The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop
Reviewed by Rachel Swan
Wednesday, August 13 2003, 11:31 PM
Perhaps Todd Boyd is overzealous, or clumsy, in his certitude that the civil rights movement is frozen in time. After all, the hip hop generation wasn't an immaculate conception: rappers might not grovel to Civil Rights heroes of previous decades, but many of them -the ones that populate Boyd's writing, at least- belong in the same Black Power lineage as Rosa Parks and Malcolm X. So my first inclination, in writing about Todd Boyd's The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop, is to warn folks not to be cowed by the title: civil rights ain't dead, this author's just tripping.
Which is the sentiment of many reviewers, who are generally far less willing than I to give Boyd the benefit of the doubt. As Nia-Malika Henderson writes in SF Chronicle Book Review, Boyd "seems to think that Rosa Parks, Martin Luther King Jr., and hundreds of thousands of civil rights activists simply sat at segregated lunch counters all day singing 'We Shall Overcome'(2/2/03). Henderson doesn't mince words, but she's right to chide Boyd for making such sweeping statements as: "Many in the civil rights era have for too long gloated in a sanctimonious fashion, assuming that their day would never come to an end." Boyd's reckless dismissal of his forerunners, paired with his unequivocal championing of mainstream rap, becomes tedious. After a while, you just want to shake some sense into him: Boyd, hello, you disconnect yourself from civil rights, but where would you be today had the movement never happened? It's fair to say you wouldn't be a professor at the University of Southern California.
But if you're gonna diss Boyd, you have to be fair, and such writers as Henderson and author Cecil Brown - who compares the new black hip hop scholar to "Zip Coon, who puts down the Darky as a 'throwback'" -- are heavy-handed, if not vitriolic. In reviewing The New H.N.I.C., Brown pays undue attention to a passage at the beginning of Boyd's text, in which the author roundly criticizes Rosa Parks for "unsurpassed arrogance and condescension" toward younger hip hop generationers. Parks filed a lawsuit against the rap group Outkast for "using her name in vain" in their joint "Rosa Parks," whose hook goes: "Ah ha, hush that fuss/everybody move to the back of the bus/Do you wanna bump and slum with us/We the type of people make the club get crunk."
These lines have nothing to do with Rosa Parks, other than Outkast's using the "back of the bus" metaphor to mark other rappers as inferior, and needing to step back. Perhaps it's unfair to fault Parks for being a little square, -maybe a little frumpy- and not totally in tune with the figurative language of hip hop. Yet the generational schism that comes to light in Parks's lawsuit should be taken with a grain of salt. It's a humorous incident, and not the crux of Boyd's argument act that the author might not actually realize.
More trenchant, and more controversial, in fact, is Boyd's triumphing the commercialization of hip hop, and the royalties it's bequeathed to Black people --mostly Black men, according to Boyd. As he indicates, "there is nothing more potentially controversial in American society today than the idea of a Black man with money. Nothing." I'll concede Boyd that argument, and I contend that it's a point lost on his detractors. Ultimately, Boyd is tired of watching his pet rappers, Jay-Z and Nas, get the bum rap for profiting from bromides about "keeping it real." Criticism often revolves around how much money these cats are making, rather than the quality of their music, or the substantive content of their lyrics.
In his article on The New H.N.I.C., Brown cavils at "multimillionaire icons like Puff Daddy, Chris Rock and Russell Simmons," for making cheddar while "young blacks also face a crisis of unemployment, domestic violence and lack of opportunity for formal education." Brown proceeds to rail against black critics, like Boyd, "who rationalize the takeover of hip hop by white men. All true, but these are three unrelated points thrown together willy-nilly. The crisis of unemployment and lack of opportunity - to say nothing of domestic violence - should be examined, in their own right, as consequences of institutionalized racism, class schisms, and societal fucked-up-ed-ness -- all of which predate Puff Daddy and Chris Rock. To posit a direct correlation between a few black folks' fortune, and the myriad of problems that affect the African American population at large, is canard, and a half-assed pathetic appeal to boot.
There's no question that Boyd resents what Brown calls "the takeover of hip hop by white men." He likens the public's disdain for Black men gettin money in hip hop to an analogous situation in pro basketball: "When you consider that the NBA is a White corporation making money off Black labor, and that the public is well aware of players' salaries but has no idea what the owners make, the balance of power in this situation is pretty clear." In Boyd's line of argument, this skewed race-money-power equation would also hold for the White-owned, but Black-identified BET network, and for a whole slew of record label behemoths. By gettin' money, black men radically insert themselves into an entrenched -if venal- corporate economy. And Boyd makes no bones about his own economic success, effusively touting such ensigns as his doctoral degree and his Jaguar. In the preface of The New H.N.I.C.. the author writes: "Understanding hip hop's constant refiguring of language, I now declare for the world to hear that I am a nigga; an educated, articulate, book writin', filmmakin', media appearin', Jaguar drivin', well-dressed nigga, but a nigga nonetheless!"
