Saturday morning I woke up to a text from a friend alerting me that the 2008 State of the Black Union was on. I rolled out of bed and flipped to C-Span, and proceeded to watch approximately six hours (two full panel discussions) of stimulating commentary on issues like welfare, education, campaign finance reform, foreign policy, employment, terrorism, racism, sexism, genocide and of course, Hillary and Barack. Hosted by the incomparable Tavis Smiley, the event was a phenomenal success; it culminated with an interview with democratic presidential hopeful Senator Clinton. Black intellectuals like Dr. Michael Eric Dyson, Dr. Cornell West, and Dr. Na’im Akbar (just to name a few) spoke alongside elected officials such as New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin and congressmen and women from both sides of the aisle. It was, simply put, awesome.

My wife and I were glued to the screen. Except for bathroom breaks, eating and the occasional side conversation I watched the whole thing start to finish. Despite the inclusion on the panels of two students, one an undergrad from Dillard and the other a high school student from Ohio, the phrase “Hip Hop” was not mentioned once.

Not one single time.

Sunday I attended a think-tank session at North Carolina A&T State University which served as the kick-off event for a week-long series of symposia centered around the Kerner Commission’s Report four decades ago. That session featured none other than Tavis Smiley and Cornell West. After hearing each man deliver a rousing lecture about the context of the Commission’s warning that America was headed for a stark racial divide, I seized my opportunity to alert Tavis to the previous day’s omission of Hip Hop despite its cultural and economic influence on America. I asked him (based on his extensive coverage of the candidates for the 2008 presidency) did he think that Hip Hop would ever have a political influence as well. His answer was a safe one. He replied that Hip Hop has the potential for political influence through the mobilizing of younger generations, vis-à-vis Hip Hop. He cited the Obama Campaign as one that has united and inspired millions of young people to get involved with the political process and take steps to control their own life situations though discourse about “the issues.”

Wednesday night I went to hear Dr. Dyson lecture at the University of North Carolina Greensboro. That brother’s intellect and education are astounding (which I already knew) but for some reason his analysis of the multiple roles of Hip Hop in contemporary black culture and their implications for race relations in a post-civil rights era absolutely blew me away. Maybe it was an accumulation effect of hearing so many intellectuals weigh-in on so many different yet converging issues in such a small period of time (Saturday-Wednesday). Whatever it was, I was profoundly affected by his talk to say the least.

Fast forward to Friday night. A friend had asked me to videotape a super sweet-16 birthday party that he was deejaying, and I went. It was a mega-party, just like the ones you see on MTV where the spoiled princess gets to have everyone make a big fuss about her and her dress and her new car and the artist she had perform, etc. Everything was everything until a fight broke out and shots were fired in the parking lot.

My intellectually-induced high was completely gone. There are few better reminders of the fucked up state of black folks in this society than a birthday party for 16-year old kids being broken up by gun violence. On the final day of Black History Month, no less.

With these things in mind allow me to share with you my own answer to my above question for Mr. Smiley. And trust me, it’s anything but safe.

I’m an expert

I recently had an interesting discussion with a friend of mine about (among other things) whether or not Hip Hop should celebrate its pension for commercialism and big business. The conversation (like many of mine tend to do) gravitated towards Jay-Z. I argued passionately (if not convincingly) that Jay represents the capitalistic culmination of a rich artistic culture in which the marginalized are afforded not only a voice, but an investment in the ever-growing worldwide economy. If Hip Hop is a culture (which it is) then it cannot be divorced from the fiscal responsibility that drives each and every one of us to eat, work and live on a daily basis. My opponent argued the converse, that it is precisely corporate America’s capitalistic interest in the music industry that inherently perverts, subvents, commoditizes, and ultimately devalues not only Hip Hop, but jazz, the blues, and all artforms. In an emotional display of pure sincerity he declared that as a black man, he could not celebrate Hip Hop’s ascension into the boardroom because art, as a fundamental extension and therefore expression of the pain, suffering, humiliation, joy, birth, triumph, and eventual redemption of the black spirit is infinitely too valuable to put a price tag on.

At one point in the debate my Hip Hop credibility was questioned. If you know me, then you know that although I was raised in the hood, my upbringing was much more Will Smith than Todd Smith. I went to good schools, had a momma and a daddy who loved me (still do, I think), and was never told that I couldn’t be what I wanted to be or get what I wanted to get out of life. Born in 1979, I lived the first 18 years of my life outside of Hip Hop. Sure, I listened to some rap music on the radio, and I even had some cross colors, but I was not Hip Hop by any stretch of the imagination. It wasn’t until I got to black college America that I began to appreciate the essence of Hip Hop as rejection of social, economic, and political oppression in this country. Because of this time-delay, I missed albums like Pubic Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back, Wu-Tang’s Enter the Wu-Tang (36 Chambers), NasIllmatic, Raekwon’s Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, N.W.A.’s Straight Outta Compton and a bunch of other Hip Hop classics. Of course, Since I found Hip Hop, or should I say since Hip Hop found me, I’ve begun to retro-actively digest albums (and events) that I did not experience in real time.

