Slumming Toward Academia

Slumming Toward Academia

Only the joy of capitalist expectation could move a pre-Reagan-born American to utter the line “civil rights is dead,” let alone write a book devoted to that proposition.


Only the joy of capitalist expectation could move a pre-Reagan-born American to utter the line “civil rights is dead,” let alone write a book devoted to that proposition. USC professor Todd Boyd’s new book The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop is a depressing read not because his thesis is correct but because the very existence of a tome this obnoxious demonstrates the degraded expectations afoot in our universities and publishing houses, where social justice cowers before the marketplace phenomenon represented by hip-hop culture.

Boyd’s 169-page book (including a glossary of hip-hop terms) makes little effort to prove how an underground social movement has remade society. Through random descriptions of questionable public comments and performances by a few successful black celebrities (comedian Chris Rock, entrepreneur Russell Simmons, rapper Nas, TV host Arsenio Hall), it merely uses the umbrella term hip-hop and its well-known commercial impact to translate how some African-Americans have unapologetically pursued money and personal wealth into the illusion of genuine political progress. Avoiding theorists and philosophers, Boyd himself takes these celebrity career arcs as a sign that black America’s social objectives have changed. “Change and an understanding of one’s history do not have to be mutually exclusive,” Boyd summarizes. He wants to shake off any claim that African-American political history has on its descendants–dismiss guilt by celebrating gelt. So Boyd distorts the rapacity of hip-hop culture into a poorly articulated social revolution. To an average observer, the emphasis on individual wealth rather than community benefits might look like decline. Thirty-eight-year-old Boyd offers the insider’s privileged insight that a new black American history is now being written in the form of hit records, TV shows, gold chains and forgetfulness.

Academia has been trying to catch up with hip-hop ever since Henry Louis Gates testified on behalf of 2 Live Crew in 1990. It’s always been behind–or wrong. Boyd’s new book is the latest ivory tower miscalculation. The New H.N.I.C. reads like a demo record rather than an academic treatise. (Its lightweight, repetitive prose is meant to be heard, maybe, but it’s torturous to read.) Replacing mortarboard and tassel with a Kangol and cigar, Boyd has styled for himself a new media persona that combines caricatures of the b-boy, pimp and university don. He’s posing for people who don’t follow hip-hop music yet want either an easy updated handle on the phenomenon or, like Boyd himself, eagerly seek to glom onto its notoriety.

A bizarre effort at crossover, Boyd’s book explains hip-hop in portentous ways fans will find useless and through slangy terms nonfans will find suspicious. “I see myself as an agent provocateur,” he writes. Not content to simply define hip-hop, Boyd wants The New H.N.I.C. to be hip-hop. The first problem begins with the unmusical, infelicitous title. Its acronym stands for Head Niggas In Charge; that’s not exactly PhD, but, flipping it like a business card, Boyd mocks political correctness and academic decorum. Despite the neologism of “nigga” (instead of “nigger”), the sense of that old phrase cannot be refashioned without reconfiguring its implicit acknowledgment of plantation hierarchy. But Boyd doesn’t want to cast doubt on the success of contemporary black stars and professors who might seem to be working for a phantom massa in some ideological big house. He pretends that hip-hop’s record industry and TV successes have improved the political economy of all black folk. Essentially, he boasts of his own, obscure, tenured existence as confirmation that the post-affirmative action world has provided a compensatory way of looking at American potential. But a professor is still an employee and can only long for the autonomy of hip-hop stardom.

Boyd knows he doesn’t “rock the boulevard,” as Chuck D bragged, yet writing a book about hip-hop is his attempt at extending his privileged token status into the pop world. “Black culture has the power to influence and that this influence is transcendent…is a good example of agency,” he intones. Academics adore “agency” and black academics (who at best reach only a small portion of black youth) envy the ability of hip-hop artists to seem “in charge.” It’s sexier than being a black political leader. But a book-length essay–even one as slim as this–doesn’t make politics the way a pop record can. (Think of Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On,” Public Enemy’s “Fight the Power,” Salt-N-Pepa’s “Let’s Talk About Sex.”) Boyd merely makes confusion.

