Rap and Education

Mike O’Hare is distinctly unimpressed by rap. I’m not as hostile as he is–I can think of at least a handful of remarkably complex rap albums (in particular stuff from the late 1980s like Public Enemy, A Tribe Called Quest and Eric B. and Rakim) albums that I continue to listen to today. That said, there’s a large amount of simple-minded, disposable junk. The same could be said for a large percentage of mainstream pop music as well. I don’t claim to be an expert in aesthetics, at least for the purposes of this blog.

The relevant question here is, as Mike insinuates, not the particulars of any individual artist, but the aggregate impact of a heavily marketed genre. Obviously one impact, as the Imus spat has shown us, is that the wide marketing of the more misogynistic corners of the genre has had an effect on the perception of blacks in the broader (white) culture. In a culture where suspicions of black intellectually deficiency, tendencies toward violence and uncontrollable sexual impulses are deeply rooted in racist stereotypes, a great deal of rap acted out those stereotypes in their most cartoony fashion–and in the process reinforced them among whites. The consequence is that casual reference to black women as “nappy headed hos” is now quite close to the frontal lobe of people like Imus, and his listeners (a majority of the buyers of rap music) as well. One way to think about this is that the cruder forms of rap are very lucrative for their practitioners and the large corporations behind them, but they do so while imposing an externality (in the form of reinforced stereotype) on the community they claim to speak for.

More social scientifically, I should note that there is some significant evidence tying the rise of rap music to declining educational achievement among black students. Between 1984 and 1988, there was a sharp increase in reading scores and the percentage of blacks reading for pleasure. This reversed quite sharply and dramatically between 1988 and 1992. Ron Ferguson of the Kennedy School has studied this decline, and finds that “the only phenomenon I have identified that coincides in time with the drop-off in reading gains, leisure reading, and class attendance for black teenagers, is the commercial take-off of rap music.” Rap was popular among both blacks and whites, but there appeared to be little effect on white educational performance, which Ferguson explains by hypothesizing that “it was entertainment for whites, but ‘identity’ for young blacks because it was so assertively distinct from white culture.” This explanation would also explain why declines were found even among relatively well-to-do blacks–the cause was not geographical but cultural, diffused not through neighborhood but through radio, CDs and MTV. (More of Ferguson’s argument can be found here, in a book I edited with Glenn Loury and Tariq Modood).

Whatever we may think about rap on an aesthetic level (and I’m more torn on the matter than Mike), there is some evidence that over the last twenty years, it may have contributed considerably to two of the nation’s more important social problems (white racial stereotyping and the black-white achievement gap). What, if anything, policy could have done about this, or could do in the future, is the subject of a future posting.

The Rap on Rap

Predictably, Imus’ little contretemps raises questions about the relentless truly repulsive conventions of gangsta rap and its related forms. This AP story has some interesting quotes, from critics hostile to the misogynistic, violent stream of gangsta rap and from its defenders anxious to distinguish it from Imus’ japes and jabs. The standard defense of this bilge is here offered by Russell Simmons, who tells us (summarized by the reporter) to see it as “reflections of the violent, drug-plagued, hopeless environments that many rappers come from”.

Reflected, that is, by an artist assuming a persona: it’s no more appropriate, Simmons would say, to condemn a rapper for the cop-killing lines he’s written for his actor half than to condemn Shakespeare for Lady Macbeth’s murderous incitement. This is a considerable position, and puts some distance between the rappers and Imus, who always tried to have it both ways, framing himself as a serious social critic, that is, as himself, interviewing the great and the good who’ve been rending their garments this past week. (The legal trouble rappers seem to fall into by acting out suggests some blurring of their lives and their artifice, but I don’t have statistics to prove that they’re actually any more likely to wind up in jail than painters or violists, and I can imagine that the press distorts my estimate.)

Social criticism art, popular and highbrow, has a long and illustrious history, from John Gay to Goya to Brecht to Randy Newman. Unfortunately, if this is the rubric we are to use, commercial rap won’t do well. Aesthetically, I think Wynton Marsalis got it about right. As I recall the quote: “I can’t believe the African-American musical tradition has been reduced to talking over a mechanical drum.” The form is rhythmically and harmonically simpleminded and the lyrics have flashes of imaginative imagery but not much more than that. It’s stupefying; Ravel wrote the Bolero once, and if it hadn’t been distinctive against a background of all the other music of the time it would have been meaningless. (I know, there’s lots of kinds of rap; you know the category I’m discussing: the one with the mass audience, black and white.)

OK, I have no credentials to criticize on this score; I have some musical training, but in the tradition of exactly the hegemonic (European classical music) or complaisant coopted (jazz and popular song) or colonial oppressed (Afro-Iberian) aesthetics from which rap has liberated itself. What about the explicit content?

Continue reading “The Rap on Rap”

Acts and traits, rights and duties

Anything that gives us moral enlightenment from both Don Imus and Al Sharpton across a table from each other can’t be all bad, right? Seriously, while Imus doesn’t matter much, the whole episode gives us perspective on a pair of issues too often taken the wrong way. The first is a confusion of acts and traits, as in “anyone who could say that must be a racist/anti-semite/etc.” He is (Allen, Imus, Richards, whoever) but not on that evidence, and so are you and so am I. We are all hard-wired for xenophobia, racism, and a whole package of fears of ‘others’, and if you don’t believe it, go here and test yourself. We’re also hard-wired to lech after hot bodies. Fortunately, we’re also equipped with the capacity to learn to behave ourselves, but not always perfectly. If people are overall as bad as their worst selves we’re all in trouble.

