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"Hip-hop presents nothing useful to forging political change in the real world. It's all about attitude and just that. It's music. Gkood music, but just music." (Kindle edition, loc. 178)
This is the thesis of John McWhorter's "All About the Beat." Hip-hop mlght be good music, but it makes for empty political commentary. It is time, McWhorter says, to treat hip-hop as what it is and not more than what it is.
Before buying this book - and if you are interested in the subject, you really should pick it up - we need to be clear on what this book is NOT. The book is not dissing hip-hop. It is not a conservative screed decrying the lack of family values in hip hop. It is not arguing that hip-hop is ruining the fabric of society. It's point is simply that hip-hop music, often touted as political commmentary laced with a beat, is nothing of the sort; it is music that OCCASIONALLY TRIES (and fails) to be political commentary.
McWhorter first focuses on the 'big' rappers - 50 Cent, Young Jeezy, et. al. - and, not suprisingly, finds this music virtually bereft of any real political statement other than "f... the man!" Next, McWhorter focuses on the "conscious" rappers - Mos Def, Common, the Roots - and finds that while their lyrics may be more about positivity than the thug life, these rappers still offer only very surface-level "political commentary." Rather than, "f... the man," these rappers say essentially the same thing in more tidy and seemingly thoughtful words - "rebel against the machine," perhaps.
McWhrter's strongest point, at least to me, is the idea that what passes as political commentary in rap is so light that it would not, and should not, be seen as political commentary at all. Let me quote directly from McWhorter on this score:
"Yet people apparently see great drama in young black men of humble circumstances knowing something about current events. The quiet assumption is that for a white person, being an intellectual means making points sustained with argumentation, and possibly writing it down. But a black person is intlelectual if he or she just says the names of W.E.B. Dubois and Malcolm X in a rap." (loc. 961)
What some say is "political commentary" in rap is usually just mention of some current social ill, civil rights, or big words like "manifest." Through some sustained analysis of supposedly deep rap lyrics, McWhorter demonstreats this phenomenon again and again; any "political message" in rap music is generally confined to a few lines, inordinate amounts of vagueness, and compulsive emphasis on moaning problems rather than spitting solutions.
So, why did I give this book 4 stars rather than 5? To be honest, a large reason was that McWhorter's points are so obvious, that I kept wondering why a book was written on it at all. Aside from about 5 scholars (Michael Eric Dyson being the most prominent), I don't think that many folks take seriously rap - or ANY form of music - as astute political commentary. While the book was a fun read, and the analysis of rap lyrics fascinating, it is still a book written to counter a handful of ivory tower academics.
This brings me to my next point. I REALLY would have liked to see a chapter or section comparing rap's present situation to that of 60's protest music, which somewhow was considered political commentary. What, if anything, makes the two situations different. (My guess is that the music of the 60's, like rap, can be called political commentary only in the sense that it contained sprinkles of rageing lyrics that managed to tap into people's anger, but could not really be seen as sustained political analysis.) It REALL would have been nice to see a section exploring this, though, because I suspect that the scholars that want to see rap as a potential political art-form probably model this desire on hopes that it will recreate what 60's folk was to the hippie generation.
All in all, this is an interesting book, even though its scope is a lot smaller than some will expect. Those who hope for a screed against rap as art will be very disappointed, as will anyone expecting a dissertaion on rap's supposed immorality. McWhoter confines himself to a much narrower thesis, and makes it forcefully.