Finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award
The essays in Against Everything are learned, original, highly entertaining, and, from start to finish, dead serious, reinventing and reinvigorating what intellectuals can be and say and do. Key topics are the tyranny of exercise, the folly of food snobbery, the sexualization of childhood (and everything else), the philosophical meaning of pop music, the rise and fall of the hipster, the uses of reality TV, the impact of protest movements, and the crisis of policing. Four of the selections address, directly and unironically, the meaning of life—how to find a philosophical stance to adopt toward one’s self and the world. Mark Greif manages to revivify the thought and spirit of the greatest of American dissenters, Henry David Thoreau, for our time and historical situation.
NAMED ONE OF THE BEST BOOKS OF THE YEAR BY:
The Guardian • The Atlantic • New York Magazine • San Francisco Chronicle • Paris Review • National Post (Canada)
Longlisted for the 2017 PEN Diamonson-Spielvogel Award for the Art of the Essay
|Publisher:||Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.18(w) x 7.93(h) x 0.67(d)|
About the Author
Mark Greif is co-founder of the literary and intellectual journal n+1. He is also currently an associate professor at The New School in New York.
Read an Excerpt
LEARNING TO RAP
It’s a fortunate fate to have your lifetime be contemporary with the creation of a major art form. Embarrassing, then, not to have understood it, or appreciated it, or become an enthusiast, even a fanatic, from the first. Especially shameful when it could have carried you, if only in imagination, across a racial barrier in America—at least as far as you can go without kidding yourself, when you’re white, and therefore approaching from the wrong side. I came of age at the same time as hip-hop. But like some other ostensibly politically minded middle-class white Americans of my generation, I made a historical mistake: I chose to believe in punk rock exclusively. This meant pledging allegiance to a minor tributary (post-punk) of a minor genre (punk), to squeeze the rind of a major genre, rock, that had been basically exhausted by 1972, instead of committing to a new world-historical form.
My mistake also meant in practical terms that I didn’t learn to rap properly when my mind was supple, at an age when language is effortlessly absorbed. Not that I am completely incapable or innocent of rapping. But I had never applied myself.
I tried to make up for the deficiency, finally, last year. I vowed that I would not rap in front of anyone else, ever, and that I would not try to write my own raps. I just had the idea that I could fix myself, privately. The immediate irritant was that I can hum rock, and of course I can sing along. I know a good part of the lyrics to all kinds of old songs: “Sunshine of Your Love,” “(How Much Is) That Doggie in the Window?” But I couldn’t rap along beyond a few simple refrains, not even to hip-hop songs I thought I knew well, which seemed to be increasingly occupying my head in the first year of Obama’s presidency. This disability began to seem sinister, not to say racist.
I really didn’t know how hard it would be to rap along until I tried. I had projected a straightforward plan of study. I would begin with the classics. I didn’t want to go around on training wheels—I’d start immediately with the best. I wanted my repertoire to include songs I could live with forever. So I started with the first track from the first Nas album, “N.Y. State of Mind,” which had lived in the back of my mind as a blur for a long time.
“I think of crime when I’m in a New York state of mind”—that and other easy lines, I already possessed in memory. And the famous aphorism “I never sleep, ’cause sleep is the cousin of death,” which gets quoted often enough. Plus boasts like “It’s only right that I was born to use mics,” which gave the title to a Michael Eric Dyson book. But I suffered the illusion that a chorus or a standout aphorism was comparable to a verse. I thought I would just start at the beginning and roll through, rewinding the song and memorizing, as if it were a classic rock song or a folk ballad. I went for a walk outside on a hazy day in July, with my headphones, and pressed play:
Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’—
“Rappers I . . .” what?
Rappers, I monkey flip ’em with the funky rhythm I be kickin’—
“Rappers I—mubbliggithm . . .”
“Rappers I go up in ’em . . .”
“Rappers I grow up with ’em . . .”
