March 29, 2004
John McWhorter and the Hip-Hop/Gender Meme
It's been amazing to see how far the discussion has spread since I posted Lizelle's question about hip-hop and gender (I'll be posting my thoughts on the subject soon, since I haven't joined in the discussion since I threw it out there). One corner of blogville touched by the meme was this blog that deals with education and learning disabilities, topics close to my heart since I worked for 6 years as a teacher/counselor for "emotionally disturbed" teens.
Liz Ditz drew on a variety of web sources for perspectives on hip-hop, including John McWhorter's essay from last year that will bring a grimace to many faces around here. I got into a groove writing a reply there, so I will paste my ramble here as well:
His assessment of Grandmaster Flash's "The Message," for example, is wildly off the mark. That song, with its refrain "don't push me cuz I'm close to the edge, I'm trying not to lose my head" simply expresses frustration at the hard times we live in, and does so quite eloquently, much like Marvin Gaye "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)." McWhorter's attempt to paint it as some sinister threat of violence is downright bizarre.
Suggesting that Sean "Puffy/P-Diddy" Combs portrays himself as a "gangsta" is also laughable to anyone remotely familiar with the public image Combs has cultivated for himself.
McWhorter's notion that hip-hop encourages its listeners to be anti-social and reject authority strikes me as outdated, if anything I can only wish that were still the case. Far from encouraging rebellion, much of the most popular hip-hop nowadays (see P-Diddy) encourages its listeners to do little more than obediently assume their assigned role in this society as passive, uncritical and voracious brand-name consumers.
Also, it should go without saying that mainstream commercial hip-hop is far more diverse in its content than critics like McWhorter would have you believe, and of course the few artists allowed into the mainstream only represent one small corner of hip-hop's vast landscape.
Turning "gangsta tribalism to healthy ends" is in large part how hip-hop culture was born, as founding father Afrika Bambaataa used it to steer NY's gang members towards a peaceful and positive path, using hip-hop to bring them together and provide outlets for their creativity in his organization known as the Zulu Nation (he had been leader of the Black Spades gang).