In 1948 the French critic Boris Vian, responding to the age-old
controversy about whether or not white men had the right to play jazz,
wrote a short article called “Should White Jazz Musicians Be Executed?”
“The problem is the following,” he wrote. “Black music is increasingly encumbered by sometimes harmonious but always superfluous and usually avoidable white elements. Should we continue to congratulate and encourage the whites in question, should we criticize them or simply tell them to go take their suspenders and hang themselves?” In the end he decided that outright murder was probably a step too far but that the sudden deaths of men like Benny Goodman and Jack Teagarden would be a happy solution.
Vian was responding to the issue of whether whites have a place in a black musical form with all the dignity it deserves. If Bakari Kitwana had a bit more of Vian’s admirable concision and wit, perhaps his book would have been titled Should White Rappers Be Executed? No book with such a title could possibly be such a dreary read as this one, fittingly entitled The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture. The great critic Albert Murray has a name for work like this: social science fiction. I am used to writers arguing badly and arguing on behalf of stupid ideas, but a book in which the author does not ever come around to expressing an idea is rather unusual.
Having read this book, I feel up to speed on Mr. Kitwana’s lack of familiarity with anything that happened in the world before about 1977. I know his feelings on office politics at the Source, a magazine where he used to work. I know he is convinced that “Black and White,” a 1999 movie in which Mike Tyson is portrayed as something of a Buddha-like figure before assaulting a fey white man who makes a trembling pass at him, offers significant insights into American culture. I know he believes that “we see young Blacks making a connection to the larger society most effectively when hip-hop is the bridge.” I don’t know why white kids love hip-hop, past some vague assertions about globalization exerting economic pressures on white people.
This book about a musical form and its associated culture barely mentions music at all. Mr. Kitwana is apparently part of that vast, deluded mass that feels culture is a response to demography. Early in the book, summing up an argument he will return to again and again, he writes: “The primary solutions our government has offered for youth problems facing this generation have been incarceration and medication — an escalation of incarceration rates between 1970 and 2000 (from 200,000 to over 2 million) alongside an escalating tendency to medicate school-age youth, as prescriptions for psychiatric drugs nearly tripled from 1996 to 2003. Ironically, the economic structure at the heart of these problems is the same monster giving hiphop’s cultural movement its wings.”
This kind of crude determinism is bad enough tool at explaining why people invest their money in certain ways or move to certain parts of the country. As an explanation for why white kids love a particular form of black music and culture, it’s outlandish. Why hasn’t the economic structure in question inspired white kids to pin socks to their ears and dance in concentric circles, or adopt Azerbaijani mores, or sit around reading Martin Heidegger?
Oddly enough, the answers are right in this book, though Mr. Kitwana seems unaware of it. White fascination with hip-hop is, partly, the result of the same love and fear of black culture that has always fueled white fascination with black forms. Far more important, it is the result of the fact that black and white culture are inextricably bound, rising as they do from the same common American experiences.
In a chapter in which he interviews several young white people who are part of hip-hop culture, Mr. Kitwana glosses over perhaps the most interesting material he has. He writes of one man: “Growing up in Warr Acres, Jeremy didn’t encounter many people of color. His paternal grandmother had a Black housekeeper named Dora Lee, whom he adored. … He also remembers playing with her daughters and having the time of his life.”
You would expect this to set off airraid sirens in the mind of any American student of race. One of the most durable themes in the literature of American race has been the relationship between white men and the black families, in and around which they were raised. The image of the white bull lynching the son of the black mammy whom he adored, never drawing the line between their common humanity, is an archetype. The least familiarity with William Faulkner, James Baldwin, or Ralph Ellison, among dozens or hundreds of our American writers, reveals the permanence of this idea.
Yet not only does Mr. Kitwana gloss over this issue here, he does so again when a wealthy white woman who DJs for a West Coast radio station discloses that, after her mother’s early death from cancer, she was raised by her black nanny, whose love for hip-hop she passed on to her young charge.
Here is the perfect example of why white kids love hip-hop: Because in America, race is arbitrary. The young woman in question here was raised by an ethnic Russian who grew up in Japan before immigrating to America and living with a black woman. In what sense, exactly, is she white? The young man in question is said to have not known many people of color as he was growing up, despite the fact that he played with the children of his grandmother’s black housekeeper, probably in the same spirit in which he would have played with his own cousins. A white kid fascinated by hip-hop is fascinated by himself.
This is not the only area in which Mr. Kitwana betrays himself as staggeringly tone-deaf to the realities of American race and culture. In a book at least nominally about the white fascination with blackness, he has a passage on the appropriation by rappers of brand names like Ralph Lauren, Tommy Hilfiger, and Timberland, and doesn’t even hint at the ironies of young lower- and middle-class blacks obsessing over symbols of upper-class whiteness. Nor, in his lengthy discussions of cheesy 1990s blaxploitation flicks,does he find space to discuss how young black men came to identify with gangster movies that presented an idealized version of the Italian immigrant experience.
To discuss these, Mr. Kitwana would need to address hip-hop’s obsession with whiteness, and by extension the long history of mutual fascination and appropriation that is the history of race in America. A view of this history would make for fascinating reading. Unfortunately, the tools of social science fiction — a discipline in which culture is nothing but a reaction to circumstances, and in which the vague is always preferred to the specific — are far too blunt.