Hip-Hop Comes of Age
Can't Stop Won't Stop:
A History of the Hip Hop Generation
By Jeff Chang
(St. Martin's Press, 2005)
546 pp. $27.95
Angry Black White Boy,
Or the Miscegenation of Macon Detornay: A Novel
By Adam Mansbach
(Three Rivers Press, 2005)
352 pp. $12.95
Hip Hop Culture
By Emmett Price
348 pp. $85.00 (hardcover)
By Wayne Au
Hip-hop is an undeniable cultural force. It tops radio charts and has been used to sell just about everything: movies, soft drinks, clothing lines, pizza, deodorant, candy, Internet services, beer, sporting events. Whether we like it or not, we hear rap music and experience aspects of hip-hop culture just about everywhere.
It's important for educators to know and understand hip-hop music and culture. As any teacher knows, hip-hop plays an important role in the lives of many of our students. Our kids can be seen regularly rocking their headphones while sitting on the bus, walking down the hallway, or standing on the corner. And as record sales show, a good portion of the beats that are bumping through their brains are hip-hop. If understanding our students is an important part of our teaching, then it is equally critical that teachers understand hip-hop. And because of its massive influence on our culture, hip-hop deserves the critical questioning of educators and students.
Granted, hip-hop is a complicated, contradictory form. On the one hand, critics and the media have lambasted hip-hop for its homophobia, violence, degradation of women, and celebration of raw capitalist accumulation. This side of hip-hop has been hyped up in the media and marketed by major record labels. Understandably, this side of hip-hop creates hesitation among many progressive teachers who want to support a cultural form that speaks to so many of our students.
On the other hand, hip-hop has lived a parallel life — beyond commercial radio and MTV. This secret identity is one of a heroic struggle where rappers and others within the hip-hop community have strengthened black identity, challenged wars and violence, questioned consumerism, and fought poverty and racism.
Jeff Chang, author of Can't Stop Won't Stop: A History of the Hip Hop Generation, (full disclosure: he's a cousin of mine) is a hip-hop activist. His book tells the story of hip-hop's roots, ascendancy within popular culture, and its Jekyll-and-Hyde schizophrenia. Can't Stop Won't Stop is an example of social history at its finest because for Chang, context matters. For instance, the first three chapters barely talk about hip-hop at all. Chapter 1 focuses on the economic and political abandonment of the South Bronx, and Chapter 3 tells the tale of how local street gangs flourished amidst the poverty and collapse of infrastructure there. In between, in Chapter 2, Chang zeroes in on Jamaican history and politics as another defining force for hip-hop. It is this mix of histories, cultures, politics, and economics that gave birth to hip-hop.
Can't Stop Won't Stop traces the humble origins of hip-hop, its fits and starts with commercial success and bohemian artistic appeal, its love affair with sex and violence, and its political power. To guide us, Chang picks key events in hip-hop social history: the rise of Afrika Bambaata and the Zulu Nation, the search for black leadership in the post-civil rights era, the hip-hop generation's turn to Public Enemy for political leadership, the marketing of Gangsta Rap, the 1992 Los Angeles riots and gang truce, and the corporate dominance of the music industry. Chang's smartly written book honestly wrestles with both hip-hop's demons and inspirations.
I have only two complaints about Can't Stop Won't Stop: its length and its ending. At 546 pages, Chang's tome could at times pass more as a hip-hop bible rather than a history. And by the by the end of the book, Chang seems to lose sight of the musical and cultural aspects of hip-hop in his push to emphasize the political potential of the hip-hop generation. While this potential is extremely important, especially if activists want to continue to engage the hip-hop generation in community organizing, I finished the book wondering, where was the music?
But, as someone who considers himself to be part of the hip-hop generation and who has been a DJ for a number of years, I learned much from Chang's insider interviews and detailed descriptions. Can't Stop Won't Stop is required reading for teachers who want to understand hip-hop politics, culture, and history.
