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'Conscious' Rap That Isn't

June 19, 2008

By John H. McWhorter

The Words I Manifest: Is Conscious Rap Different?

And you will find that this perspective is best—check it out/ These are the words that I manifest.

Gang Starr, "Manifest," No More Mr. Nice Guy

A typical take on rap is that whatever Paul Wall and Busta Rhymes are pulling, there is a whole body of "conscious" rap, also termed "underground," "alternative," "grassroots" or less formally "digging in the crates" rap, that steps away from the gunplay and misogyny and takes on serious issues. This, we might think, is what will spark a revolution.

Because The Roots have a particularly iconic status as conscious rappers, I'll start with them. It's not that I don't like what they do: For starters, they're from my hometown of Philadelphia—I get to hear things like hoagies and Mount Airy mentioned and street names I know from my childhood. And as far as I'm concerned, their lyrics are poetry, pure and simple—they barely even need the beats behind them. The Roots write dense straight-up poetry, such that it's no surprise that, as they say on Things Fall Apart, they have a big fan base among the coffee house set ("coffee house girls and white boys").

However, in terms of what kind of "politics" this poetry puts across, it seems to me that what it ultimately has to tell us is "Sheeee-it!!!!!!"—and that's not enough. I will make my case with two of the "fiercer" songs from their masterpiece of 2006, Game Theory.

"False Media" seems to be the one everybody finds especially significant. The message? "If I can't work to make it, I'll rob and take it." Because I am "a monster y'all done created." Now, there's no point in droning on that this "glorifies violence." What emcee Black Thought means, what you are meant to glean, is that society is so set against black men that poor ones can barely get jobs, and that it's therefore inevitable and justifiable, that so many of them go "thug." But that's a questionable proposition. Why did so many fewer black men go "thug" after Reconstruction or during the Great Depression?

Nevertheless, Black Thought is tapping a widely-held conviction about poor blacks and employment. Writers like Bakari Kitwana concur with insights like Black Thought's, such that Kitwana includes in his list of items on a hip-hop political agenda "the retention and creation of jobs for working-class Americans." Robin Kelley rhapsodizes over Ice Cube's "A Bird in the Hand" on Death Certificate, where a black man just out of high school keeps being turned down for service jobs and, as Kelley puts it, "It does not take much reflection for him to realize that the drug dealers are the only people in his neighborhood making decent money."

The problem is that the unemployment of poor black men does not correlate meaningfully with availability of jobs. A black man without a diploma who wants a job can get one. I state that not as a moral point, but as an empirical one. Here are some reasons why: The beat from "A Bird in the Hand" is now fading away ... and now gone. Please consider the following:

An influential argument is that the relocation of low-skill factory jobs from city centers to suburbs or abroad created an unemployment crisis for black men. However, Indianapolis' black community saw the same rise in unemployment among black men despite the fact that factories there did not relocate in significant numbers. Meanwhile, New York saw just as many black men drift into chronic unemployment despite the fact that manufacturing jobs were never a major mainstay of black employment in New York. Two academic studies have shown that factory relocation was responsible for at most a third of the unemployment among poor black men.

Poor blacks themselves in surveys do not support the idea that jobs are unavailable to them. In 1987, only 13 percent of unemployed poor blacks surveyed said they were out of work because they couldn't find a job. In 1980, half of the unemployed black teens surveyed in Philadelphia, Chicago and Boston said decently paying work was easy to find; 71 percent said minimum wage work was easy to find.

In the late 1980s, employment grew faster than the labor force. There were fewer factory jobs, but more non-union ones. Immigrants arriving in this very era thrived driving cabs, cleaning offices and doing kitchen work.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics projects that three quarters of the new jobs over the next decade will very often not require a college degree and will pay good salaries. These jobs include machinists, sound technicians, electronics repairers, mechanics, building and transportation inspectors, plant operators, equipment installation and repair, mail carriers and sorters, sailors, fishers and others. In other words, the kinds of jobs we already see so many black people without college degrees in.

