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Commentary By John H. McWhorter

Street Theater

There goes another one. Last week 21-year-old Savannah-based rapper Camoflauge was shot to death in front of his toddler son. Only two months before, New York rapper Freaky Tah was killed, at age 27, shot while leaving a party. Last fall pioneer rapper Jam Master Jay was murdered in his Queens, N.Y., studio at 37, leaving behind a wife and children.

Such carnage puts in a certain perspective the mantra that black America is so often taught: "Why can't whites see blacks as equals?" Many claim that a big problem is the depiction of blacks in the media, and there is a point here--but no longer the "whitey did it" point that many suppose. Today the biggest image problem for blacks comes from neither the movies nor television but from the rap industry. The most popular music in black America presents a grim, violent, misogynist, sybaritic black male archetype as an urgent symbol of authenticity.

Fans object that there is plenty of hip-hop with constructive messages. True, but it's the "thug" brand that sells best. How many hip-hop magazines would there be if the music delivered only positive messages? Camoflauge, despite his searingly profane, violent lyrics, was regularly invited to speak at Savannah high schools. In the hip-hop world, "keeping it real" is everything, and the gutter is considered the "realest."

And most hip-hop, whatever its "message," is delivered in a cocky, confrontational cadence. The "in your face" element is as essential to the genre as vibrato to opera, reinforced as rappers press their faces close to the camera lens in videos, throwing their arms about in poses suggesting imminent battle. The smug tone expresses a sense that hip-hop is sounding a wake-up call, from below, to a white America too benighted to listen. I can count on hearing about a "hip-hop revolution" from at least one questioner at every talk I give these days.

But unfocused cynicism is not a promising platform for a revolution. The Hip Hop Summit Action Network, for instance--founded by rap impresario Russell Simmons--has attempted to "bridge hip-hop and politics" and does deserve credit for its proposed voter registration drive. But then what does the organization want "the hip-hop generation" to vote for? Mostly the bromides that have disempowered blacks for decades.

Stuck in the idea that urban schools fail because of inadequate funding, the group corralled marchers to support the teachers' union opposed to New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's education budget. It also stuck it to President Bush for invading Iraq and has protested advisory labels on rap CDs.

One has to wonder whether the Action Network will ever sponsor "summits" supporting the welfare reform now improving countless black women's lives or urging the Bush administration to give more money to faith-based initiatives. By focusing on the issues that lend themselves to street theater, the organization proposes a "revolution" committed more to the thrills of acting up than to the mundane work of helping people in need.

Of course "hip-hop intellectuals" would disagree, celebrating hip-hop as an expression of inner-city frustration. But frustration does not require music so willfully alienated and nihilistic: None existed during the centuries when all blacks endured injustice much more concrete. In any case, hip-hop elicits identification across classes, having become a kind of "musica franca" for black identity. One often sees well-heeled young black executives get into their new cars and turn on the same spiky rap that the inner-city black man listens to.

Hip-hop, in short, is not a message from the streets but a histrionic pose. Producers coach aspiring artists to glower for photos. "I'm valid when I'm disrespected," an aspiring black rapper told a reporter for the New York Times in 2000, in an article from its "How Race Is Lived in America" series. The piece ended with his recording a CD whose strident vulgarity and sexism chilled the article's writer. The rapper knew the truth--he was indulging in an act that sells, pure and simple.

In the grand view, hip-hop may be seen as a typical American phenomenon--one part the cowboys-and-Indians tradition of heroic conflict and one part the recent "Bobos in Paradise" syndrome of celebrating countercultural gestures as "real." "The Sopranos," in its violence and vulgarity, shares this mixed cultural parentage. But that TV show is not intended as a guide to living for all Italians. Hip-hop, by contrast, is linked to a particular racial identity. Yes, numerically it has more white listeners. But hip-hop's fans would be up in arms against anyone who claimed that the music was rooted in white culture rather than an African-American consciousness.

And what a dismaying symbol of identity for a race just past misery. Rappers slip acrid slams at their rivals into recordings, nurturing "battles" to sell CDs. It was such provocations that likely led to the deaths of Tupac Shakur and "Biggie" Smalls. And that brings us back to "rap and rap sheet," in the artful phrase of the music critic Kelefa Sanneh. Rapper 50 Cent was recently arrested for harboring assault weapons in his car. DJ Funkmaster Flex physically assaulted a female rival DJ in New York last fall. In 2000, a brawl at the Source Hiphop Awards shut the ceremony down--right after a video tribute to slain rappers!

"But white people act up too." Yes, but Garth Brooks does not bring a "piece" to the Grammys, and Martin Scorsese does not get into ugly scuffles on the street. There is a fine line between playing the bad boy and becoming one, and in the "hip-hop community" too often violence jumps out of the quotation marks and becomes a tragic reality.

But calls to combat hip-hop are useless for the moment. As Judith Rich Harris showed us in "The Nurture Assumption," children identify with their peers more than with their parents. Blacks under a certain age feel this music as their poetry, rattling off extended selections as readily as Russians recite Pushkin. It's not going away.

But this is a lowdown, dirty shame. I am just old enough to remember when whites were making the sourest, nastiest pop music while blacks were making the sweetest and truest. White kids listened to hideous screaming while funk and soul were black America's soundtrack. As a kid in the 1970s I was conscious of that contrast and proud of it. The civil-rights protesters a decade before, who made the lives of "the hip-hop generation" possible, would have been appalled to hear the likes of Jay-Z, and we would be hard-pressed to claim that they would have been somehow missing something in that judgment. They accomplished a lot more, too, than any rapper's sideline donations to community efforts ever will.

The staged alienation of the hip-hop scene shows black Americans celebrating attitude over action at best and violence over civility at worst. For 350 years white America told blacks they were beasts. Now a black-generated pop music presents us to whites and ourselves as beasts, while a cadre of black intellectuals celebrate this as "deep" and black impresarios glide by in their limos calling it a "revolution." Revulsion is more like it.

This piece originally appeared in

This piece originally appeared in