On All About the Beat , Kanye West and Aesthetics

All About the Beat - John McWhorter

Kanye West’s recent album Yeezus has all the elements of hip-hop that John McWhorter rails against in his polemic book All About the Beat: it’s loud, it’s infectious (not in the good way, in my opinion) and despite Kanye West’s claims to the contrary, it is very media friendly. Furthermore, it explicitly claims to be radical and revolutionary in terms of content, in terms of form and in terms of production (how it was produced as well as who is was produced by). For John McWhorter these characteristics of hip-hop are precisely what make it politically inert, hence the book’s subtitle and thesis: “Why Hip-Hop Can’t Save Black America.”

Quite honestly, I agree with this thesis: if Black America is to be saved – economically, socially, politically, existentially – hip-hop seems ill-equipped to be our sole savior. I could certainly see it playing a role, but given who it appeals to (not all Black people like hip-hop and the ones who do aren’t necessarily politically coherent) and how it appeals to us (through highly mediated networks of capital, cultural legibility, availability and taste), it would seem rather naive to attribute to hip-hop as a genre/practice/way-of-life too much revolutionary potential.

But the point of this post isn’t to agree with McWhorter’s thesis. In fact, I want to do exactly the opposite. Of interest to me is how McWhorter goes about building his argument, specifically his use of conservative ideas about the “truth” of the Civil Rights Movement and the “superficiality” of aestheticizing politics. By unveiling his sly conservatism I not only want to show how he misrepresents what hip-hop and its defenders claim to be doing, but I more crucially want to demonstrate that the politics of depth – a common conservative technique – is really just a way of depoliticizing and subsequently dismissing the political nature of surfaces.

Staying on the Surface

The central claim of All About the Beat is clear in the following statement: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake” (18). McWhorter frames this claim as an unveiling of hip-hop’s actual mission, a revealing of its true politics. It’s a clever move because McWhorter knows exactly how most defenders of hip-hop will respond to this statement: “No, hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority!” This outcry would then be followed by proof that hip-hop has a reason for dissing authority in the form of an argument for depth, for meaning. This would entail citing “conscious” artists then dissecting their lyrics to demonstrate a political consciousness. Expecting this move, McWhorter would then either dispute their lyrics if the lyrics are ambiguous/vague or ask “What have they done for the community?” If the artist has undeniably politicized lyrics and a clear history of helping the community, McWhorter resorts to his trump card: “Well, most people don’t listen to that anyway” (75). Finally, if the song is popular, he resorts to his ultimate ace in the hole: “It is just a sequence of words that sounds good, especially when seasoned with rhythm” (67). Translation: music is just music, nothing else, nothing more.

This is the actual structure of the book: Chapter 1 asserts that hip-hop artists don’t practice politics; Chapter 2 then says the ones who think they do (conscious artists) actually don’t; Chapters 3 and 4 then claim that even if they did, it wouldn’t matter because no one listens to them and these politics are incongruous with accepted or successful political practice; finally Chapter 5 says that hip-hop is “just music” and music can’t be political anyway. ”

I’ve outlined this argument because all of its possible moves are solely enabled by its original proposition: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake.” While this statement appears to be just a claim, a provocation to be proved or disproved, it is actually a judgment, a valuation of how politics should be practiced. Depicted with its politics on its face, that judgment would would look like this: “Hip-hop is devoted to dissing authority for its own sake and that is not an acceptable form of politics because it is aesthetic and aesthetics aren’t political.” McWhorter is not not just dismissing hip-hop’s alleged politics; he’s upholding his own. This technique and the politics it preserves are notoriously conservative, but we can avoid getting duped by remaining on the surface, by not assessing hip-hop in terms of depth.

A Reluctant Defense of Yeezus

Yeezus is an awful album. If my luck persists, I will never have to listen to it again. But beyond how it sounds, I think it’s more interesting to think about what Yeezus was trying to do. As I understand it, Yeezus is Kanye’s polemic against the various forces that have kept him provincialized within hip-hop and “black culture.” According to Kanye, throughout his career and even before it, he has attempted to push into other worlds – visual art, fashion, design, film, rapping, singing – and been met with opposition, disdain, ridicule and the like. We’ll call it “hate” for short.

This has some merit. Since College Dropout, Kanye’s attempts to open new doors have frequently been resisted by bizarrely zealous doormen, despite his artistic versatility and his earnestness. Of course, Kanye isn’t one to make a quiet entrance: he has always been loud and obnoxious. And no doorman likes an unpleasant visitor. But the force of the resistance to Kanye has often not been equivalent to the force he came with: while he’s knocked with only a brash smile and a loud voice, he’s been met with armed guards and German shepherds. Just look at the infamous Taylor Swift incident. What should have been just another silly moment at an already silly award show – the VMAs are such a joke – genuinely became his stigma. It’s strange: people actually despise the guy for possibly his most innocuous statement.