Black sociologist Alford Young, writing in full sympathy with the problems faced by uneducated black men, notes that an unfortunate contributor to the black unemployment problem lies in the behavior of many black men:

"They often say they will take whatever they can get, but a sentence or two later say that certain wages are wholly unacceptable. This seemingly contradictory talk is consistent with their statements about problems with certain past work experiences, such as the fast food industry, where some men eventually find jobs but abandon them (if not be dismissed) as soon as problems or tensions arise."

Other studies have reached similar conclusions, none written by conservatives.

And now we can turn the beat of "A Bird in the Hand" back up because it actually could be a handy backdrop to a final point about black unemployment. A great deal of research has shown that one of the black community's problems is that too many young black men do not seek work which is available. Even in ordinary real-life experience, anyone familiar with inner city life among black youth knows that there is a tragic tendency to ridicule black teens who take jobs at fast food restaurants, such that many who do make sure to do it on the sly.

Many think that it is understandable that black men refuse low-level jobs. There is a sense that native-born Americans, especially black ones on the wrong side of history, should not have to settle for "chump change," even temporarily (one can become a manager at a fast food restaurant). I disagree with that position but understand its appeal to many. However, it must also be considered in a historical perspective. Notice that almost no one was going around turning down "chump change" until the 70s. Think about how hard it is to imagine a black man in 1932, even with an eighth grade education and no real prospects for anything but menial labor, insisting that he won't work for "chump change"—much less being applauded by friends and the academy. If you are black, can you recall your grandparents ever mentioning this as a regular choice for black men when they were growing up?

What was different? Well, we wonder how the guy in 1932 thought he was going to feed himself if he turned down the "chump change." Today, of course, what the guy turning down wage work means is that he is going to sell drugs instead. That is a different problem than the one Ice Cube implies, of black men watching one door slam after another and finally taking drug selling as a frantic last resort. Rather, many men in this position could be legally employed, starting at the bottom and making their way from there. The drug trade provides a short cut, and unsurprisingly more than a few take it.

Yes, most of them do not get rich working as low-level—i.e. less than "chump change"—as was recently observed in the best-seller Freakonomics. But they do this hoping for promotion later. Drug sale is a hierarchy. The white guy takes "chump change" as a low-level exec, hoping to become the boss living large. The low-level "thug" is not thinking that being one of the drones is the end-all-be-all, but that maybe he will wind up on top. He thinks he might be like Al Pacino in Scarface—a movie people like him thrill to—than a workaday cable installer making a mere decent living.

Does Black Thought genuinely feel that poor black men are largely shut out of the employment market when he spends his life seeing, for example, black security guards, cable TV guys, and so on, none of whom talk as if they wangled their jobs against great odds? Often, when he is in the studio recording, the security guard downstairs was a black man without a college degree. There are plenty of jobs like this available. The problem is that so many are unaware of the jobs' availability—or opt to take a chance on rising up in the drug sale hierarchy because that's what so many of their friends are doing.

And tell me that it is better for young black men to seek the off-chance of becoming a drug kingpin—and likely going to jail for a long time because of it—rather than taking legal employment and living a less dramatic but real life.

What this means is that decrying the economy for leaving out young black men without education is barking up the wrong tree. It isn't a position that can help black people. Robin Kelley thinks "Bird in the Hand" is really, really cool: Here is "reality rapper" Ice Cube telling it like it is. But frankly, despite the passing pleasures of what Kelley terms the track's "thumpin'" bass line, the tale is not the way it was then, nor the way it is now. No matter how fun cuts are like Da Lench Mob's "All on My Nutsac," in which the dealer overtly refuses to work at McDonald's, they are not depicting reality. These cuts would baffle black people in the old days, when, quite simply, a drug trade did not exist to tempt young black men away from coping with an unglamorous but workable legal employment world.

