Hip hop is not the root of all evil

On July 16th, national columnist Jason Whitlock published a column blaming “hip hop” for the Pouncey brothers’ decision to wear “Free Hernandez” hats to a nightclub. This claim definitely holds up to scrutiny; I routinely find amorphous cultures explicitly dictating what I do and do not wear, often via telepathic messages that border on Inception-style idea planting.

Of course, I’m being facetious, but still: blaming “hip hop culture” for the improvident actions of two individuals is not only silly, but also intellectually lazy. This isn’t to say that there aren’t nuanced, insightful ways of discussing the impact rap music has on its young listeners, but rather that Whitlock doesn’t appear to have any interest in gradation, specificity, or reason. It’s far easier to paint with a wide brush, after all.

To begin with, there’s no place in the article where Whitlock sets forth any operational definition of what hip hop culture is (a kinda critical step if you’re going to be attacking and denouncing it, I’d say). As a reader, you’re expected to just intuitively know what “hip hop culture” means, akin to how Potter Stewart understands pornography; it is assumed be self-evident, in no need to explication.

However, when you’re dealing with something as large as a whole culture, you need to set parameters. Otherwise, the subject your tackling becomes nothing more than an amalgamation of buzzwords and uncritical connotations.

For example, DJing is an integral, foundational part of hip hop. So is breakdancing. Are these specific activities to blame for the Pounceys’ sartorial misstep? Of course not—that’d be a ludicrous assertion.

Yet these two modes of artistic expression comprise half of the four elemental building blocks of hip hop (along with graffiti and rapping). They are intrinsic and inseparable from hip hop as a coherent cultural whole.

This creates a problem, then, when Whitlock decides to put “hip hop culture” in his crosshairs; he’s using a vast, multi-faceted term as a filter through which to understand an individual incident, and in doing so neglects to take all the components of that term, especially the components that don’t jive with his perception of hip hop as evil and destructive, into account.

He uses hip hop culture as a catch-all umbrella idea yet doesn’t acknowledge that certain things that fall under the umbrella may contradict his thesis. This would be fine* if he was talking about, say, specific rappers or specific problems within hip hop—there’s plenty of excellent scholarship about portrayals of masculinity and violence within rap music, for example—but he’s not: he’s indicting the culture as a whole.

*(Actually, this would not necessarily be fine as it could reek of the same anti-intellectual process that has caused so much unnecessary hand-wringing about the influence violent video games have on children, a debate that’s reignited after a school-shooter is revealed to have been a fan of FPS games even though no conclusive scientific evidence has ever come close to proving a link between virtual X-Box and real-world violence. The relationship between an individual and a wider culture is staggeringly complicated, even in something as ostensibly “simple” as entertainment, and to try and act as if there’s a direct and obvious causal relationship between what media a person indulges in and the actions that person makes is not only tenuous, but it’s dishonest.)

The normal tactic employed here when a person is responding to the ugly all-hip-hop-is-horrible-and-violent-trash stereotype is to list positive artists that challenge the hip-hop-is-destructive narrative. Unfortunately, that debate tactic is also similarly troubling and incomplete.

The divide between “underground”/”good” rap music and “mainstream”/”bad” rap music is both threadbare and, ultimately, false. It’s a dichotomy meant to ease the consciences of certain (read: often white) fans uncomfortable with their love of a divisive and controversial culture, a way to assuage feelings of guilt or awkwardness. To fracture hip hop culture into “acceptable” and “unacceptable” components is to do a disservice to the culture as a whole. Hip hop is multitudinous, contradictory, evolving, challenging, and complex; it is bigger than you and your taste-preferences.

What’s important to realize is that hip hop doesn’t need justification and defenses in the form of highlighting and elevating specific artists over other, more “problematic” artists. Instead, what critics need to realize is that discussing hip hop in 2013 is astoundingly different than discussing hip hop in, say, 1983.

Simply put, it’s grown too big to be easily pinned-down and dissected. Hip hop scholarship should demand specifics and rigor; broad generalizations accomplish nothing in terms of analysis. It’s similar to rabble-rouses on the ideological Left and Right decrying the decay of “American culture” without truly considering how immense and variegated the term truly is. Hip hop contains multitudes—some flawed, some spectacular—and should be treated as such.

All of this isn’t to say, however, that Whitlock is some sort of bumbling, hopeless, misinformed idiot. His concern about young people and their apparent obsession with violent media isn’t inherently misguided, just his method of tackling it is.

An incident like the Pounceys’ hat-gate could be said to be reflective of a wider cultural “issue,” sure, but it is unfair to say an isolated incident is truly representative of that wider culture. It’s similar to a mistake novice science students make with “causation” and “correlation.” The Pouncey brothers made a poor choice, yes, but to boil down the decision making process behind the choice to simply “…because of hip hop” isn’t honest or accurate.

It removes agency and personal accountability from the people involved and bestows ill-defined, quasi-magical “influence” upon an art form that may very well be, in the end, entirely unrelated to the situation. There are too many issues at play here to single out something as diverse, complicated, and vast as “hip hop” as the singular cause.

Whitlock’s not 100% off-base, but his analysis is surface-level at best. His exploration and unpacking need depth; pointing the finger at hip hop and calling it a day is the easy way out.

Tags: Culture Hip Hop Jason Whitlock Music

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