Meta yeezus SummaryAfter a career filled with these obstacles, Kanye finally confronted them headfirst. Forgoing the wit and cynical distance of My Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy, on Yeezus he simply yelps, summoning a vast collective of producers and writers from within hip-hop and beyond to transform that yelp into a breathless, 40 minute-long scream. Throughout Yeezus we hear Kanye rearticulate why he’s so upset, literally shouting out (at) hate in the form of corporations, racists, classists, sidechicks, clothing companies, critics and so on. No stone is left is unturned: he addresses Haters as a collective.

Kanye tries to connect his screams to historical and ongoing screams for respect, self-dignity and opportunities, but if you listen closely – and I did – the screams don’t overlap too much. In a joke I wrote earlier this summer, I talked about how his song “Blood on the Leaves” uses apartheid as a metaphor for relationship conflicts. This kind of poor interlocking of disparate narratives occurs all across the album. Kanye actually thinks that his inability to push into new markets and new women and new houses in the Hamptons is akin to a Civil Rights struggle. It isn’t. It absolutely isn’t. Kanye West is a multi-millionaire with profitable stakes in various industries and he enjoys a level of privilege, comfort and luxury that is unmatched by most black people and most people in general. Quite simply, his haters are his haters; his struggle is literally mostly his struggle..

But it is a struggle nonetheless. In his dismissal of hip-hop, John McWhorter doesn’t offer the opportunity to recognize such struggles or even interrogate why people connect them to larger struggles. At the end of Chapter 4, his treatise on “real struggles” (i.e. the Civil Rights Movement), he writes, “Of course racism is still around. But in deciding what is possible today, black people must do their grandparents the courtesy of remembering what America was like in the old days. In this, black people will also do themselves a courtesy, in working from what is constructive and positive about our times. Smoking out one more indication that racism is still alive in subliminal ways must be less interesting to us than coping, dealing, building ” (139).

McWhorter’s reference to grandparents is telling. In this quote and the previously mentioned quote in which he states the thesis of his book, authority is essential. Because the atrocities that energized the Civil Rights Movement are “over,” black people must quietly “respect” the ones who experienced those atrocities and never make connections. Since nothing can be more unfathomable than the experiences of Black Americans before the 60s, no correlations should ever even be posited. This has a scary logic. Sure, being profiled at Barneys is certainly not akin to being beaten for simply existing and that’s just fact, honestly. But the way McWhorter articulates his point is insidiously programmed to preclude all grievances, even bad ones. To solely focus on the positive, as he asks us to, is to suppress the possibility of rage or a politics of rage that can emerge from it. Stated otherwise: McWhorter is saying, “Stop complaining!” This sounds very familiar to me.

Jacques Ranciere gives us further insight: “If there is someone you do not wish to recognize as a political being, you begin by not seeing him as the bearer of politicity, by not understanding what he says, by not hearing what issues from his mouth as discourse.” (Dissenus 38). The call to “stop complaining” is precisely such a denial of recognition. Kanye’s politics is a bad politics because it is self-centered and unreflexive. But it is a politics nonetheless. As bad a song as “New Slaves” is (politically) it is still a political utterance.  McWhorter denies a politics for an entire discourse, an entire field of thought and action. My concern is not just this act of denial and the masses who are affected by it, but how it works. In order to depoliticize hip-hop and subordinate it to a dubious historical narrative (authority), McWhorter must tacitly ignore the politics that hip-hop wears on its surface, the politics that are built into its aesthetics. And it’s bizarre that he constantly brings up the Civil Rights Movement, but he never thinks about its own aesthetics. It is not a coincidence that marchers and demonstrators often wore their “Sunday Best” and chanted church hymns rather than singing Elvis songs and wearing their pajamas.

Resurfacing: Fucking the Police

The phrase “fuck the police” has a cherished position in hip-hop, from N.W.A’s “Fuck the Police” to Lil Wayne’s “Mrs. Officer” to MellowHype’s “Fuck Tha Police” to B. Dolan’s “Film the Police.” Though the specifics of each song matter, I’m not going to go into them. What I want to point out is how ill-equipped McWhorter’s ideas are for interrogating why “fuck the police” has circulated within hip-hop for so long. Although believers in the Illuminati,  backpackers and label executives probably think otherwise, hip-hop is aggressively decentralized. There is no apparatus keeping “fuck the police” alive. People are saying it for a reason. And I don’t mean that in a deep way; I mentioned “Mrs. Officer” for a reason – It is literally a song about fucking a female police officer.

But there is a reason why “fuck the police” is so bolted to hip-hop in particular. Even if it has become something that hip-hop fans just say willy nilly, without provocation, performing it as police officers dutifully stand by the stage at a mega-concert, there is a reason why hip-hop fans say it, but Taylor Swift fans don’t. Stated differently, there’s a reason why there’s rap songs against stop and frisk and not country songs or indie rock songs or even R&B songs.

And my grand point is that McWhorter could never account for that reason. For him, aesthetics never matter because they can’t matter because he doesn’t want them to matter because if they do matter he’ll actually have to listen to a Kanye album and think beyond his constricted, constricting, conservative definition of politics. For McWhorter music must remain “just” music because if it turns out to be anything else, the world might become a lot less simpler than he pretends it to be.

