If You Hear Me. Closer to the battlefield are works out this year like Jeff Chang’s Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop, Billy Wimsatt’s How to Get Stupid White Men Out of Office (Soft Skull Press, 2004), and Yvonne Bynoe’s Stand and Deliver: Political Activism, Leadership and Hip-Hop (Soft Skull Press, 2004). Joan Morgan’s When Chickenheads Come Home to Roost (1999) is still widely read by young people trying to make sense of the nebulous place where hip-hop and feminism meet. A cursory examination of works like these proves hands-down that few hip-hop intellectuals, even hip-hop's fiercest defenders, think that hip-hop is problem-free.

Likewise, hip-hop intellectuals—academics and grassroots activist alike—almost universally agree that the civil rights movement was important and meaningful. In fact many readily acknowledge that a hip-hop cultural movement couldn’t exist without civil rights and Black power successes. These movements of yesterday are the most formidable foundations for any possible hip-hop political movement today. What hip-hop generationers are calling for is a new leadership that has the younger generation’s experiences and expertise in mind. The civil rights generation has done its part. It’s up to the children of those movements to pick up the baton.

Second, at a bare minimum, the new breed of critics should study the music and culture they're critiquing, not just a few shocking lyrics you heard courtesy of Clear Channel or Viacom. No literary critic fathoms to offer an analysis of Toni Morrison having read only a paragraph or two from The Bluest Eye. Face it; hip-hop has produced an enormous body of work with a vast array of themes in its 30 years. The music, culture, lyrics and socio-economic and political context must be studied and absorbed. The endless generalizations and broadsides currently spouted by hip-hop’s new critics, no matter how clever, do not recognize hip-hop’s complexity. These generalizations are inadequate to explain individual artists, let alone a broad range of artists coming out of a variety of eras, regions, social and political experiences steeped in post-civil rights America.

Third, do the unpardonable: Actually go to a venue and see hip-hop artists perform. Get real adventurous and check out a local act or two. Upon sight, it will become apparent that hip-hop is a thriving cultural movement. That reality alone should make clear (a) why young people see hip-hop as critical to any contemporary political movement, and  (b) why most youth today feel more connected to the message espoused by contemporary rap artists than to that coming from long-time civil rights activists like Congressman John Lewis or from old-guard organizations like NAACP.

Such criticism is not meant to equate hip-hop’s cultural movement with the political civil rights movement. However, hip-hop’s cultural movement is indeed inspired by the political reality facing those who came of age in the '80s and '90s. And just because hip-hop’s cultural movement has preceded and dominated the emerging political one, and just because we come of age immersed in a celebrity culture that doesn't pay much homage to activism and political thought, doesn’t mean that we are without activists working for change.

With a working knowledge of these variables, hip-hop’s critics might deem hip-hop worthy of being at least a general elective, if not a required course. You might also grasp why hip-hop is essential to any youth activism or politics, and that hip-hop's emerging political leaders are activists, politicians and intellectuals, not necessarily rappers.

These are the prerequisites for any true battle with hip-hop, intellectuals or otherwise. If we've got to go another round of the hip-hop culture wars, at least make it interesting. My parting advice to the new crusaders? Build ya skills. Then bring it on. Kitwana is the co-founder of The National Hip-Hop Political Convention and the author of The Hip-Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture (Basic Civitas Books, 2002). He’s currently completing a book entitled Why White Kids Love Hip-Hop (Basic Civitas Books, spr. 2005). E-mail him at bakhannkru@aol.com.