I think what Nas is saying is that his rhythmic flow has such force that it sweeps his rivals’ legs out from under them. He whirls them over and lands them on their backs, as Bruce Lee knew to judo dumb opponents. That Nas can do this just with his musical skills, he confirms in line two:
Musician, inflictin’ composition
But I couldn’t get past the impossibility of line one. The first line is seventeen syllables in just over two bars, across eight beats in a quick 4/4 tempo—at eighty-four beats per minute. The delivery is shifted slightly, as I hear it, so that it starts with a quarter-rest and crosses into the next two bars on the last syllable. Rather than marching in the iambs of most English versification, the meter sounds subtly trochaic, suggestive of falling rhythm. And seventeen syllables! By contrast, think of the first line, over a comparable two bars, of Elvis’s “That’s All Right,” a kind of entry into the story of rock:
Well, that’s all right, Mama
Six syllables, slowed by a caesura, delivered in the same length of time as Nas’s seventeen. If that seems an unfair comparison—Elvis is just getting warmed up!—there’s also “All Shook Up”:
A-well-a, bless-ah my soul-a, what’s wrong with me?
Twelve syllables in two bars.
Obviously it’s not the number of syllables that should impress anyone about a lyric. That would be like judging opera by the number of people onstage. It’s the implication of the words and, for the pleasure of the ear, the way they’re laid across the rhythm and the breath. One thing that registered immediately about hip-hop, at a minimum, once I tried to accompany it, is that it’s a more difficult and complex lyrical art in performance than just about anything that has ever been known to rock, and it has been so for about twenty years. I guess all hip-hop listeners already know this, and I fear they will be narrowing their eyes now with distrust. But I notice that some white people my age, but especially those a decade or two older, when they try to rap, fall into end-stopped, nursery-rhyme couplets, when such rhythms haven’t been common in MCing for more than two decades. It’s like thinking of rock ’n’ roll exclusively as the era before solid-body electric guitars predominated— say, 1963 and earlier.
It took a week of repetition for me to get the Nas song right. I still can’t point the accents correctly when I do it at full voice. My delivery is made worse by the fact that my rap voice is very much a white person’s voice, therefore unappealing to me, as I suspect it would be to anyone else. Rapping involved muscular tasks my mouth was not yet practiced enough to do, plus a mental focus and precision that’s hard to sustain, and simply isn’t called for with rock lyrics, not even, like Bob Dylan’s, the most verbose.
I should add that I had to look to the Internet to find the most plausible construction of Nas’s first line. There are now countless hiphop-lyric exegetical sites that try to resolve what is being said. Even so, interpretive disagreements persist.
I grew up Jewish in the Boston suburbs. New York was the home of my father’s side of the family. If my grandmother didn’t take the Amtrak from New York on the weekend to visit us, we drove to the apartment, in the co-ops for workers in the garment trades, on the Lower East Side.
The New York City Housing Authority had erected the Samuel Gompers housing projects just across Delancey Street, twenty years before. They razed half of the neighborhood to do so, including the tenement in which my grandfather had been born. This was slum clearance. It created tensions, between the low-income Orthodox Jews in workers’ housing, erected by the unions, on our side of the street, and the low-income black and Puerto Rican residents of the public housing erected by the city on the other. My grandfather had managed to keep the family on the street on which he’d been born, but now looked back on it from the reverse direction, toward the new buildings that sat on top of his remembered home.
One zone of contact was underneath my grandmother’s first-story window, in Sheriff Park. From its picnic tables, I heard beatboxing and rap for the first time in 1980 or 1981, when I was five and six. I hung at the window to wait for the groups that gathered around batterypowered boom boxes (at that time white people called them “ghetto blasters”). This competed with the J/Z trains on the ramp of the bridge overhead. This rolling canvas for graffiti is now nostalgized, but at the time it seemed Martian to me. My grandmother’s paper was the Daily News, which carried a front-page report of someone pushed onto the tracks or dragged into a subway tunnel and beaten, seemingly daily—at least, every time I visited—up through 1984, the year of Bernard Goetz, the subway’s white vigilante. I laid my head on the sill listening, like a spaniel, or leaned my face into the screen, at risk of tearing it, until my father would call me to Shabbos dinner.