Hip-Hop in 2012: An Annal

This is not an end-of-the year list. This is an annal. The annal is an interesting way of chronicling events because it explicitly shows the interests of the writer. I chose to make this annal just to highlight how one’s knowledge of a field is overwhelming influenced by one’s personal interests and tastes. It’s an obvious point, but in world of music writing, people often use descriptive terms like “timeless” and “classic” to mask how the things they praise are essentially just the things they like. The other benefit of the annal is that is helps to illustrate how one can amass significant knowledge of something (in this case, a genre) and still have a very limited perspective. In short, this is my 2012 hip-hop experience, y’all!

Date Unknown/irrelevant: XXL releases its annual 2012 Freshman Class List, further demonstrating the unreliability and silliness of the list. In retrospect, Angel Haze, Joey Bad@$$, Nitty Scott, MC., Azealia Banks, Gunplay and other artists with significant buzz, are noticeably absent.

January 20: On the third anniversary of Obama’s historic inauguration, Red Tails is released, showing the world that Steve Harvey and Tyler Perry aren’t alone in their inability to make shitty movies for black people.

Feb 8: Earl comes home.

February 24: Kevin Hart throws J. Cole an alley oop.

February 26: Travyon Martin is murdered.

March 7: I become an intern for RESPECT.

March 26: John Seabrook shows the world why so much pop music sounds the same.

April 6: Danny Brown and Ab-Soul team up for a potentially hard-hitting song and Ab-Soul nearly ruins it with his stupid hippie bullshit.

Good Friday: “Mercy” by G.O.O.D. Music is released, unleashing 2 Chainz to the world that now wants to give him back.

April 24: Santigold releases her second album. The album artwork is done by Kehinde Wile.

June 5: Big K.R.I.T. reminds us that 2 Chainz isn’t the only voice of Southern Rap.

June 17: Haleek Maul shows us the dark side of Barbados.

June 21: I enter the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne debate, then renege in the comments a few days later.

June 27: Clear Soul Forces talks with me and puts on one of the best live hip-hop shows I’ve ever seen.

June 27: Google introduces hip-hop to Kafka.

July 4: Frank Ocean is beautifully frank.

July 9: Nitty Scott, MC calls for interviewers to ask tougher questions.

July 9: Lianna la Havas releases the most beautiful album of the year.

July 10: Frank Ocean releases an album that’s also beautiful, but I don’t want contradict the entry above, so…

July 13: An NPR intern acknowledges the fact that old rap albums are oftentimes insufferable.

July 15: I Heart NPR Interns.

July 24: Brandon Soderberg writes the most important hip-hop related article of the year.

July 25: Lupe Fiasco reminds hip-hop of the pain that gives it life.

August 2: Rap Genius gets called out for being inherently shitty.

August 3: Kendrick Lamar readies the world for his upcoming album. Months later, this song is played at college parties.

August 11: Azealia Banks disses Jim Jones, poignantly saying, “It takes a Harlem bitch to execute a Harlem bitch.”

August 19: Slaughterhouse releases their mixtape On the House. It is better than their album, welcome to: OUR HOUSE.

August 20: DOOM releases Key to the Kuffs, a collaborative effort with Jneiro Jarel, a producer who’s name is way easier to pronounce than it looks.

August 20: Nitty Scott, MC talks to me about her first commercial release, boomboxes and Nicki Minaj.

August 23: Lupe Fiasco casually and arrogantly addresses the word “bitch,” confirming his decline.

September 3: Talib Kweli unimaginatively and wastefully appropriates the best movie of 2011.

September 14: Kreayshawn releases her debut album; it sells less than J.R. Writer’s debut album.

November 2: The RZA takes killer bee swag to Jungle Village. The soundtrack is the best collaborative release of the year.

November 29: I regret reneging in the comments on the Peter Rosenberg vs Lil’ Wayne piece I wrote in June.

Thoughts on Education

When I was in high school, I was supposed to read The Autobiography of Malcolm X, but I half-assed it. Strangely, even though I had no interest in it, I stole the book from my school (Don’t frown at me. A teacher once took me to the book storage room and told me take as many books home as I wanted because he knew no one would neither notice nor care) and added it to my personal library. A few weeks ago, I rediscovered it and I decided to start reading it.

While reading the first chapter, I discovered a great quote: “I have no mercy or compassion in me for a society that will crush people, and then penalize them for not being able to stand under the weight.”

This is exactly how I feel about America’s education system. After all, this is exactly how “No Child Left Behind” works.

The oil spill and the recession are definitely top priorities, but if he wants to get re-elected, Obama had better add education reform to that list of priorities. He has attempted to address it, but let’s be real, “Race to the Top” is complete shit. RTTP doesn’t address the true source of education disparities. The educational system needs to be revamped, not reformed. After all, when people race to the top, people still get left behind. Moreover, failing to heavily invest in human capital right now will prove to be a terrible mistake in the next 15 years. If we want those loans from China to actually be repaid, we’ll need more than the few people at the top. We’ll need the entire country.

“Education and work are the levers to uplift a people.” – W.E.B. Du Bois.