Reading Can't Stop Won't Stop will also help teachers fully appreciate Adam Mansbach's novel, Angry Black White Boy, Or The Miscegenation of Macon Detornay. Mansbach tells the story of Macon Detornay, a white freshman at Columbia who was raised on hip-hop. Macon is the "down white-boy" who grew up listening to hip-hop, hanging out with black friends, and learning the political and cultural perspectives of African Americans through his personal interactions and through the music. In the process, Macon develops a strong critique of whiteness and white identity.
Angry Black White Boy is Mansbach's vehicle for processing issues of white privilege.
Macon takes a stint as a taxi driver, and after he hears white executives spouting racist garbage in the back of his cab, decides to start robbing them at gunpoint. While he is robbing them, Macon unleashes diatribes against whiteness and white privilege. His robbery victims conclude that they must have been mugged by a black cab driver.
After the fallout from his taxicab robberies, Macon becomes a political icon and starts an organization: the "Race Traitor Project." Taking up one of Malcolm X's suggestions, he institutes a National Day of Apology when white folks are supposed to walk up to and apologize to any black person they see. As one might predict, cultural, political, and artistic mayhem ensues.
Given a few caveats, Angry Black White Boy would make a powerful teaching tool. Its writing is inventive, funny, and poetic, and it immerses the reader in hip-hop culture (albeit the "old school" hip-hop culture of the mid-1990s). And it raises serious issues of race, racism, and white privilege in accessible and sometimes comical ways.
But Angry Black White Boy suffers from a few shortcomings. For instance, women do not play a very prominent role in the story, and the limited female characters make one wonder just how well Mansbach understands their perspectives. Angry Black White Boy also suffers from cynicism regarding the world generally and race relations particularly. While I recognize that this aspect may accurately reflect the overall political mood of the hip-hop generation, I believe that part of an artist's responsibility is to point to new possibilities and new ways of seeing the world — neither of which I get from Mansbach's book.
Teachers who might use this book should also be aware of the language (cusswords and use of the "N" word) and the regular appearance of marijuana smoking (both of which also accurately reflect aspects of hip-hop). But in my judgment, nothing in Angry Black White Boy is as graphic as what is to be found in Luis Rodriguez's Always Running, a book that is used in many high school language arts classes.
Nothing demonstrates the aging of the original hip-hop generation more than the book Hip Hop Culture by Emmett Price. Price's book is a hip-hop textbook. Drawing on primary sources, Hip Hop Culture tells the story of hip-hop and attempts to be a comprehensive guide to the culture. It includes summaries of the history and elements of hip-hop, references and bibliographies for hip-hop research, biographies of major figures in the culture, portraits of hip-hop-related organizations, and lists of influential hip-hop records.
Hip Hop Culture is written accessibly, presumably with middle and high school students in mind. Its accessibility means that chapters and sections are short and manageable and curious researchers can easily track down information.
But Hip Hop Culture's textbook feeling also undermines its effectiveness. It comes across as authoritative, distant, didactic, and at times, inauthentic. There isn't much questioning in Hip Hop Culture. Its format and voice tell the reader what to know.
Perhaps the best and worst chapter of Hip Hop Culture is Chapter 3: "Issues in Hip Hop." This chapter is wrapped around a series of questions exploring the politics of hip-hop, including issues of race, gender, religion, activism, and the media. The questions that Hip Hop Culture raises here are crucial for any complex understanding of hip-hop culture. For instance, Price raises questions regarding the classification of hip-hop culture as solely African American when most of the founders were either first- or second-generation immigrants from Caribbean islands such as Barbados and Puerto Rico.
But like other textbooks, the book also maintains too much distance from some of the more controversial issues. For instance, in the same chapter's section entitled "Has Hip Hop Misrepresented Women?" Price completely avoids critiquing hip-hop for its complicity in promoting the objectification and degradation of women.
All the same, Hip Hop Culture offers basic information for those just entering into a formal understanding of hip-hop culture and politics.
Hip-hop has become an institution, with all of the power, possibilities, and problems institutionalization brings. Given the power of hip-hop culture in the lives of our students, these books are outstanding resources for both teacher development and classroom practice.