The first song I tried to rap—learning the chorus at least—came from a K-tel compilation on cassette. K-tel was a music-repackaging service that compiled a month’s radio hits on cassette for sale on nighttime television and by mail order—also in drugstores, where I got my copy of Get Dancin’, or whatever it was called. That number was Grandmaster Flash and the Furious Five’s “The Message” (1982). Lying on my bed in the suburbs, in my seven-year-old voice, I rewound and repeated, and never forgot (this is accented in slow, elementary notes, on the beat, over more complex syncopation):
I’m—try—in’—not—to—lose—my—head Ha ha ha ha
It’s like a jungle sometimes,
It makes me wonder how I keep from goin’ under.
A cliché of hip-hop memorialization—for both fans and artists—is the anecdote of the first time one heard rapping of real duration and realized one was hearing something unknown and transformative. Kids who would later become rappers place the moment in firsthand experience, one artist watching another. So it is in Jay-Z’s autobiography, Decoded, where he recounts child Jay seeing a teenager freestyling a capella in a circle in the Marcy housing projects—the opposite end of the Williamsburg Bridge from Delancey Street, and four subway stops away.
Even I, knowing nothing, can confirm that there really was something about hip-hop’s early arrival that made it feel seismic. I guess that’s what it means to be in the presence of a major new art form. And even I, as I got just a little bit older, wanted to read values into the new music to make it “real,” political, an answer of rival values to the grinning pumpkin head of Ronald Reagan on the evening news, a face I had learned by 1984, and his re-election, was going to get all of us killed with an arms race and his MX missile, but was busy jailing and killing black people among us and selling out Latin America in the meantime.
I find it surprising how many musical moments in early hip-hop I did hear as the years passed, despite being in no sense committed as a fan. Kids notice things that aren’t like everything else. I remember waiting up at night for a short-lived local video station in Boston, a free rival to MTV, to play Run-D.M.C. in 1985. I knew to procure N.W.A’s Straight Outta Compton on cassette in 1988, with no radio airplay, because of newspaper denunciations of the songs “Fuck tha Police” and “Gangsta Gangsta”—if it made the newspapers so deranged, it had to be speaking some truth. A Tribe Called Quest’s People’s Instinctive Travels and the Paths of Rhythm I knew by heart, along with De La Soul’s 3 Feet High and Rising. White people would bring the gossip that these last were mysteriously denigrated as “hippie rap” or “backpack rap” in the black community (how did we know?). I actually saw a few golden-age acts perform, basically by accident—Black Sheep, Ice-T—as I later saw the Wu-Tang Clan, on bills with rock bands or at public events and free concerts. But this same sense of an open secret, of constant unused knowledge, is probably true for other white people my age. I had every chance to lose my heart to the music, despite barriers. I just failed to do so when the time came when everyone has to make the choice of music that will define him, or the subculture indexed to it, not for the private pleasures of bedroom listening, but by his clothes and manner and friends and public identity. At that critical moment of conversion in the teen years, I blew it.
I know the exact moment of the mistake. It was the first year of high school, and older white students started giving me tapes. This was mostly music not available in any store I had ever been to. In the decisive week, one friend handed me Minor Threat’s Minor Threat (Complete Discography), and another gave me Public Enemy’s It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back.
Public Enemy had built a place already in my consciousness. I had heard Public Enemy the summer before I started school, in the long opening sequence to Spike Lee’s Do the Right Thing, with Rosie Perez fly-dancing to “Fight the Power.” I saw the movie at a Tuesday matinee, took the train home, knowing it was the best new movie I’d ever seen, and went back to see it again at the same time the following day. “Fight the Power” included a refrain that probably—secretly—means nearly as much to me as the national anthem, and plays over and over in my mind, though I can still only mumble it with terrible embarrassment even when I’m by myself (“Fight the power / We’ve got to fight the powers that be”). I recall how the verses awakened my childish mind from suburban slumbers:
Elvis was a hero to most, but he never meant shit to me
Is he straight out racist a sucker or simple and plain
Motherfuck him and John Wayne
Cause I’m Black and I’m proud
I’m ready, I’m hyped plus I’m amped
Most of my heroes don’t appear on no stamp . . .
Who were those heroes, I wondered. Shouldn’t mine be the same?
