Simultaneously smug and beleaguered, "All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America" raises the question: Who, exactly, is claiming it can? No one -- academic, artist or critic -- has made any such argument since roughly 1988. This puts Manhattan Institute senior fellow John McWhorter in the awkward position of playing provocateur to an empty house, and gives his prose the tone of a petulant undergrad being shouted down in a dorm lounge. It also raises serious doubts about his engagement with either hip-hop or the large body of scholarship about it.
"[M]any hold on to the idea that hip-hop is ever on the verge of lifting black America up in a political revolution," McWhorter announces, one that will "lift poor blacks out of ghettos and create a new day." His constant assertions about hip-hop's true nature purport to prove why this cannot happen. It is "about attitude and just that," "in its very essence, angry," "all about that upturned middle finger," "about being oppositional regardless of the outcome," "all about the 'I' doing the rapping" and "about quick thrills and settling scores, rather than reasoning, discovering, and building."
Finally McWhorter asserts that "being art, especially popular art, hip-hop is automatically disqualified from being meaningfully political." If this were true, the specifics of McWhorter's musings would be irrelevant -- even to him. Why write a book detailing the case against a particular form if you believe no art can be political? Why not do something else with your afternoon?
Theory aside, McWhorter's claims that hip-hop is inherently angry and individualistic are profoundly ahistorical. Born in the Bronx in the early 1970s, hip-hop was rooted in the desire to foment a sense of community in the wake of economic deprivation and governmental neglect. It fostered artistic collectivity and friendly competition and changed the face of a city broken into gang fiefdoms, allowing young people to move through the five boroughs with new freedom.
The idea that hip-hop in 2008 is "antiestablishment" and "by definition about protest" is equally perplexing, given that so much of hip-hop has embraced the trappings of materialism in recent years. McWhorter glosses over a complex reality in which rappers are record label CEOs and corporate pitchmen, small-business owners and schoolteachers. Where's the rage and oppositionality in that?
As simple as it is, McWhorter's thesis shifts considerably beneath his feet. How to reconcile hip-hop's political impotence with the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network's success in preventing New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg from cutting $300 million from the schools budget? McWhorter does it by changing the terms of his argument: "[T]his money . . . is not going to make a significant difference in how well children are educated." So an effective protest is dismissed because McWhorter quibbles with its agenda.
Such sleight of hand is everywhere. McWhorter scoffs at numerous organizations on the theory that if they were effective, he'd know more about them. He divines the motivations of rappers, pronounces them facile and uses this as proof of their music's irrelevance. A complete litany of McWhorter's logical fallacies and unjustified dismissals would rival his book in length.
"All About the Beat" does not draw on a single interview, nor any discernible research beyond a cursory listen to an inscrutably peculiar grab bag of albums, mostly from the early '90s. Although he frequently parses lyrics, McWhorter's strategy is to isolate a line, then explain away its politics: "KRS-One thinks that the 'church and synagogue are all deceivin' us,' " he writes. "What he means is that we should be Muslims like him." Except that KRS-One is not Muslim. Rather, his lyrical critique of organized religion has been ongoing for nearly 20 years.
McWhorter's inept analysis continues. He interprets KRS-One's statement "I am hip-hop" to mean "[i]t's all about him," when the phrase is actually a cornerstone of the rapper's philosophy that hip-hop is embodied by all who love it. McWhorter concludes by noting that he doesn't "see KRS-One writing his own serious tome on hip-hop history." In fact, he has authored two books on the subject. KRS-One also spearheaded the Stop the Violence Movement and produced the all-star benefit song "Self-Destruction," which raised half a million dollars for the Urban League in 1989 -- a difficult act to position as lacking in activist intent.
Ultimately, McWhorter's project is about obscuring structural racism by focusing on individuals and their failure to meet his myopic definition of political engagement. He plays a shell game, belittling lyrics about police brutality as "complaining . . . to a beat" in one chapter, then taking rappers to task for not focusing on "the things that get black men pulled into the criminal justice system" in the next -- as if police and judicial racism were not two of those things.
For McWhorter, hip-hop may be all about the beat, but only because he isn't listening. "We will not overcome by sitting around asking 'why' with attitude," he writes, with typical self-righteousness. But how can we if we don't ask why?
Adam Mansbach is the author of "Angry Black White Boy," and most recently, the novel "The End of the Jews." He received a 2008 Future Aesthetics Artist Regrant from the Ford Foundation.
All About the BeatWhy Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America
Gotham: 186 pp., $20