THOMAS CHATTERTON WILLIAMS
is the author of Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and
15,000 Books Beat Hip-Hop Culture.
it conservative to criticize hip-hop? Recently I wrote an Op-Ed
in The Wall Street Journal in which I expressed a feeling
of deep disappointment and frustration that Barack Obama would
show appreciation -- without qualification -- for rappers such
as Lil Wayne and Jay-Z. I argued that the president can and
should listen to whatever he pleases, but it's contradictory
to his own commendable example to publicly acknowledge -- and
therefore associate himself with -- a terribly misguided young
black man like Lil Wayne, who claims gang membership, last year
fathered at least two babies by two different women, and is
currently serving time on Rikers Island for drug and gun charges.
it is perhaps worse still to allow an unrepentant former drug
dealer like Jay-Z, a self-described ‘hustler,’ to
drop in on the White House as though he were a visiting head
of state. It is my view that such endorsements send the wrong
message about a hip-hop culture that often diminishes blacks.
article engendered some passionate responses from both the left
and the right. From the left, I was playing into conservative
interests, advancing self-hating racist arguments about hip-hop
and the first black president, just in time for midterm elections.
From the far right, I was simply reaffirming the paranoia that
Democrats are dangerous and Obama is a Manchurian candidate
bent on destroying the country.
truth is that I can't recognize myself or my argument in either
of these assessments, both of which stem from the same flawed
assumption that criticism of hip-hop is somehow necessarily
a conservative position.
personal politics aside, the irony here is that mainstream hip-hop
culture itself is overwhelmingly conservative by nature, a gangsta
party that in more ways than one looks a lot like a Tea Party.
What the commentators on both the right and the left fail to
realize is that on many social and cultural issues that matter,
the message coming out of hip-hop is decidedly right of center.
not just that hip-hop is, to put the matter mildly, pro-gun
rights (most mainstream rappers could be on the NRA's payroll),
atavistically homophobic (Byron Hurt documented this convincingly
in Hip-Hop: Beyond Beats and Rhymes, where even a ‘conscious’
rapper like Talib Kweli is unwilling to go against the anti-gay
grain) and spectacularly patriarchal (male-female inequality
has always been the law of the hip-hop nation) -- it is also
unquestioningly God-fearing and, not infrequently, proselytizing.
the hardest, most cartoonish thug-rapper moving kilos of yayo
by day before "ménaging" with gold-digging
groupies at night seems compelled to profess belief in a personal
and interventionist God. (Think of anyone from DMX to Mase to
Lil Wayne, who reads the Bible in jail; Kanye West, who came
into the game with the hit single "Jesus Walks;" Master
P, who has wondered on wax whether "G's get to go to heaven,"
as did Tupac; and the ex-Bad Boy Loon, who recently turned fundamentalist
Muslim). An adamantly atheist rap star is as inconceivable as
an openly gay one, and the fact is, that puts hip-hop comfortably
in GOP territory.
terms of class consciousness, Public Enemy and X-Clan notwithstanding,
hip-hop as a cultural movement is undeniably aspirational and
never revolutionary: The biggest, baddest hip-hop rebels --
from Cam'Ron to Fabolous to Mobb Deep to the late Biggie Smalls
-- are remarkably bourgeois at heart, with 1950s-era dreams
of parking gas-guzzling Cadillacs in front of cookie-cutter
tract homes in New Jersey. If anything, hip-hop is the enemy
of a radical challenge to the capitalist status quo.
"I can't help the poor if I'm one of them," raps Jay-Z
on The Black Album, though Ronald Reagan may as well
have been his ghostwriter. In this way, the "God MC"
is actually more like a thugged-out Michael Steele, a black
man who profits personally by lending the illusion of diversity
to a system that ignores and exploits poor people of all colors.
Is it really surprising that Steve Forbes would put Jay-Z on
the cover of his magazine?
all this up simply to point out that hip-hop music and culture,
while often nihilistic and self-sabotaging, from a political
standpoint is almost never radical or even merely progressive.
There is a reason the hip-hop generations have never produced
a Huey Newton or a Malcolm X. Hip-hop -- when it transcends
the gutter and goes beyond the streets -- doesn't want to overthrow
the system; on the contrary, it wants desperately and at any
cost ("Get Rich or Die Tryin'") to join it.
an African American to question the values and motives that
inform hip-hop music and culture is not in itself a conservative
act -- it's common sense.