Hearing Public Enemy and Minor Threat, I was scared by both, and I knew that I wasn’t wanted in the world of either one. But I gave myself up to punk, and I didn’t at that moment give myself up to rap. Why? I couldn’t say to myself then, “Because I’m white,” though surely that’s the quickest way to state the complication. Even now, I don’t want to say it. Not in my head, and not out loud. What kind of resistance (in the psychoanalytic sense) or vanity is that? I want to not say it because for as long as I remember, seeing the way race divided things in my grandparents’ world, I knew it was bullshit, because I could see that they wanted to be white, and they weren’t. They were poor, Orthodox Jewish, and weird. My parents, in taking us out to the suburbs, had let me gain the habits and self-confidence of vanishing identity, which even they—first to go to college, first to leave the ghetto—never gained. I got to be the first in my family to be effortlessly white, and thereby also the first to obsess on how whiteness is bogus and unfair, not something you’d want to creep in and poison your mind. Or maybe it was the success of black education: canonical American literature, which now includes Douglass, Sojourner Truth, Du Bois, Hurston, Wright, Ellison, Dr. King, Malcolm, Baldwin, Stokely Carmichael, Ishmael Reed, Morrison, Audre Lorde, and more. To ever say “I am white”—even though I was reaping the rewards of being seen as white—would be like pulling a sheet over my head as a mental Klansman. On the other hand, what else am I? I wasn’t minoritizing myself again; I wasn’t putting on a yarmulke and tsitsith. Sometimes I worry the whitest white people of all, the most unmarked and heedless, who pay the least price and gain the most unfair freedom, are those like me who get to be both “raceless” and antiracist, never having to fight it out in the mud of poverty, sidestepping the system, pretending to have no skin in the game.
I think I knew, in a way, that the really courageous thing would have been to step across the line, to become a white appropriator of black hip-hop music, if I could still force myself really to stay wrong: to be always a white face in black crowds, to be a faker and conscious of crossing, and know it and suffer it. To acknowledge becoming an outsider and a clown, without a hope of ever belonging. Not to be one of those Caucasian hip-hop heads who took it back to the suburbs, who felt they did own it. I might have needed the thrust of compulsion and mad love.
Or courage beyond what I had.
So many stupidities really stem from inexperience. As I worked on my rapping in 2009, I felt I newly understood a phenomenon of the streets of New York, Boston, every American city I’d ever lived in—why you’d run into young black men, quickstepping on the sidewalk or standing on the subway, rapping at full voice to songs that leaked out of the cups of their overloud headphones. You don’t hear people singing along on subways or downtown pavements to other genres with the same degree of frequency, except for aging crazies. “Hmmm,” I would have thought once upon a time, “what is the proper liberal explanation for what seems otherwise like rudeness?” At hand, I had the old explanations I learned as a kid for inner-city graffiti and suburban skateboarding: This is a way of reclaiming public space when it is segregated, owned by absentees, or dominated by adults.
But now that I had lyrical skills to acquire, I thought I could see a different truth—you had to practice! Rapping along in public was practical and necessary. The learning process is hard. The rehearsal is vitiated when you do the words under your breath and don’t rap loudly enough for performance. Even the breathing is different. And there is just so much to learn at this point, the entire canon of previous rhymes and performances, so much to memorize, from “Rapper’s Delight” to “B.O.B. (Bombs Over Baghdad)” that you really ought to be rehearsing all the time. You’re like a Homeric bard, who will have fifteen thousand hexameter lines to run through before a warlord or a king someday. No doubt doing this in public, and on the subway, is part of overcoming a kind of performance fright. Perhaps it’s a way of becoming scary oneself, as James Baldwin once in The Fire Next Time characterized the need to adapt to oneself the expectations that other people will hang on you: “One needed a handle, a lever, a way of inspiring fear.” All bystanders know that the emphatic quality of rapping really can be jarring, when someone is walking up behind you or standing by you on the subway, rapping “Protect Ya Neck.”
The songs I was working on after Nas were Snoop Dogg’s “Tha Shiznit,” from his first album, and the Notorious B.I.G.’s “Party and Bullshit.” The latter is canonical, a song I felt I ought to be able to do, ostensibly a happy song:
I was a terror since the public school era
Bathroom passes, cutting classes, squeezin’ asses
Smokin’ blunts was a daily routine
Since 13, a chubby nigga on the scene.
I used to have the tre-deuce and a deuce-deuce in my bubble goose
Now I got the Mac in my knapsack loungin’, black . . .