What we need to do is guide poor black people toward available work, and toward the training needed to do it if necessary. Remember—by available work, I don't mean mowing lawns or picking up trash, but respectable work like being a cable repairman. If you aren't into going to college, you can be a cable repairman. Nobody at the cable company is hoping that their applicants went and got B.A.s first. Rather, they assume that anyone applying for their jobs did not. Building inspectors are not assumed to have spent time in college learning about Shakespeare. If a sound technician spent four years living in a dorm, he's the odd man out. There are jobs for people without college degrees.

The rapper, even a conscious one, is quite understandably inclined to shake his fist at the powers that be and assume that the economy is the problem. It may well be that you can't write much of a rap about training someone to fix heaters and air conditioners.

In which case, it may be that in thinking about how to get ahead, even the conscious kind of rap is something we might want to look beyond.

Of course, to analyze every political statement The Roots have ever made would require a whole book. However, the general pattern is that they trace black America's problems to a morally putrescent government, such that we need to think about a sharp rupture with the current modus operandi. I do not hear an orientation toward what could actually happen in the real world.

Take another cut, "Don't Feel Right." "The struggle ain't right up in your face, it's more subtle." I suppose. Black Thought gets more specific: "The system makin' its paper from the prison." So, The Roots is political because they cite the prison-industrial complex. Well—let's acknowledge that there are selfish, small-hearted people out there who are not exactly unhappy that the prisons are full, since they provide jobs and inflate the voter count in their district. The issue here is the focus. Why not focus on the things that get black men pulled into the criminal justice system in the first place? Among people obsessed with the prison-industrial complex, there is a truly dismaying tacit assumption: That it is inevitable, and even acceptable, that black men will end up on the wrong side of the law. I gather that part of that assumption is based on the notion that poor black men can't get jobs, upon which see above. In any case, hating the prisons is easy. Thinking about what got the men into the prisons and how we could change it is harder. Guess which one ends up getting rapped about most charismatically, even by the conscious ones?

The idea that we must accept that poor black men will drift the wrong way until society becomes perfect is, at the end of the day, passive. How valuable is it, to people who need help, to mothers who have lost sons getting shot in the head over nothing, to say "This is how it's going to be because the playing field isn't completely level?" Is that really a game plan? Is that the kind of politics that would best serve black America? With complete admiration for The Roots' music as art, I cannot see that this message is more valuable simply because The Roots don't talk about killing people and don't say bitch.

"I ain't seekin' responses," Black Thought says later. But I'm sorry: If this kind of rap is supposed to be political, then we are going to respond, despite the confrontational tone that the rap emcee, conscious or not, is virtually required to take. And in that vein, when Black Thought gets off that "If you ain't sayin' nothin' then you's a system's accomplice," then I can't help thinking: If all you have to say is "They're racist," then because this has changed nothing since the one time it did in the 60s, you, too, are just letting the system keep going.

However, I am fully aware that The Roots and the other conscious rappers are under the sincere impression that the Fight-the-Power, leftist perspective on what ails black America is the only one that could possibly be correct. I grew up with a very intense mother, and I remember one summer (probably 1978) when she required me to read an entire sociology textbook, so that I would understand that the conditions that black people lived in in North Philadelphia were not "their fault." That summer I learned all about things like societal racism, factory relocation and even the military-industrial complex. It all made sense to me. It seemed like an ingenious analysis of what on the surface looked quite different, and I immediately had a sense that it would be good if everybody in America had access to the truths I had learned. In the wake of the Rodney King riots, my first response in trying to understand what had happened was to read a special issue of The Nation on the event, and then I read my first book by William Julius Wilson. I do get where The Roots and everyone else are coming from.

My point is simply that from what I have learned since, that perspective today does not allow us to change the lives of the poor or anyone else because the problems have changed since the old days, such as when that textbook my mother gave me had been written (it was already not exactly a new book then, I recall). Because I cannot see how that perspective can help people, I question it—not because I have some problem with dreadlocks, anger or Black English.