Positing the death of civil rights is not only chilling, it’s a lame ploy cynically aimed at bilking liberal sentiment–a typical effort of the black academic attempting to infiltrate the literati. “Civil rights has passed; get over it!” Boyd says. He condemns the 1950s-60s movement, charging that “Blackness was cloaked in suffering.” He claims that “the civil rights movement was dour, it was serious, and it was ultimately heavy in the way that it bore on the soul.” The same can be said of hip-hop’s clichéd imagery, cloaked in anger, clinging to urban suffering for justification. This unfathomable dismissal of past struggle favors hip-hop’s teenage impetuousness. No other eth.n.i.c. group would indulge such deracination unless it had been traditionally encouraged to disrespect its history and is currently intimidated by pop culture’s profitable frivolity. In pop, success is more likely if one ignores the precepts of the past and embraces the audacity of youth, or whatever the media sell as “new,” including Boyd’s fatuous new-and-improved ideology. In place of solidarity, “We need to try to align ourselves with Latinos, Asian Americans, progressive White people and anybody else who is on some new shit,” Boyd proposes, as if the civil rights past did not nobly succeed on the basis of expansive ethnic group alliances. We’ve seen this shallow hip thought before–and it’s always been untrustworthy. Village Voice writer Nelson George used it for his book The Death of Rhythm and Blues in 1988, at just the point when rap music represented r&b’s resurgence (disguising George’s negativity as prescient rather than the pandering it actually was). This decadent exploitation of black culture through suggestions of its demise is ruthless–and silly. It’s essentially a sign of the author’s craven ambition. There’s no social or cultural insight in Boyd’s or George’s book, but by pretending scholarly or historical investigation, these writers intend to propel themselves into hip-hop stardom even if it means belittling the black cultural struggle that from sit-ins to SNCC to the Panthers was a model for hip-hop’s aggressive mix of pop and politics.

There’s got to be a more honest, thoughtful way of talking about why pop music matters. The marvel of hip-hop is when it makes good sense in original, witty ways that we don’t need–or get–from academia. Boyd pits himself against younger and far more creative, inspired men. Nothing in The New H.N.I.C. is as observant or sincere as the rapper Nelly’s 2002 album Nellyville, which features a title track that is a hip-hop adept’s ideal manifesto. On “Nellyville,” Nelly’s dream society is built on the civil rights era’s aspirations. More provocative than Boyd, Nelly imagines a modern utopia that is a direct reflection of the desires aroused by today’s social deprivation yet keeps in line with an earlier sense of social and spiritual need: Nelly calls for peace, prosperity, justice. By jesting “40 acres and mule? 40 acres and a pool!” Nelly insists that the broken promises of America’s political past are understood intuitively by today’s generation, who wittily replace false promise with willful, exaggerated determination.

Opposing civil rights to hip-hop as Boyd does confuses cultural postures with politics; he trips up the social consciousness Nelly represents. Unlike community party-thrower Nelly, the only politics Boyd approves is capitalism–a personal politics of greed. He praises “those who see the pursuit of capital as the only true means to an authentic existence in America.” But instead of examining the home-grown authenticity of Nelly’s lyrics (and the rapper’s ancillary commercial enterprises), Boyd esteems a select group of modern icons–Rock, Simmons, Nas, Hall, Sean “P. Diddy” Combs (and honorary black celeb Bill Clinton)–as representatives of a new political era. These chapters loosely, shakily ratify the nonpolitical positions of those performers who are perhaps better known to the mainstream than Nelly but who certainly evince less political instinct.

In his estimation of celebrity, Boyd attempts to palm off venality that is actually better stated in the rapper 50 Cent’s mainstream debut album, which carries the title Get Rich or Die Tryin’–it’s a balder expression of the sentiment to which Boyd adds lame political obfuscation. In his first single release, “In Da Club,” 50 Cent says, “If the talk ain’t about money, then I ain’t concerned.” This helpfully distills the essence of Boyd’s argument and does so with more clarity, if not more honesty. Boyd professes no shame in selling out. “Exposure helps to sell records, and this in turn allows the artists more of an opportunity to sell their respective messages.” Through such sophistry as this academia has been paving the path for mainstream culture’s exploitation of the underclass. In a riff-lecture on the envious practice of “playa hating,” Boyd says, “If hip hop is about nothing else, it is about the redefinition of language…. With this active sense of love and hate in mind, one recognizes the way that playa hatin’ has emerged as a primary concern in hip hop circles and has even moved beyond to suggest a larger systemic notion of this playa hatin’ syndrome at work in mainstream society.” That may sound scholarly, but Boyd notoriously ignores the obvious explanation for this reverse language syndrome; he neglects to admit how hip-hop’s underclass desperation mirrors the worst aspects of dominant capitalist competition even when expressing it in unique nomenclature.

