Say what you like about John McWhorter, the controversial conservative thinker notorious for his provocative views on race, but he’s nothing if not articulate.
In his new book All About the Beat, McWhorter dismisses the popularly held belief that hip-hop is the savior of black America, doing for African-Americans today what the civil rights movement did in the Sixties. Taking particular issue with conscious rappers who, he says, chronicle the community’s problems without offering solutions, McWhorter insists that the answers to this generation’s troubles lie in political activism not lyrical vandalism against the powers-that-be.
Clutch sat down with the Manhattan Institute Scholar to get to the bottom of his beef with big beats and wax lyrical about politics, policy and the potential for a black presidency.
Q: Tell us about your new book All About the Beat. What’s it about and why did you decide to write it at this time?
First of all, it’s not a book about how bad hip-hop is. I think that’s going to be a general misconception because of an article I wrote five years ago. All About the Beat is not about how hip-hop is corrupting our youth’s morals or that it glorifies violence or any of that. It is more specific. It’s a book about the tendency that people have to think about hip-hop as something more important than it is. There are a lot of people who seem to think we need to wait for hip-hop to cause a revolution in politics; that the political messages in hip-hop are prophetic and very insightful and useful–and I disagree. I think it’s great music but the idea that these are our new freedom songs is misguided.
Q: Who is it that has this misconception? The artists or us?
I think it’s more out in the public. It’s an idea that’s especially popular with academics because they see the leftist ideas of the lyrics as being what the powers-that-be need to hear and they see young people listening to the music. And there’s also just a general sense among hip-hop fans that it’s something larger than just music, that it’s something that we have to worry about its survival. It’s especially writers and academics and the more die-hard fans who, I think, are being distracted by hip-hop from what real solutions are to helping people in the black community.
Q: What about conscious rap? Isn’t that different?
That’s exactly the problem. The rap like 50 Cent, Jay-Z and all of that, of course, is just play. But then there’s the conscious rap that has a special message and that is precisely mistaken because even the conscious rappers have a basic idea that there needs to be a leftist revolution in this country, that white people need to suddenly realize something about black people, and that something very apocalyptic is going to need to happen and short of that we are just stuck where we are. I don’t agree with that political message and that’s what most of the conscious rappers are saying. Even The Roots, Talib Kweli and Common do not have political messages that are really suited to helping poor black people not be poor. That’s an important thing. That one thing that is often said about me is that I don’t know that there’s conscious rap. This book is partly designed to show that I’m well aware but that we still need to look in a different direction.
Q: So, if hip-hop can’t get black people politically engaged, what are your thoughts on the whole Obama effect?
That might do it. That’s why I support Barack Obama. If there is that black man in the White House, suddenly I think a lot of black people would start feeling a lot more connected. And they might stay that way. That’s the sort of thing that works. Turning up some music that has a catchy beat and thinking that that’s going to make somebody interested in politics is something you could make a very sweet movie about but that’s not the way life really happens. If it’s not going to be Obama then it’s going to be long, slow change. And I think that’s what anybody who’s committed to grassroots activism should be interested in. We need to focus on a certain small core of issues and frankly they’re not the sort of things that listening to Young Jeezy or Mos Def get you interested in. More black people need to buy their houses. We need to work on prisoner re-entry programs and that seems to be happening right now. We just had the Second Chance Act passed in Congress. I don’t really hear any hip-hop about that. And my general sense is the kind of person who’s interested in the hip-hop revolution is not the kind of person who’s terribly interested in checking the passage of bills through Congress. That’s the problem. We need to concentrate on getting rid of the war on drugs. It’s not about iPods and it’s not about rallies. It’s about a gradual conversation that’s changing as a result of people saying things and writing things, not playing things.
Q: Do you think America is ready for its first black president?
Yes I do. That’s been proven in the primaries so far. I think its been seen that America is ready for a black president who is not too black so we’ve had a bit of fallout because of Reverend Wright that has put a bump in what otherwise would’ve been a momentum that would’ve just sent Obama way over Hilary Clinton at this point. A lot of the reason that Barack Obama has been so popular with more affluent whites is out of a sense it’s doing the right thing to vote for a black man. Some people don’t like to say it out loud, but it’s true that if Barack Obama were not black he wouldn’t be where he is now. That doesn’t mean that he’s not a wonderful candidate—I approve of him—but his color pushed him over the edge and it wasn’t just a little bit. It’s considered cool that he’s “colored.” That’s a college town notion. Once you get beyond that realm, then the idea that he’s a pretty color is just less important. Blue collar whites are not searching themselves for their inner racist as carefully as college graduates tend to. And so I think they see things more starkly. And the fact is, I say as an Obama supporter, Hilary Clinton is better qualified and there are many reasons why she would make a more effective president. But I think that the blue collar white voter is just looking at the candidates based on their credentials and don’t see Obama’s color as interesting. And so I really don’t think his race is keeping him from the presidency at all. I think it helps.
Q: Do you not think that racism has a role to play for the state of black America today?
Not enough to matter. Yes, there’s racism. But it doesn’t play enough of a role to be worthy of the amount of attention. At this point we have other things to work at. And if you want to phrase it as societal racism or institutional racism, I translate that in to the system isn’t fair and my answer is it’s never going to be. The idea is teaching one another how to make the best of a system that will never be fair.
Q: Going back to the book, what kind of music do you like to listen to?
Well, the subtext of that question is, Does he even listen to hip-hop? And it’s a legitimate question. And yeah, an amount. It’s not the soundtrack of my life. But, like for many educated, rather reserved black people, it is in my life. I tend to prefer the more thoughtful ones. I would say it’s about 1 in 5 things that I pop in. So in answer to the question, I listen to hip-hop enough to write the book. I like it, I talk to people about it and I’ve got myself a nice little hip-hop collection.
Q: So, who is in your hip-hop collection?
I try to have it as close to everybody who’s important, especially because I get asked about it and I don’t want to be ignorant. There’s Public Enemy, Kanye West, Mos Def, Nas. I’ve got a couple of The Roots . . .
Q: They’re all the conscious ones that you’ve just dissed!
No, I don’t dis the conscious guys, I just don’t listen to them for political advice! But I like to know that those guys exist.
Q: Where do you see black America in ten years time?
Well it depends. If Barack Obama can become president and if he stays president for two terms, I think a whole generation of black people who basically don’t remember any president except him would be in a position to think about the positive and the constructive more than a lot of people are trained to because every day and every night there would be this black man with his black wife and his black kids growing up in the White House and they’d just be there. Now, if Barack Obama does not become president and we just kind of keep going the way we are I don’t think there’s going to be anything dramatically different in ten years.
[Photo Credit: Holly McWhorter]