Power to the People and the Beats


Writing in The Times (London), cultural critic Clive Davis offers a great introduction to the brouhaha over John McWhorter's new book All About the Beat: Why Hip-Hop Can't Save Black America. As Davis tells it, McWhorter's beef isn't with the misogyny, violent imagery, and bling so essential to today's hip-hop, it's with the lefty politics of "conscious" rap and the liberal academics that have embraced it as the vanguard of revolutionary change:

Nothing could be further from the truth, McWhorter argues. Far from being truth-tellers, he says, so-called "conscious" rappers recycle endless clichés and conspiracy theories about inner-city blight, the drugs trade and Aids. Instead of generating a desire to change the system, rappers and their acolytes in the media and academia simply encourage a sense of passivity. "Insisting that things are still so simple that black people need to get together and rise in fury against an evil oppressor makes for entertaining hiphop," he writes. "It sounds good uttered fiercely and set to a driving beat. But this way of parsing things does not correspond to what black America really needs today, as opposed to what it needed 50 years ago."

Turns out that McWhorter even likes some rappers. In one of the article's better details, we learn that he "occasionally listens to Snoop Dogg while cooking dinner."

But the real action comes a few paragraphs later, when Clive Davis empties the clip on New York jazz lord Wynton Marsalis, who has denounced hip-hop as "ghetto minstrelsy" and as "a safari for people who get their thrills from watching African-American people debase themselves." Here's Davis:

Brave words. The problem with Marsalis's assessment, however, is that the kind of retro-jazz he has championed in the past two decades is, bluntly, an overreverential facsimile of the music of 40 or 50 years ago. Although his restless campaigning on behalf of jazz has paid dividends in the creation of a splendid new performing base at the Lincoln Center, in New York, it is still not entirely clear whether the venue will ever amount to more than a museum for the well-heeled Manhattan middle class, black and white.

Whole thing here.

(Via the great Arts & Letters Daily)