I must also stress: I am not saying The Roots don't make great work. I am, rather, offering a disagreement with their version of politics. "Game Theory," if there's any justice, should go down as a classic album recital just like Stevie Wonder's Innervisions. I can feel that way without agreeing with everything on an album. The end of "Return to Innocence Lost" on Things Fall Apart, an aural vignette of black men's ugly experiences with the police, in fact recalls a similar vignette Wonder had in the middle of "Just Enough for the City." And the duet with Erykah Badu, "You Got Me," almost makes me well up.

It's not that I don't like or approve of The Roots. It's that I don't think their philosophy is, in the true sense of the word, progressive. Their views do not move us forward. Apprised of what they tell us, we are not in a position to help people. We are simply informed that, well, "Sheeee-ittt!" The Roots are fine artists. But as to what kind of politics their art suggests, I'm afraid no poor black person would benefit from it.

Pete Rock on Education

"Anger in the Nation" by Pete Rock and C.L. Smooth on Mecca and the Soul Brother is a rich few minutes.

For one thing, it informs us that "library broken down is lies buried" and that television equals "tell-a-lie vision." Cynicism, as always, is the staff of life for rappers. And cynicism makes for good listening in an idle sense. It's "hot."

But in this case, the message is to be wary of books and television. There's a fine line between that and becoming the kind of black person who gets too much of their information from crackpot authors distributing their books on street corners and at book tables in the lobby at chitlin' circuit theatre shows. For example, "library broken down is lies buried" is the kind of thing that ends up leaving black people falling for the idea that AIDS was created in a laboratory in the United States and foisted deliberately on blacks, or that the Greeks stole their intellectual heritage from "black" Egyptians.

And Pete Rock is hardly alone among rappers—conscious rappers—in taking this kind of stance about school being "white." Dead Prez in "They Schools" on Let's Get Free say "All my high school teachers can suck my dick / Tellin' me white man lies, straight bullshit!" The idea seems to be that school is antithetical to a black revolution, in that the schools aren't teaching survival skills for ghetto folk. High school is, therefore, a mere "four-year sentence," and the track ends with a parting shot, "Bee-yotch!!!" Now, remember, we can't just group this with the gangsta theatrics of Ludacris and that sort: Dead Prez are cherished as "underground." Their hearts are even in the right place sometimes: One of their recent albums, with Outlawz, was called Can't Sell Dope Forever. I agree! But, I'm sorry—the last time I checked, having a decent fund of general knowledge was a big plus in forging sociopolitical change. What would a track like "They Schools" have to tell lawyers for the NAACP who were central in the founding of modern civil rights law? One of them, Charles Houston, was known to counsel "Lose your temper, lose your case." Upon which we must note that hip-hop is all about losing your temper.

So when Ice Cube dismisses school as being about someone who "didn't give a fuck about me" in "The Product," some people celebrate it as higher awareness—but they shouldn't. College Dropout? Late Registration? I didn't think those Kanye titles were funny even though I loved the albums. Graduation was much better (at least, as a title).

I know there are some black people who consider grapevine theorizing, conspiracy theories and unfocused cynicism a kind of higher awareness. I'm not one of them, nor are countless millions of blacks. This means that, at best, Pete Rock's position in this case is not progressive, revolutionary or transformational in some pure sense that all would agree with. It is one man's opinion out of many—and not one likely to attract enough consensus to revolutionize much of anything. Lord, forbid anyone tell my future children that they should read books with a sense of wariness and distance in case the book harbors some kind of coded anti-black message written by the white man.

And as for Pete Rock letting us know that "I'm aware of segregation," that's not as slam-dunk a point in the "political" sense as it sounds.

