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Tuesday, September 23, 2003

Not long ago, I was having a latte in a Starbucks in Houston, sitting near eight Lily-White boys, aged about 18. Since 1) it was 1:30 on a school day, 2) they were carrying book bags, and 3) they seemed to be in no hurry, I assumed they were skipping school. They were extremely loud and unruly, tossing food at one another and leaving it on the floor.

White people ran the cafe and made up the bulk of the customers, but it was hard to see much healthy "white community” here. After repeatedly warning the boys to stop throwing things and keep quiet, the manager finally told them to leave. The kids ignored her. Only after she called a male security guard did they start slowly making their way out, tauntingly circling the restaurant before ambling off. These teens clearly weren’t monsters, but they seemed to consider themselves exempt from public norms of behavior—as if they had begun to check out of mainstream society.

What struck me most, though, was how fully the boys’ music—hard-edged rock, preaching bone-deep dislike of authority—provided them with a continuing soundtrack to their antisocial behavior. So completely was rock ingrained in their consciousness that every so often, one or another of them would break into cocky, expletive-laden Springsteen lyrics, accompanied by the angular, bellicose gestures typical of a performance. A couple of his buddies would then join him. Rock was a running decoration in their conversation.

Does this sort of thing make you afraid? Does it instill in you a deep fear of walking the suburban streets at night, lest roving bands of politically leftist teenagers assail you and liberate your property? No? One would wonder, then, why John H. McWhorter would write the exact same passage in an article, substituting hip-hop for rock, and more ominously, black for white. This was sent to me by someone I know to be at least reasonably intelligent, so as I read through paragraph after paragraph referring to instances where individual lyrics would call on violence or rebellion against authority, and likewise line after line of examples of famous rappers committing illegal acts, that at some point, he would make a cogent argument.

To be fair, he never does. From this he draws the immediate conclusion that hip-hop is deteriorating what black community exists, as well as leading urban youth to a destructive end, like some sort of ethereal Pied Piper. Sure, a myriad of blacks live in what amounts to third world conditions. Sure, statistically they are more likely to be targetted by police for crimes (especially drug crimes). But I bet the real reason they are angry at the world is because NWA or Ice-T told them to shoot a cop! What a wonderful argument!

This is an idiotic concept which thousands of people in the US have propegated with every new tragedy - Columbine was Marilyn Manson, a kid left alone by his parents burning down a trailer is Beavis and Butthead, and so on and so forth. First, even if EVERYTHING he says is true, don't you think it might be a little possible that they choose angry music to reflect the anger they already feel? Do you think they just may be popularizing rap artists who sing antisocial lyrics, becuase they already have leanings which do not condone the actions of a society they believe has abandoned them?

Of course, it's stupid to say that music drives people to a certain lifestyle, but it's at least a more widespread form of idiot than when he says next. The thing which bridges the gap from stupid to openly racist is one of the later passages, where he basically just states that examples of a reckless lifestyle in hip-hip is disanalogous to things like Jonney Cash saying he shot a man just to watch him die, and other examples (turn on the TV for an hour, you'll see plenty). The reason he gives is, implicitly, black people will emulate whatever culture you throw at them, while whites won't. He even points out that more white people buy hip-hop than black people - yet at the same time, aren't effected by its eeeeeeeevil message.

He concludes with the following:
At 2 AM on the New York subway not long ago, I saw another scene—more dispiriting than my KFC encounter with the rowdy rapping teens—that captures the essence of rap’s destructiveness. A young black man entered the car and began to rap loudly—profanely, arrogantly—with the usual wild gestures. This went on for five irritating minutes. When no one paid attention, he moved on to another car, all the while spouting his doggerel.

If the young man had come on to the subway car and recited a poem, I wonder if the author would have called it "doggerel?" It seems, after all is said and done, the only thing the author manages to display to the reader is his own racist assumptions and total lack of appreciation for a medium, from which he tries - with a lot of effort, which I applaud - to draw some sort of conclusion about the black community in general. He ends his diatribe by saying "Hip-hop creates nothing." I think he's missing the point. Hip-hop is the creation, not the means to something else.

cranked out at 5:31 PM | |

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