Hip-hop is often extolled as an urgent "political" message to mainstream America about the realities of life in black communities. But is there really any meaningful connection between hip-hop and politics? Could there actually be a hip-hop revolution?
In All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America, bestselling author John McWhorter argues that the vast majority of hip-hop music--despite claims to the contrary--has nothing real or significant to offer black America in terms of political activism that can make a meaningful difference.
In this measured, impassioned work, McWhorter maintains that hip-hop, while infectious and finely-crafted music, is overly inflated with a sense of social and political importance. He argues that activism and acting up aren't the same thing, that hip-hop politics often amount to an upturned middle finger--which is different from really working on how to help people. "A hundred years from now, what will interest people about us today is how we solved our problems, not how eloquently we complained about what caused them," writes McWhorter.
All About the Beat is not about putting hip-hop down for the violence and misogyny it extols. Instead, McWhorter calls for a new politics for black America, one not based on the false hope that a form of music--no matter how good or inspiring-- can lead blacks to advancement.
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)
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June 18, 2008
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