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.