In similar fashion, I was also unexposed to most black literature. Those “good schools” I referred to earlier put me up on DickensA Tale of Two Cities, Orwell’s 1984, Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451 and the like, but left me utterly oblivious to the work of Ellison, Dubois, Hughes, Nikki Giovanni, and Amiri Baraka. The quest to educate (un-educate?) myself has also just recently begun; gradually at first, beginning in the late ’90s, and now more rapidly, at an accelerating pace. I’m a bit like Keanu Reeves’ character Neo during his combat training in The Matrix; I can’t seem to get enough. Even in the absence of direct familiarity with these specific works (Hip Hop and literature) I am able to relate to them today because they speak to my experiences as a black guy in this American landscape. It is as if without reading or hearing them I already have a sense of their significance, a mysterious kinship with those artists thanks to a bond of shared circumstance. That’s what makes them so dope.

What strikes me at this juncture in my own life is the luxury of perspective. Not that I’m that old or anything, but at 28, I do have the beginnings of perspective on a few things. What I mean is this:  I am starting to get a faint, blurry idea of how much I don’t know. This, in my estimation, is the nature of expertise- to understand how much one doesn’t understand. Consider for instance, experts in the natural sciences. Talk to any biologist, chemist, or physicist about their work and they are sure to harp on what they don’t know about their respective disciplines. Read, for example, Albert Einstein’s famous lecture on the Theory of Relativity1. The whole thing is about what his theory doesn’t explain. Sports is no different: expert coaches spend hours watching film of their opponents searching for new questions to ask about offenses and defenses; expert athletes practice for hours relentlessly trying to expect the unexpected.

That’s what qualifies me as a Hip Hop expert: I just-so-happen to actually know a little about how much I don’t know.

Not So Fast

If the beauty of “not knowing” is being able to grasp what you do know more clearly, than the beast lies in the inability to do anything about it. In other words, the amount of stuff I don’t know seems to grow day by day. Sure, realization of one’s own ignorance is liberating; but it also tends to be overwhelming.

Everyone thinks they know how things really work and what this country really needs. These are the folks that you see on CNN and MSNBC and Fox claiming to know what is going on and what should be done about it. The media knows what we need, that’s why they have the power to inform. Corporations know what we need, that’s why they have the power to sell. Politicians know what we need, that’s why they have the power to lead. Celebrities know what we need, that’s why they have to power to captivate. When was the last time you saw a news anchor say: “I’m not sure” about a story or a commercial that said “We think our product might work?

Which brings us back to my question for Tavis. If we are to consider whether or not Hip Hop culture has or ever will have political currency in this country we must first consider (as a community) how much we don’t know about how this country works. In his latest book, Know What I Mean: Reflections on Hip Hop, Michael Eric Dyson, Georgetown University Professor and champion of the academic study of Hip Hop culture argues that one of the biggest problems facing America is its unwillingness to admit that it doesn’t know what is going on. In dozens of ways, we blindly forge ahead, refusing to look back, delirious with the notion that if we just keep doing what we’ve always done eventually things will get better. Every year we increase school funding. Every year we pass new laws. Every year we invent new medicines. Every year we produce more food.

Guess What

Every year more students fail. Every year more people commit crimes. Every year more people get sick. Every year more people starve. Things are getting progressively worse for people not only in our country, but all over the world. By all indications, 2008 will bring more war, disease, natural disaster, famine, and environmental destruction than 2007. Just like 2007 brought more than did 2006.

That’s the bad news. The good news is that there is hope. I’m not talking about any politically-branded rhetoric or shallow feel-good propaganda. The hope is a long shot. The hope is that because each successive generation inherits the blunders of those before it, one day a generation will emerge that will successfully get its predecessors to listen.

Right now, that new generation is undoubtedly Hip Hop. People, it seems, are finally starting to listen. Figures like Dyson and several others have devoted major time and energy into dissecting Hip Hop culture, objectively and unapologetically, to see if those generations who speak through Hip Hop have anything meaningful to say.

In Know What I Mean, (for which Jay-Z wrote the forward) Dyson says:

But Hip Hop music is important precisely because it sheds light on contemporary politics, history, and race. At its best, Hip Hop gives voice to marginal black youth we are not used to hearing from on such topics. Sadly, the enlightened aspects of Hip Hop are overlooked by critics who are out to satisfy a grudge against black youth culture and are too angry or self-righteous to listen and learn.

That birthday party that got shot-up caused me to lose heart. But it should not have. Perhaps, like myself, those kids are overwhelmed by the sheer amount of what they don’t understand in this crazy world. If could be that without parents to love them and community to hold them accountable they are lashing out in the only way they know how. If, as an expert, I believe that my perspective is right, then those dumb kids are backwards and lost and in need of saving. But, if as their brother, I embrace them and try to look past their materialism and violence and misogyny and self-hatred to see what they are trying (despite themselves) to tell us, then we all just might have a chance.

Get Your Mind Right:  Hip Hop is more than rims and beef and ass and bling. It is collectively trying to tell us something. Shout out to Dr. Dyson for listening.

1Einstein, A. (1923). Fundamental ideas and problems of the theory of relativity. Lecture delivered to the Nordic Assembly of Naturalists at Gothenburg July 11, 1923