Michael Eric Dyson's new book 'Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip-Hop' arrives serendipitously. A few months after the Imus controversy that somehow created a never-ending quasi-debate about rap music, Dyson hopefully brings a more nuanced, "insider" approach to the music. However, if this excerpt
and his appearance on the 'Today' show
on Tuesday are any indication, I don't feel that readers of this site would get a lot out of the book and I'm not sure any rap "outsider" would either.
Dyson should be praised for taking rap music seriously and I do not doubt he is committed to the genre, but his argument seems less an attempt to engage hip-hop haters and more a plan to run circles around them. A great deal of what he has to say is glaringly half-formed. Dyson's most prevalent points are stated in a way that falls apart with any knowledge of rap; his argument seems to depend on mainstream rap ignorance.
Dyson works within the binary that there is rap that is "positive" and rap that is "negative" and that simplistic argument is his first flaw. His second flaw is listing a less overtly conscious or political artists like Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas along more predictable rap-defense staples without acknowledging that he has done so. Dyson's list of rappers that he considers "incredible artists doing incredibly complex things" were: Scarface, Jay-Z, Nas, Lauryn Hill, Bahamadia, Common, Mos Def, Talib Kweli. This is a step in the right direction as Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas can be every bit as radical as those other artists named, but there is a difference. Some of the artists he cites make rap that the hip-hop haters could inarguably cite as "negative".
Invoking Scarface, Jay-Z, and Nas as examples of "positive" hip-hop to an audience whose problem with rap comes in its bad language and presentation of negative behavior simply does not make sense. The rappers he cited, "positive", "negative", or somewhere in between, are exceptions to the rule. He needs to find a way to address rap music as a genre without constructing binaries between good and bad, particularly binaries that fall-apart so easily.
The primary concern of hip-hop insiders and outsiders when it comes to social responsibility is the degrading nature of rap's lyrics. Those concerned with the moral aspects of any kind of art have never taken the art aspect seriously, so any number of books about rap's "complexity" won't quiet those who want rap to stop being so "negative". This is the flaw of the intellectual, to think that art matters or is the bottom line. Complexity and intelligence will never outweigh people's outrage, especially when the outrage is fairly reasonable, as it is with hip-hop.
Dyson's list of rappers is so scrupulous as to make his point moot. First, he gives a list of "gangsta" or post-"gangsta" rappers that don't really confound most critiques of rap. Then, in some calculated attempt at political correctness (and wishful address of misogyny?), he lists two female rappers when, let's face it, female emcees just don't matter. His point would be better supported to just admit that rap has a problem with women than to go back to the late 90s for relevant female rappers. Lauryn Hill hasn't rapped properly since 1998 and almost nobody watching 'Today' knows who the hell Bahamadia is…Mos Def and Talib Kweli are equally obscure to NBC's early-morning audience. Common is perhaps the only artist Dyson cited who is overwhelmingly "positive" and relatively well-known. Although flawed and problematic, the music of someone like Kanye West, who occupies near-super star status and some semblance of positivity, would be a wiser way to engage the audience. However, it would not surprise me if Dyson, like many others, do not see West as "hip-hop" enough and would rather muddle the argument than concede to someone else's standards.
Dyson does the same as those hip-hop haters he opposes but in reverse. The more savvy critics of rap music now concede that there is some "positive rap" but focus overwhelmingly on the negative aspects. Dyson concedes that there is "negative" rap but chooses to focus on the positive aspects. Both are wrong but unfortunately, when the argument is set-out like that, I'd side with the hip-hop haters because the so-called negative rap is the rap most people are listening to and therefore, the one with the most moral or immoral "influence". Dyson might have more of a point if he would extend his argument to point out that indeed, if rap's criticizers were to take some, any, of the music seriously, that might shift the focus away from popularity of the negative rap but he does no such thing.
In the best case scenario, Dyson's book will cause a sea change on the perspective of rap, but that change would be one that is equally false as the one being projected now. I would be no happier if a bunch of people began defending rap by saying "there's positive rap and negative rap" and then cited a list that included rappers that are clearly not "positive" by a conventional definition of the word. Replacing one incorrect, manipulative mantra with another, even if it helps rap's reputation is something I cannot get behind.
It is briefly mentioned on the 'Today' show and dealt with in the excerpt, but Dyson's invocation of art's history of dealing with the unsavory is either disingenuous or naive. Although I would agree that Jay-Z or Nas approach (and even surpass!) the complexity of Shakespeare, those kind of comparisons appear absurd to the average person, particularly one not fond of hip-hop. Engaging rap as art is divisive because it will takes generations for rap to be put on the level of art (it is only in the past decade or so that rock music has been taken seriously); most of those who choose to criticize hip-hop will either never consider it art or are mind-bogglingly middlebrow and do not care about "art" in the first place.
Art, complex or not, intellectual or not, has never been free of criticism or even, violent censorship. No matter how correct the argument may be, rap's complexity will not free it from the grips of censors and closed-minded cultural critics. Even if it does the genre a disservice, rap must be discussed and engaged as pop-culture product if it is to be understood by the hip-hop haters. Dyson's comparison between censoring rap and censoring mindless action movies moves in that direction.
Dyson wisely connects the blind-eye people turn to contemporary action films to race and class. Indeed, the same people who might write screeds against 50 Cent calling-out his album 'Get Rich or Die Tryin' do not bat an eye to the similarly-titled 'Live Free or Die Hard' which grossed about 85 million dollars. Dyson bravely invokes race and class as giving the makers of action films free passes when it comes to violence: 'Live Free or Die Hard' supports our president's "war on terror" hustle, so don't expect protest anytime soon.
He would have been wise to invoke the so-called torture-porn films of Hollywood like 'Saw' and 'Hostel' which are laughed-off by many as harmless fantasy. This would be the most engaging and relevant argument, for it bypasses nebulous words like "art" or "complexity", addresses pertinent race and class issues, while conceding to the idea that some entertainment is indeed "too far".
I want to praise Dyson's appearance and I want to praise his book but I see him as politician-like in his scrupulosity and stretching of the truth. I do not doubt that his avoidance of facts and convenient end-runs are for the pragmatic motivation of praising hip-hop, but I think he overextends himself. Jay Smooth has discussed this in greater detail and greater eloquence and I have to concur; there is an unfortunate degree of performance when it comes to both sides on this rap shit. Neither side will concede, both sides ignore any reality that does not jibe, and invent new ones to cater to their point.