Honeys wanna chat, but all we wanna know
Is where the party at? And can I bring my gat?
If not, I hope I don’t get shot
Better throw my vest on my chest, cause niggas is a mess . . .
So: Biggie was a cutup in school; all he and his crew want to do is party and get with girls. But the rhythmically difficult lines to deliver (“I used to have the tre-deuce and a deuce-deuce in my bubble goose”) focus your mind on the .32 and .22 pistols he says he hid at age thirteen in his wintertime parka, like the MAC-10 submachine gun he boasts he’s moved on to now, at twenty-one—kept still in his schooldays knapsack, along with his bulletproof vest.
Maybe it was the juxtaposition of kiddie banality and too-real mortality, but this song got me worrying again. It was too strange to blithely rap through things now that had been obstructions to me twenty years earlier.
First, to start with the personal, there was the problem of making sure not to say “nigger.” This has always had a curiously powerful effect for white listeners, and I think it was meant to. “Nigger” is the word that righteous whites will not use—to the point where whites of the civil-rights generation, grown adults in their sixties or seventies, almost literally cannot say it, blushing, stammering, even when quoting from history (or reading from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn). They will call it “the n-word”—write it on a chalkboard rather than pronounce it— clear their throats and give meaningful looks or avoid people’s eyes. This was a sort of victory for antiracism. But the conspicuous theater of it, the sheer ostentation of the one word I will not speak, also has wound up showing off how little it can mean in comparison to all the racism white people don’t give up, and equally won’t name or speak. White people in authority are okay with seeing black people profiled, demonized, and terrorized by police. They just won’t say one word, which of course they can say perfectly well. I should add, I don’t think white people should be taking “nigger” back up, even to “join in” to black songs—which is part of its point in rap, because it hammers home a fundamental claim that white people shouldn’t be rapping. Like other formal developments of hip-hop, the place of “the n-word” in the music, after a certain point in its history, can be thought of as a clever collective strategy to forestall white cooptation.
The comedian Richard Pryor’s voice is still, if I’m identifying it correctly, a voice often quoted and sampled in the now-long tradition of hip-hop songs reflecting on the meaning and use of “nigger.” He called his 1976 best-selling stand-up comedy album Bicentennial Nigger. I like to think of a televised exchange, transcribed later in The New Yorker by Hilton Als, when Pryor is being interviewed by Barbara Walters, lovable paragon of the white liberal television establishment, and she is asking him about his controversial word choice:
WALTERS: When you’re on stage . . . see, it’s hard for me to say. I was going to say, you talk about niggers. I can’t . . . you can say it. I can’t say it.
PRYOR: You just said it.
WALTERS: Yeah, but I feel so . . .
PRYOR: You said it very good.
WALTERS: . . . uncomfortable.
PRYOR: Well, good. You said it pretty good.
PRYOR: That’s not the first time you said it. (Laughter.)
I think only after 1988 did hip-hop really make use of the word “nigger” ubiquitous. I can’t tell if its historians date it that way; I keep looking for a good discussion of the question. But I get the impression you can’t rap along to anything of significance produced after 1988 without running across this word that whites ought not say, whereas you can do so earlier. It can’t be accidental that it came at a moment when the white audience for rap was growing enormously; when in absolute numbers of record sales, whites were outpurchasing blacks in hip-hop releases, and people said so, and worried about it; when Vanilla Ice was on his way. The arrival of “nigger” was like an ingenious fail-safe. If you were a white pretender, you could not rap for real, as blacks did; you could not train on the official rhymes. Either you could not rap in public, period, or you could never rap right, never fully, always marked off, mildly excommunicated. But probably also, in ways I can’t see, it worked as an internal rebuke over respectability, and who was getting ahead and who left behind, in those years of disputes on whether the black middle class had abandoned a black “underclass.”
