I presented my senior thesis to my fellow seniors last night, on "The Politics of Hip-Hop." The occasion was the Mellon Forum, named after Paul Mellon, Yale class of 1929, who never held a job and devoted his life to giving Yale the money that his father, Andrew Mellon, made from exploiting steel workers. I stood, white, male, privileged, in a coat and
tie, playing Public Enemy and preaching revolution.
I had something to prove. I spent my first year at Yale in a Great Books program called Directed Studies, starting history, philosophy and literature with the ancient
Greeks and not moving past Nietzsche and Virginia Woolf. At Yale, Directed
Studies is an instant ticket to respect -- the Western canon is what you're supposed to
get from an Ivy League education. Hip-hop isn't exactly that.
As an American studies major, I've grown accustomed to jibes about the legitimacy of my classes and papers. When I first announced my major, one of my parents' friends laughed, asking, "Does that mean you're going to actually get credit for studying Madonna?"
I never studied Madonna. But rap music is a long way from Thucydides, and it doesn't have quite the same academic cachet. I considered calling last night's presentation "Subaltern Ideology and Hegemonic Instability in Late 20th Century Racialized Discourse," or
something similar. Such a title would spring from vanity as much as anything else: As a proper academician, I felt, my work should be incomprehensible to anyone who hadn't taken as many classes in cultural theory or struggled through Adorno and Foucault, anyone who didn't add "-atize" to words like "problem" or construct sentences that last for hours. To be properly academic and complex, shouldn't I dress my subject up a little? Almost everyone in the room had something interesting to say about rap music, whereas I had nothing on cell biology or Hungarian novelists.
But not dressing it up is the point. I see American Studies as a critique of some of the fundamental assumptions that govern what we do at Yale:
Why the distinction between the classroom and the rest of life? Why should professors speak only to other professors, in language only professors can understand, about things only professors care about? Why should academia be apolitical, outside the wonders, dilemmas and controversies of our time, rather than engaged in the world?
The gap between my life and my academic work is growing slim. Public Enemy's "Fight the Power" is the first rap song I remember as a revelation, though like everyone else of my generation, I had been introduced to rap well before 1989. Chuck D shaped my political consciousness as much as any other thinker, and Ice Cube shaped my knowledge of my country as much as any pundit. Growing up in America in the hip-hop era, I couldn't help it.
Hip-hop battles America's economic and political structures on a cultural front. It offers both an alternative vision of how America is and a new vision of how America could be, in an age when MSNBC and the New York Times make it easy to believe that we all live in the luxury of Wall Street and Silicon Valley. From Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five's "The Message," in 1982, to Jay-Z's enormous hit "Hard Knock Life (Ghetto Anthem)" last year, hip-hop has been not only the CNN of black America, but a subversive CNN to all young America.
But I don't often think about politics when I'm dancing to Nas' "If I Ruled the World." When every product from Gap jeans to, yes, Public Enemy is advertised and sold as liberation itself, messages of political revolution sound like just another sales pitch.
So maybe I'm the only white rap fan in the world who listens because no other pop music has such central political intentions. But I'm certainly not the only white rap fan. White people buy at least 70 percent of rap recordings, and the "wigger" -- baggy jeans and all -- has become a familiar enough character to get a whole episode of "Oprah." But people rarely blink at the rage for rap in white suburbs anymore.
That doesn't stop a lot of my friends from questioning what right I have to be writing about hip-hop. After last night's presentation, I answered questions about whether I had considered underground rappers and Asian and Latino rap; whether even well-intentioned white people should listen to music about black empowerment; who was responsible for the recent neutering of rap's overt politics. (I also got troubling questions about the misogyny and homophobia so prevalent even in the most political rap.)
I don't have all the answers. But simple numbers suggest where rap's most important effects will lie. White people make up the majority of rap's listeners; black people make up a minority of the American population. There will be no racial justice without white people.
I can't help thinking that hip-hop will have something to do with it. And if hip-hop can't incite political consciousness, I don't know what will.
Can academia? Though I stood in a suit and used terms like "hegemony," my role models last night weren't my professors. I wanted to be like Queen Latifah and KRS-One, though white and lacking flow; I wanted to speak truth to power, to provoke, to engage, to struggle. In other words: I wanted to rap.