Putting 'Read a Book' behind him

Washington Post

Bomani Armah ("I'm not a rapper, I'm a poet with a hip-hop style") hops into a bar chair at the ultracool Artmosphere Cafe in Mount Rainier, Md. It is a Wednesday night, we have the bar to ourselves, we are having a splendid conversation. You may be thinking: Dude, this is such an unextraordinary scene. Except that Armah is simultaneously hosting an open-mike talent show, toggling from bar to stage in five-minute intervals and proving how fluid the mind can be.

He's fixated, at the bar, on what has happened to him over the last four months, how he somehow became a symbol of the coarsening culture. All because he wrote a crunk song, "Read a Book," that traveled the Internet, that was discovered by Black Entertainment Television, that was made into a video, that ignited a controversy, that turned Bomani Armah into a person he didn't recognize, someone accused of "setting my people back 100 years." Between the irate blog posts and the snippy interviews by the likes of CNN's Tony Harris, Armah discovered that he had suddenly become somebody.

"I got recognized at the post office," he says. "I'm not used to that." Any time Jesse Jackson calls you out -- he accused Armah of "recycling degradation" -- you know you've arrived.

On this night, no one is calling him out, except to say that he should hurry back to the stage, back to the mike. There is only love for Armah in the cafe. Here, he is free -- free from his "Read a Book" troubles. Here, he is focused on art, everybody's art. Rudeness is not tolerated.

"Most important rule," he instructs the audience, "cheering for everybody." Which includes the yodeling senior citizen they call Miss Jane, the guitar-plucking urban cowboy, the University of Maryland doctoral student who raps provocatively about female anatomy.

Back and forth Armah goes, stage to bar, bar to stage. An impressive display of thought juggling. He is 29, with a smile that could soften a hard heart, wire-rimmed glasses and short locks. Whenever kind words come his way -- and they keep coming his way here -- he puts his hands together and dips his head in a slight bow. "Thank you so much."

Armah grew up middle class in Mitchellville, Md., and now lives in D.C. He has a five-year marriage and 17-month-old twins. He has been kicking around the D.C. music scene for six years, producing for other local musicians, hosting spoken-word events, trying to break through as an artist out to elevate hip-hop into something more relevant, more meaningful.

As a former English major -- he dropped out of the University of Maryland to pursue his music career -- Armah has conducted creative-writing and audio-video workshops for kids. He has worked as a youth counselor. He has seen firsthand one of the most pernicious effects of the rap game -- the warping of black reality into a one-dimensional caricature. Too many in his generation of artists, he says, aspire to be "as grimy and gangster" as they can be, a depiction of black life that filters down to the kids, who become the next inaccurate storytellers.

"As an educator and an artist, it was hurting me both ways," says Armah, who is hardly the first "conscious" artist to come along advocating a hip-hop makeover. But most artists who feel as he does, Armah adds, "write essays or long esoteric songs" that are indigestible. Armah was determined to do something more jolting. Provocative but funny.

" 'Read a Book' was a joke from the beginning," he says. "It was more about parodying the state of hip-hop." And now it has become the thing that defines him. He thought about that for a moment. "Do this many people not get me?"

Read a book! Read a book! Read a . . . book!

Read a book! Read a book! Read a . . . book!

So goes the song Bomani Armah recorded more than two years ago, set to a hip-hop version of Beethoven's Fifth Symphony. It has a hard-charging feel to it, repetitive lyrics, random cursing and one-word exhortations -- what! who! yeah! OK! -- all in an attempt to mock the crunk style of rapper Lil Jon.

Not a sports page, not a magazine

But a book . . . a . . . book . . .

Armah didn't stop at reading. He went on to urge the raising of kids, the drinking of water, the brushing of teeth, the use of deodorant and other acts of basic self-respect.

Buy some land, buy some land! . . . spinnin' rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! . . . spinnin' rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! . . . spinnin' rims!

Buy some land, buy some land! . . . spinnin' rims!