It must be said, “nigger” makes an extremely flexible two-beat metrical insertion in rap and wide-ranging rhyme in English. It rhymes with all sorts of terms of lyrical boasting, with “bigger,” “trigger,” “figure,” “did her,” etc. N.W.A amplified the turn with a group name that was unpublishable and unsayable except as an acronym (by reputation it stood for Niggaz With Attitude). The word appeared in titles and choruses, from the most “conscious” and peaceable rappers (A Tribe Called Quest’s “Sucka nigga, nigga nigga”) to the grittiest (the WuTang’s “Shame on a nigga who try to run game on a nigga”).* The repetition itself seemed to serve a function. Jay-Z proved himself the most adept, as in so many other self-branding maneuvers: creating a primary nickname for himself (“Jigga”) to multiply his own rhymes with “nigga,” and producing an unequaled run of relevant titles and choruses—“Jigga That Nigga,” “Nigga What, Nigga Who,” and the earliest, “Ain’t No Nigga.” This last, cleverly, was not about Jay-Z saying he was not no nigga (as in Sly and the Family Stone’s 1969 “Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”), but rather that there is no nigga as great as Jay-Z. So there were formal dividends for what might also have been a class divider and an anti-cooptation strategy.
The basic justification for reviving the word was simply that racism persisted and white folks treated young black folks like shit. If white America treated them like niggers, making life in the city jobless, serviceless, and abandoned, why shouldn’t they announce it? This was how N.W.A explained it at the start. “Niggaz 4 Life” is not a great lyric, but it’s direct:
Why do I call myself a nigga you ask me?
Because police always wanna harass me
Every time that I’m rollin’
They swear up and down that the car was stolen
Make me get face down in the street
And throw the shit out my car on the concrete
In front of a residence
A million white motherfuckers on my back like I shot the President
Another obstacle to identifying with hip-hop at the moment it was turning into an epochal art form was the lethal quality of African-American city life in the late 1980s and early 1990s. When you rapped along to lyrics about homicide twenty years ago, it felt as if you were talking about homicides that were rising beyond all limits and that nobody knew how to stop.
Pre-1988 hip-hop—again, before its truly world-historical phase— hadn’t seemed to be notably about shooting people to death. Guns do turn up in lyrics, and MCs speak of planning to shoot back if shot at— inevitable details of music that started in neighborhoods that were poor and thus robbery-prone. You’d carry a gun, too. Public Enemy spoke of guns differently, in the context of revolutionary self-respect, the tradition of rifle-bearing Black Panthers.
Post-1988 hip-hop seemed increasingly concerned with boasting how many bodies one had to one’s name, and some of the grandest music was developed in lyrical fantasies of shooting rivals, not for self-defense or politics, but for business. The conceit that the rappers were themselves drug kingpins, thugs, and murderers, “gangsters,” was maintained with Dr. Dre and Ice Cube and Snoop Dogg in Los Angeles, and did not diminish in the wake of the two most tragic real-world murders in hiphop: those of New Yorker the Notorious B.I.G. and the originally San Francisco–based Tupac Shakur. Biggie was shot to death in March 1997 in his car in LA after the Soul Train Music Awards. Tupac had been killed in September 1996 in Las Vegas following a Mike Tyson fight. If anything, the gangster persona settled in further as Tupac and Biggie became “classical” references. Their life stories were ones that television liked to retell with especial relish, until it was hard not to suspect that the white music media might like some of its black rappers best once they had been shot to death.
To be a white teenager, singing along with what were—supposedly— realistic depictions of life in a black ghetto, in the actual situation of the early 1990s, was callous and ghoulish; indifferent to what you saw on the news, which was a world of crying mothers and angry preachers who had been, in effect, abandoned by wealth, government, the economy, the justice system, and charity. If you watched nightly news in the late 1980s and early 1990s in any city in the United States, what you mostly got to see from black neighborhoods was people weeping. This was because their sons, daughters, brothers, husbands, and best friends had been victims of homicide or crossfire. (This, alongside The Cosby Show and In Living Color—twin lenses on fractured times.) By 1988, it was known that the New York murder rate had exceeded any previous known record for the city, since records were kept. Homicide became the leading cause of death for African-American men in their twenties, above heart attack, accident, etc. The murdering peaked nationally in 1991. As many as one-twelfth of each year’s murders, though, were being committed in New York City alone, where hip-hop had originated and from which it mostly still emanated. The other hip-hop center was then the black ghetto of Los Angeles, which televised America took a look at finally in helicopter flyover footage of the riots of 1992. The murder rates would never be so high again, as they began dropping precipitously in 1995 and have dropped steadily since. But we didn’t know that then.
