Rap Music Holds Blacks Down

John H. McWhorter has just written an excelsior essay concerning the corruption of urban youth. It appears in the summer edition of City Journal. His 'How Hip Hop Holds Blacks Back' is a masterpiece, and I recommend it wholeheartedly. McWhorter is a Fellow in Public Policy at the Manhattan Institute and an associate professor of linguistics at the University of California , Berkeley . He writes voluminously and is often placed in the camp of being a black conservative, as much of his emphasis concerns blacks taking responsibility for their own lives and not surrendering to the fictional entity of 'institutional racism.'

His views are not popular among many in the black community. I found this out for myself last month. While teaching my graduate level education course on human development, I interrupted a discussion between two students concerning the lack of inner-city pupil success. I quoted to them something I had just read in a McWhorter piece about rap music celebrating violence and that being an infamous thug rapper is all that many black males strive to be in life. The music is with them everywhere they go, and its lyrics are instilled with tragic and pointless rebellion.

One of the students in the classroom, a sincere, bright black man in his early twenties, raised his hand and said: 'What name did you just mention?'

'John McWhorter' I answered.

Three students in the room recognized the name and groaned or rolled their heads. The student who asked the question said to me, 'I can't believe you read somebody like that.'

'Why not?' I asked. 'Is he wrong?' I already knew, though, that right and wrong have little to do with a politically correct belief system. He did not answer me and refused to make any eye contact for the rest of this period. I honestly believe though that had the student read McWhorter's essay, he would have found little with which he disagreed.

The author's current piece sums up the influence of rap and hip-hop on the lives of its listeners:

Many writers and thinkers see a kind of informed political engagement, even a revolutionary potential, in rap and hip-hop. They couldn't be more wrong. By reinforcing the stereotypes that long hindered blacks, and by teaching young blacks that a thuggish adversarial stance is the properly 'authentic' response to a presumptively racist society, rap retards black success.

This is absolutely true. Much of rap presumes a form of racism that is no longer present in 21st Century America . Almost all of the students at my main job, which is at an inner-city high school, listen to rap or believe that being a 'ghetto star' is the greatest mark of success to which they can aspire.

Contrary to what many liberals and progressives may believe about these young men, the ones I know in no way see my life or the life of their teachers as being any better than their own. In general, but not in all instances, they regard the personnel at our school as being a bunch of suckers. Much of this is for monetary reasons. We don't dress flashy and we drive economy cars. In my case, it has to do with what I carry in my pockets, and that's not much. As a rule, I rarely keep cash with me because if I do, I find that I spend it. Every day the students ask me for money to buy a bag of chips or a coke or whatever, and usually I refuse, although I spend at least $100 each year buying them sodas after our assessment sessions. The state of my wallet is a well-known topic of conversation. I often hear them say, 'Chapin man, show [another student] your wallet.' I do and then they have a good laugh at the emptiness inside.

Many of our students come to school flashing large amounts of money. We don't know where they get it from, but do know it's not through legal work. I recall one student bringing $300 to school with him and revealing it to anyone who'd look. Our deans confiscated the money and had his mom pick it up the next day. We did it for his own protection, as his 'associates' would have beaten the hell out of him on the way home otherwise. Another more humorous story concerned a 19-year-old female who was a graduating senior. One of my favorite kids was sent to my office after he had a fight with her. As it turned out, he was spreading rumors about her being a stripper and she got pretty mad. I said, 'Why did you tell everybody she was a stripper?'

He looked at me as if I was the dumbest person in the world. 'She comes to the bus stop every day with $60 in singles. Now how many people do you know who get paid in singles every night?' I had no answers.

The 'thug life' is all that many of our kids want, and it, in turn, becomes all they ever have. I recall one student refusing to answer when I called him by his name, but instead stating that I had to call him 'shorty thug-life.' I chose to call him 'Mr.' instead; although he probably would have been amenable to 'Mr. Shorty Thuglife.'

These same training wheel gangstas never laugh harder than when I tell them that I used to work at Long John Silvers when I was their age. Upon hearing this, they usually crack up as if Cedric the Entertainer had entered the building. They imagine me with a big pirate hat on (in fact I wore a visor) and know in their heart of hearts that I must have been a Grade A loser. This is usually coming from students whose mothers are on welfare and who obtain their spending money from 'taxing the block [selling drugs].' It never occurs to them that many people would prefer not to spend a few months each year in juvenile detention and have an irritable probation officer visit their dean and teacher once a week. I tell the students that while I never carried a '9' with me as an adolescent, I was lucky because I didn't have anybody who was packing a nine millimeter pistol looking for me, either.

Rap is a religion of nihilism, and many teenagers never have it far from their minds. Like lead in the water, it slowly poisons all who consume it. This is one of McWhorter's best points, as he indicates that rap provides a background soundtrack for the children of the ghetto. Many of them rap spontaneously during the day as a form of pseudo-speech (he provides an example of one youth walking from train to train in the New York subway and rapping at the top of his lungs). He stated about some boys that he observed, 'Rap was a running decoration in their conversation.' This is another great truth of which I can attest. Many of our students rap as they walk down the hall, rap as they sit alone or with friends, and rap even while taking a test with me. Many times I'll overhear them put together a string of vulgarity and violence and I'll respond by asking, 'Going to cap someone tonight?'

'No, that's 50 cent [the name of a popular rapper],' they'll say.

One time I overheard a student repeating '8 K, 8 K' and after awhile I realized that he was talking about an AK-47. I did not clarify his reference, however. The AK-47 lyric was also a part of a sad situation, as one student was placed at our school after being overheard talking about one. He told me he was only singing a line from a song, but that the staff thought he was making a threat. After what I heard from the other student, I believed him, but such explanations hold little weight with administrators. Music was a big part of our lives as well, but we never sang 'I think I'm turning Japanese' or 'The Fanatic' in the middle of math class.

The appeal of the gangsta life, and its accompanying rap, manufactures feelings of euphoria and power in its adolescent listeners. It tantalizes kids through a 'bling, bling' future that they will never attain.

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Bernard Chapin's picture
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Bernard Chapin is a writer from Chicago.