Imus perhaps hasn’t learned some critical social skills, but has certainly been well-paid by society to not display them. Whether he’s more or less racist than the next person is invisible to us (though it’s fair to guess and opine, as he’s a public figure) and anyway not important; what’s important is what he does. I don’t think George Allen is a racist at heart in the sense that the trait predicts racist official behavior in office. I think he’s a jerk in many ways, but it would have been much better for Virginia and the rest of us if he had been defeated entirely on his political demerits and not for blurting out something it’s still not clear he really understood (or even for his smirking ignorant juvenile flirtation with a pseudo-lost-cause persona).

We need to stop shortchanging analysis of public figures by inferring traits from acts, and pay attention to the acts. In particular, we need to cut everyone some slack for blurting and careless speech. Atom-bomb sanctions for rudeness just make everyone afraid, because we know we’re only human and that we almost certainly can’t dissemble an angelic nature all the time. In a world where one careless utterance can ruin your life, the wise will just shut up, perhaps more quickly than the clueless, and that’s not good for anyone. Of course, Imus didn’t just blurt out something once; it’s a large part of his shtick. But his story is getting mixed up with cases that were slips and the kind of barely meaningful errors humans are prone to, especially when they’re tired, stressed, or scared.

Almost as wrongheaded has been the prattle about Imus and the gangsta rappers’ first amendment rights having something to do with this, usually winding up in the absurd proposition that they shouldn’t therefore be fired for their speech. This is really nuts: freedom of speech has to do with government not suppressing it, not that you have some right, enforceable against a merchant of discourse, to a microphone and a hall or broadcast. (There is, I need to add, a real issue of commercial suppression of speech by monopolist or cartel media outlets, and there is some moral duty of people in the printing and other media business to sell access fairly. As my father (a lefty printer) said when I complained about some very right-wing stuff he was printing in the fifties, “you don’t have freedom of the press if you can’t get to a press.”)

In the end, “sell” is the important thing here. Imus lost his show because he became bad for business; the piece-pimp-and-ho entertainers from whom he learned his potty-mouth language have theirs because they aren’t (yet). If we accept my proposition about acts and traits, what we have here is people playing parts and writing fiction, and we don’t need to psychoanalyze them personally to think about what they mean or what to do about them. Wagner was a really wretched person in many ways, but what matters is the work he put before us; because he was a genius, we will get smarter attending to that (including the parts that now seem odious). I think Tom Cruise is a nut case, but I’ll take his movies as movies. I don’t have a duty to buy tickets, but I do have a duty to not boycott them because I don’t like his politics or his scientology; otherwise, I’m just doing my bit to blacklist, that is to starve, people who have the wrong values or religion. Don’t like the act Imus puts out? Don’t listen, or listen and deplore it on your blog; it’s perfectly appropriate to try to persuade people to pass up this or that good by showing that it’s meretricious.

But don’t get on this self-righteous bandwagon of demanding that he be fired or silenced by his retailer if he still has customers, because what’s important about trashmouthed entertainers is precisely that they have an audience: a bunch of our fellow-citizens eat this stuff up and pay for it with time and/or money. Suppressing the performers by anything other than a market test drives the evidence of this very important sociopathy out of sight, and out of sight is not a good place for festering evil. What we need is harder work than bashing entertainers for the parts we hire them to play, or lying in wait to pile on them for a completely predictable slip that reveals a part of the brain we all share. It’s not Imus that indicates a need for some learning, it’s tuning in to his show on purpose knowing what it delivers, and the learning is not needed by the player on the stage but by the audience. Your kids listening to misogynistic violent music? You need to have a talk with them about why they do it and what it makes them look like. Snoop Dogg’s mommy and daddy apparently didn’t, but he’s not your problem; your kids (and your friends) are where your duties point.

Music To Drive To

This semester I’m driving from New Haven to Boston and back once a week, and have started to use the time to listen to music, which unfortunately I don’t have as much time to do as I once did. Two pieces have really grabbed me, one exceptionally well-known, one not. The first are Chopin’s Nocturnes. Everyone has heard them at some point, and Chopin is sometimes put down for being too “pretty.” I disagree. Listened to closely, the Nocturnes are just heart-breaking–bittersweet, deeply emotional. Barenboim’s recording of the Nocturnes is especially fine–and a real bargain.

The second piece is much less well-known–Scriabine’s Etudes. I first heard this at the Tsai Center at BU, and it reminded me why it is sometimes worth hearing music in live performance. The Etudes are a real work-out–the pianist (I wish I could remember who it was!) seemed completely drained at the end, as was the audience. I don’t recall ever hearing such a rapturous wall of applause after a performance. If you don’t know the Etudes, I strongly encourage you to listen to them, straight through, alone—a fine use of your time on a long drive. Quite different in some ways from Chopin, but similar in its deep emotional seriousness.