If white flight left a neighborhood all-black, then treating the white flight as why the neighborhoods are so often hell holes is risky: Do we really want to say blacks need whites around to lead constructive lives? Did black men start leaving their children to be raised by their mothers alone because the Lutzkys no longer lived down the block? Are black boys shooting each other practically for sport because the Houlihans moved away?

And given Pete Rock's Muslim identification, surely he would celebrate the idea of black communities. Well, black communities are, by definition, segregated. So, okay, he's "aware of segregation." But I'd think in some ways he'd be for it.

When black politics are discussed, segregation also often refers to the idea that black students are segregated in poorly-funded schools while white kids get great educations out in suburbs at schools awash in money. If that's all one has heard, then understandably, one decries "segregation" and thinks of it as constructive political engagement. However, there are things one may not have heard. Let's turn down "Anger in the Nation" ... down, down ... and out. Here are some very real things:

In New Jersey, since 1998, poor school districts have been funded at the same rates as plush suburban ones and often at higher rates, with provisions for health care, after-school and summer programs, and technological upgrades—and not just in one city or county, but throughout the state.

Eight years later, only professional boosters are happy with the results. After decades of steeping in bureaucratic mire and poor superintendence by undertrained and unenthusiastic teachers and administrators, money could do little to make these schools any better. In addition, the requirements ran up confusingly against those enforced by an earlier state takeover of the schools in three major cities, and then again in 2002 against those of No Child Left Behind. The schools have been wholly unable to match the standards enforced by NCLB, even though before 2002 it was considered a hopeful sign that reading and math scores were up somewhat for younger children (but not older ones).

In 1985 in Kansas City, $1.4 billion were devoted to building 12 new schools in the urban area to replace the shabby ones black students had had to put up with for decades. The new schools had planetariums, broadcast studios, video editing labs and Olympic-sized swimming pools, and offered fencing lessons. Average classroom size was halved to 22-27 students per class. Per-pupil spending was doubled.

It is known that education at early ages is key. In the elementary schools, each student had access to their own computer, and there were French and German language schools as well. There were soon 53 counselors for elementary school students where there had once been none.

The results? Dropout rates nearly doubled. The gap in achievement between black and white students stayed put. The schools required security guards to combat theft and violence. Meanwhile, white schools in the suburbs, operating with much less money and no planetariums, performed much better.

Say that the problem with Kansas City schools is still segregation and you are saying that black kids can't learn in one another's company even in perfect schools. Clearly, the problem was with bad teachers, incompetent administrators and children from homes unable to provide them with the resources to perform well in school. How about rapping about that?

In Washington, D.C., spending per pupil is twice the national average and school performance is among the worst in America. In Cambridge, Mass., per pupil spending is twice the state average, but performance is well below the state average. In Sausalito, Calif., per pupil spending is three times the state average, but the district ranks in the lowest quartile in the state in terms of performance.

Black Harvard economist Roland Fryer has shown in his work that the tendency for black students to be teased for "acting white" and letting their grades slip to fit in is common in integrated schools, but rare in all-black schools. Another study confirms the same.

There are 57 KIPP (Knowledge is Power Program) charter schools across the nation. Ninety percent of the KIPP schools' 14,000 students are black or Latino. Four in five are from low-income backgrounds. KIPP hires committed teachers and has a longer school day than ordinary schools. Discipline is expected and stressed. Eighty percent of the students who have come through KIPP schools have gone to college—from segregated schools.

And now back up on the thumping from "Anger in the Nation:" "..Some won't survive the next confrontation / and I'm aware of segregation!" Good for you, Pete Rock. But if it's as simple as that when people are black, there's something automatically wrong if no white people are around, then I'm worried about what kind of "consciousness" we're dealing with here.

Insisting that things are still so simple that black people need to get together and rise in fury against an evil oppressor makes for entertaining hip-hop. It sounds good uttered fiercely and set to a driving beat. But this way of parsing things does not correspond to what black America really needs today, as opposed to what it needed 50 years ago.

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