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The New York Sun


Conscious Rap Part II

June 19, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

Last week I argued in this space against the idea that the "conscious" brand of rap music offers useful advice of an inspirational or political nature, contrary to a popular notion that such rap has the potential to spark some kind of "hiphop revolution" among young black people.

Because this new version of political awareness is such an idle detour, I will depart from my usual practice and respond to the comments last week's piece elicited.

Many respondents seem unable to get beyond a basic sense that black men speaking at high volume in complaint is automatically progressive. I referred to Pete Rock's dismissal of school as teaching "white man's lies" as suggesting a wariness of education—only for some to carefully point out that what the lyric is against is "white" education, as if wariness of this, specifically, is without a doubt a good thing for black children.

One person justified this by claiming that it is never taught that George Washington owned slaves— which is nonsense. Not only is this fact common coin among people with any relationship to the printed page, but textbook publishers have bent over backward to include facts like this for decades now—often at the expense of more basic content such as how the government works.

And, in any case, precisely how will knowing that Washington was a slave owner teach someone how to go out and get and keep a job in today's economy?

That is: "complaint" alone is not automatically progressive, even when uttered by a black man with a seductively confrontational cadence. If the complaint points us nowhere, it is neither deep nor significant. Then there are the duckers and weavers. Many claim that the idea that conscious rap is significant began and ended with one comment Chuck D of Public Enemy made in the early nineties about hiphop being "Black America's CNN," and that no one has thought of rap as politically significant since.

This is absurd. People pulling this rhetorical stunt must explain away a now groaning bookshelf of tomes on hiphop by countless academics and journalists insisting that rap right here and now promises some kind of rupture with the current modus operandi.

Claim that I am addressing a straw man by contesting rap's political significance, and you must be able to sincerely imagine telling such august figures, celebrated nationwide as scholar-activists, that they are blowing smoke.

Or, it seems that somehow, the rappers I mention are never the "right" ones. Dead Prez? Well, apparently, they, despite their ongoing political commentary, are not "really" conscious. Pete Rock? Whoops—not quite. Kanye West? Even when he addresses culture or politics, apparently he's not "conscious" either. Come on, folks.

Or, to the extent that in an 800-word editorial I cite only two or three groups, I am "cherry-picking"—as if a valid case would have to address 30 groups. But if I wrote a starry-eyed piece heralding a single "conscious" group—say, The Roots—as presaging a Second Civil Rights Revolution, the same people would spontaneously understand that I considered the same analysis to apply to other "conscious" groups, although I could not mention them all in 800 words.

These are debate team tricks, not sincere engagement with the issue at hand, and I will be unimpressed by this sort of thing in responses to the book. What really sticks in the respondents' craw is an impression that I don't "like" hiphop.

More specifically, they operate under an assumption that anyone who criticizes hiphop doesn't like it and hasn't listened to much of it.

This assumption is false.

At least when it comes to me. Let's try this. Last year I burned a CD of 10 rap cuts I just like a lot, to play in the car or while I'm making dinner. The list:

"Mr. Nigga" (Mos Def), "We Major" (Kanye West), "Why You Wanna" (T.I.), "First in Flight" (Blackalicious), "The Potion" (Ludacris), "Hey, Ma" (Cam'ron), "Real Hip Hop" (Das EFX), "For All My Niggaz and B------" (Snoop Dogg), "Careful (Click Click)" (Wu-Tang Clan), "Ol' English" (The Game).

I do not burn CDs of music I do not enjoy, and the hiphop CDs these cuts come from are but a small subset of the ones I own.

Some, we can be sure, will say that this CD I burned is somehow not representative of "what hiphop really is." However, to most it will be clear that I am not entirely out of court in writing a book about this music.

And I still say that rap, "conscious" or not, is good candy and that's all.

I am interested in what helps people. Those who think a "conscious" rapper is part of this are mistaking volume, rhythm, and unfocused cynicism as wisdom. It's the kind of thing that makes you sit down and write a book.

Original Source:



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