Possibly the worst turn in Boyd’s random discussion insults the historic role of the black church in calculated praise of today’s nonreligious, commercially focused hip-hop community. He argues, “The Black church is ultimately not a threat to any of the larger sources of power in our society,” deliberately omitting the church’s well-recorded social utility during the emancipation and civil rights eras. Boyd ignorantly asserts, “If ever there was a situation in which Black people were being urged to stay in their place, it is the Black church.” But that’s more true of hip-hop whenever gangsta rap places emphasis on ghetto fabulousness and capitalist aggression. Boyd’s bizarre reasoning that the “Black church has far too much influence on the affairs of Black people” avoids the simple truth that fewer black people go to church today–except those he dismisses as following old, middle-class models of power and progress. Even the Ice Cube quotes he uses to back up this idea are suspiciously a decade old. Boyd ignores the subtle, contemporary distinctions between church and the “chuch” heard on Snoop Dogg’s new album. Nelly, Scarface, Snoop, Missy Elliott and Jay-Z have all made records that attest to the church as a source of faith, identity and social idealism. These artists deserve the serious political attention that a slumming academic automatically attracts. Our political media have yet to trust the messages and significant movements of young black artists–a class bias that exposes us to the lies of academic charlatans.

Black academics who fetishize underclass amorality do so as a mutation of the hip-hop era. The higher media profile that comes from hip-hop’s commercial popularity gives these public intellectuals the advantage of seeming connected to that cultural advance. In truth, they exist in a parallel universe to young, unruly rappers who Boyd says are “creating some of our most astute moments of cultural representation.” Thus begins Boyd’s strange twist on youth-pandering identity politics. He credits the Atlanta rap group Outkast for representing “a different generation of Black people, and that happens to be the generation most accurately defined by hip hop culture.” It’s actually black youth who define hip-hop culture, not the other way around, and certainly not Boyd’s own generation–already too old to make the music that matters. Springing from universities instead of record companies and dance clubs, hip-hop-era academics are products of the campuswide movement toward multicultural inclusion; they maintain ties to cultural fashion and political trends because they’re desperately mindful of the classic admonition “publish or perish” and see it as “perform or perish.” They can explain black America to white America without seeming threatening–a stance already perfected by Gates and Cornel West. Boyd merely imitates the younger generation’s flourish. Like Michael Eric Dyson, Boyd uses rap lingo and behavior as if he were still connected to the street; both perform as if they were, in fact, teenagers. Sadly, the intellection these professors exhibit is less probing than the average teenager’s; displaying none of rap’s intellectual ingenuity or political challenge, they only emulate rappers’ effrontery. They praise hip-hop’s juvenilia with logic that suggests senility.

Refuting civil rights-era ideals, Boyd valorizes “a conscious refusal to integrate with mainstream America [that] now characterizes those Black people who willingly exist in their own world.” He overlooks the important irony that this hip-hop generation of rascally malcontents yet demonstrates no true rebellion; they unquestioningly participate in the American ideas of wealth and consumerism. Boyd conveniently credits hip-hop’s commercialism as an improvement over civil rights concerns. “Having the means to buy and sell oneself and one’s culture suggests a different level of power and agency at play.” This academic lingo, used to justify lack of social virtues, is a new con.

Acclaiming street credibility and authenticity, Dr. B, as Boyd calls himself, represents a displaced black professionalism–a disgrace of the old civil rights credo “Each One, Teach One.” “Hip hop has rejected and now replaced the pious, sanctimonious nature of civil rights,” Boyd declares–an obscene misunderstanding of political history and a perversion of social ideals from which hip-hop’s most publicized genre (gangsta rap) has developed its own piety and fashion, based on the treachery and greed of street anarchy. A prof who proclaims this decline is also behind the intellectual curve of the sales charts, missing hip-hop’s recent swing back toward the good times and cultural reflection of its earliest days. Boyd’s opportunistic dismissal of civil rights can only interest readers who are so distanced from black America they need the wildest claims to sustain their fear and ignorance. Instead of carefully examining how the politics of survival and collaboration has changed since the civil rights 1960s, Boyd champions the commercial exploitation of the black underclass through hip-hop. And he betrays hip-hop through academic pomposity. As with everything else in The New H.N.I.C., a reasonable reader need only disagree–then listen to Nelly.

Ad Policy