"I feel like I'm a sergeant out here in the field, showing how ridiculous the culture is," Armah says. He began performing his song around the D.C. area and it caught on. He made it available for free download on his My- Space page, and the buzz grew. At some point, the "Read a Book" MP3 reached the in-box of Reginald Hudlin, president of entertainment for BET, who passed it on to the network's animation division, which loved it and wanted to create an animated video off the track. Which is where Tyree Dillihay, a Los Angeles-based animation director, came in.

He took Armah's lyrics and amped up the parody. Rappers always brag about getting shot, right? So Dillihay showed a thug loading his Uzi with a book clip and firing books as bullets at unsuspecting victims.

The video first aired on BET's "Rap City" and "The 5ive" in June and made its way onto the network's popular "106 & Park" show in July. It wasn't long before a sizzling debate began. What exactly was "Read a Book"? An unusual public-service announcement designed to reach young hip-hop fans who don't read? Another ill-advised programming effort by BET (see "Hot Ghetto Mess") that was bound to backfire?

"Read a Book" has been viewed more than 1.8 million times on YouTube, according to the site. Dillihay and Armah, who both have been on TV and radio defending "Read a Book," maintain the divide over their work is mostly generational. "When a 50-year-old woman says, 'Oh, this is horrible,' I frankly don't care. It's not for you," says Dillihay, 30.

"Read a Book" does have some prominent supporters.

"It's brilliant satire," says Michael Eric Dyson, a Georgetown University professor who has written widely about hip-hop. He sees the video as a "carrier pigeon for an edifying message." He offers a quick jab at the critics. "Here's the ugly reality: Many of the black leaders and others who criticize this attempt to get black kids to read a book haven't read many books themselves."

"Black identity right now is so precarious," says Yale sociologist Elijah Anderson, one of the nation's foremost experts on black urban life. "You'd like to think that we as a people are so strong that we can withstand any kind of puff, so to speak. In a fair world, one would presume to be able to say what you want to say. But it isn't a fair world, and that's what I think about."

If there is hypersensitivity among blacks about their images in the popular culture, its roots can be found in a history of racist portrayals that have helped shape how black life has been viewed by much of the world. The most denigrating depictions of blacks often have had the sanction of the nation's top leaders. President Woodrow Wilson, for example, hosted a private White House screening of D.W. Griffith's 1915 epic "The Birth of a Nation," an explicitly racist film in which blacks were portrayed as buffoons with outsize sex drives.

It's ironic that some of the "Read a Book" lyrics -- "brush yo' teeth," "wear deodorant" -- hark back to the late-19th-century prescriptions Booker T. Washington offered for the betterment of the race. Personal hygiene -- "the gospel of the toothbrush," he called it -- was essential to black self-improvement, Washington thought. But this is 2007, and some find such lyrics and their accompanying video imagery -- a tree wilts as a smelly black man walks by -- absurd and humiliating.

Is lack of Speed Stick usage a cutting-edge issue in black communities? A concern even worthy of satire? Armah knows he is on shaky ground with some of the lyrics but says he was trying to stick with the formula: Make the song as ridiculous as possible to imitate the ridiculousness of many rap songs. He enlisted teenagers to plug in lyrics that they thought would work -- and also be funny -- to drive home the point of positive behavior, and they came up with "brush yo' teeth" and "wear deodorant."

"He's been a good guy," says George Garrow, executive director of Concerned Black Men, which has utilized Armah in programs focusing on abstinence, teen pregnancy prevention and self-expression. "He's worked with the young people to get them to critically analyze the lyrics in the music and to get them to understand that the same messages can be communicated with different lyrics."

"Being positive is the new hard-core," Armah says.

"The whole gangsta/bling-bling has not only played out socially," he continues, "it's played out artistically." His message to rappers: "If you don't have a family-friendly rap you can do in front of your grandmother, please go home and write one."

Which was part of the point of "Read a Book," he thought. Except some people didn't get it, and that still baffles him. The video is no longer airing on BET, having "just timed out," a spokesman says. Which suits Armah just fine. He's ready to move on.

"I didn't want to be the 'Read a Book' dude, anyway."

Sliding out of his bar chair, he scurries back to the stage, back to the mike. Back to his art.

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