For Boyd, being a Black man and gettin' money amounts to having a political cause, which is axiomatic to the Black Power movement. This is, arguably, the point of disconnect between Black Power and the established categories of "left wing" and "right wing" politics. Black folks are perceived, in mainstream society, as archetypal victims, which is why every other marginal group is trying to be like Black folks. In other words, Palestinians, queers, poor whites, Jews, to name a few, all try to mitigate their status by sympathizing with the African American community. But just as, in Boyd's words "a person with dreadlocks isn't necessarily committed to any political cause," an African American isn't necessarily down for the traditional "leftist" politics that many Blackophiles espouse.
During my freshman and sophomore years in college, I lived in the African American Theme House, which, at the time, was almost exclusively African American, save for three non-Blacks: a Jewish guy, a Chinese guy, and a white girl (me). Middle-class, staunchly "leftist," and full of delusions about education being geared to intellectual enrichment rather than social advancement, I was mystified by the politics of the Afro House. Most of the students living there were the first generation in their families to attend college, and they had a definite sense of purpose: the idea was to graduate with a potentially-lucrative degree, get money, and bring it back to family and community. Thus I was the token rhetoric sardine in a pond of economics, molecular biology, and otherwise business-oriented students. Which is not to say that Afro House residents were devoid of cultural interests, because everyone tempered his/her business degree with a minor in African American Studies.
The politics in Afro House, which combined "get money" ethos with stalwart Black nationalism, were right-leaning -- a fact I found surprising at first, but gradually learned to accept, and even appreciate. And overall, Afro House politics congeal with the ideology that Boyd promotes in The New H.N.I.C. wherein staking one's place in a capitalist economy becomes a form of personal empowerment. Which is not to inoculate Boyd from criticism: his book is, after all, a hustle, as Henderson and Brown suggest. But the hustle vibe keeps it close to its subject matter: it's naive for journalists to assume that hip hop isn't, at heart, as devoted to economics as it is to activism, or righteousness. Even the author Bakari Kitwana, whose book The Hip Hop Generation: Young Blacks and the Crisis in African American Culture champions grassroots hip hop activism over brothers gettin' money, treats the music's commercial success as a social gain for hip hop generationers.
Boyd is no kowtowing Uncle Tom, and his relationship to the White moguls of hip hop -most notably the popular hip hop MC Eminem- is tenuous, at best. He describes Em as "a nigga, no doubt" but a nigga who has never had to grow up Black in the U.S -- a nigga who's taken everything but the burden, in a nutshell. White fans sympathize with Eminem because he melds the outlaw aspect of Black culture with the fantasy of poor white trash victimhood. And, as the author points out, the presence of a "great white hope" in a traditionally Black medium "is often thought to make (it) more serious, (and) more legitimate.y accepting this white interloper, and even expressing compassion for him, Black folks reveal what Boyd calls a certain "cultural inferiority complex" which the author describes in House Nigga and Field Nigga terms borrowed from Malcolm X.
Granted, Boyd's leisurely use of "nigga" does nothing to stem criticism, and the author seems ill-suited to discuss House and Field Nigga dynamics, given that he's a professed "nigga" who writes from a position of privilege. Brown disparages Boyd for failing to explain the white man's appropriation of Black culture, which, in Brown's estimation, amounts to a form of minstrelsy. Similarly, Henderson notes Boyd's hypocrisy in ascribing a "cultural inferiority complex" to Black folks who laud a white rapper. After all, he overlooks the sense of "inferiority" that precipitates when, according to Henderson, "hip hop culture consistently offers up degrading images of black urban life."
Yet again, the detractors appear to misunderstand Boyd's application of these terms. To dub Eminem a nigga is not to exonerate him for being a white man who pimps -and profits- by poaching stereotypes of Blackness, or to say that Em's white skin makes him superior to real Black folks. In this context, the term "nigga" is elastic, invoking stereotypes of economic disadvantage, marginality, and the performance of Blackness -- which is why, in Boyd's description of Em, "white nigga" becomes synonymous with "poor white trash." Yet, in their wanton disses, Boyd's critics seem to miss the point.
To include the phrase "Death of Civil Rights" in the title of one's book, and then not expect people -- older generation Black folks, especially -- to wig out, would be naive at best. And the title was no gaffe on Boyd's part -- in The New H.N.I.C. he uses language to provoke rather than persuade, and his calculated, if flamboyant, peppering of hip hop slang is more likely to impress a white audience than mollify a Black audience. Which is also deliberate: it shouldn't surprise us that African American scholars are Boyd's most vehement critics, whereas white folks treat him as a kind of rap music maven: for example, Boyd appeared in the guise of "hip hop expert" in P.R.I.'s To the Best of Our Knowledge in June. In her final assessment, Henderson dubs The New H.N.I.C. "more soundbite than scholarship" which is a point of contention.
Overall, Boyd presents a Dick-and-Jane style history of hip hop, and his florid use of hip hop patois -"playa hata...flip the script...on some other shit" -- gets annoying after a while; a gauche form of authenticity, as it were. Perhaps, for all his self-congratulations, Boyd isn't the "Head Nigga In Charge" he envisions himself to be, but we gotta hand it to the author for not trying to tame his subject matter. He reveals an obvious connection, and fascination, with hip hop culture, and that's real.
The New H.N.I.C. is available from NYU Press