“Don’t ever question if I got the heart to shoot you / The answer is simply too dark for the user.” “Shoot point blank, a motherfucker’s sure to die.” “Beef is when I see you, guaranteed to be in ICU.” “Let’s picnic inside a morgue/ Not pic-a-nic baskets, pic-a-nic caskets.” “From the Beretta/ puttin’ all the holes in your sweater.” These were lines in the songs I was practicing, twenty years later.
Of course the songs were obviously a combination of street report and fantasy. But, really, what business would I have had back then, singing along? I hear the songs, now that they have just become “lyrics” again, and I wonder if my recoil then was ignorance or ethics, whether I have more depth now, or less. Should I be singing along? I find that when I have my headphones on, I too now practice rapping on the subway, though silently. Each time “nigger” comes up, I have to make a decision. Sometimes, I’ve discovered, I wind up substituting “brother”— especially when I’m in public, though no one is going to hear me. Maybe they can read lips? This is embarrassing and shameful, but so is a white person, nearing middle age, rapping. I cover my mouth with a fist as if I’m coughing, and keep it there.
In the midst of this, the Roots took over the job of backing band for Late Night with Jimmy Fallon, a reputable hip-hop outfit taking a key role in what is fundamentally one of the squarest and most ordinary middle-class institutions of television. The undeniable task of the late show is to make viewers feel safe and mellow enough to fall asleep.
I learned that once a month after the evening’s taping they were doing a residency at the Highline Ballroom in New York. This seemed a gesture of sharing the benefits: Questlove and Black Thought were hosting a kind of variety show, after midnights, midweek, with up-andcomers and celebrated guests, and themselves as house band, in a small place, for sophisticates. I felt extremely chic as Mos Def and I went in by the same door; he was pointed backstage, while I went to coat check. As always in New York, I was shocked by the extreme plushness of music venues, at every level from high to low, contrasting with the world I’d known in the provinces, where clubs tend to be dumpy and uncomfortable. In fact, I had seen the Roots play a decade earlier under a shitty tent on a soggy lawn on a college campus, on the circuit that then brought a whole range of “conscious” acts to majority-white colleges: the Roots, the Fugees, Digable Planets, and my favorites, De La Soul. The shame I’d felt at such concerts was that there were too few black people in the audience, just as there were too few black people at the universities. It didn’t necessarily make me feel better to know that white fraternity houses in the South had been key moneymaking venues that Little Richard and James Brown had played to in the fifties when not on the chitlin circuit.
Here at the Highline, I was feeling much better about myself, since the audience was majority black and I was happily at ease—which, now that I write it down, is probably just code for the recognition that the audience was middle-class. Black people were upstairs in seats too expensive for me, eating dinner. That’s the America I want to live in. Then, between sets, the house started playing a now-solid canon of nineties classics—Snoop Dogg and Jay-Z and others—and this multiracial, middle-class audience started singing along. And, again, I was pulled up short. Because, as we sang of Dom Pérignon and Ferraris and La Perla and Gucci, we were once again traveling through lyrics that I couldn’t do as a teen, that seemed hostile or alien to hopes for an interracial middle class of the kind I seemed to be standing in now. And the kind of hip-hop I had liked and been able to sing along to, including the Roots, the “conscious” rap that seemed more connected to middle-class aspiration, more overtly political, Afrocentric, seemed like it had been sidelined in that canon.
Can I confess that in addition to working on my rapping, I’d also been doing some reading? Specifically books by African-American sociologists like Benjamin Bowser and Mary Pattillo, about the relation to property and economic power of African-Americans in the twentieth century. Probably the most openly discussed, overt obstacle to identification when a politicized white middle-class youth encountered a ghetto-derived hip-hop in the early 1990s was what was then called the “materialism” problem. (That’s alongside the “misogyny” problem, which has never quite gone away, and which scholar-critics Imani Perry and Tricia Rose have treated with more understanding than I ever could.) Now I could see that both “materialism” and the punk–hip-hop divide had more to do with a historical problem about capitalism, and different orientations to its failures.
From the end of Reconstruction to the first decades of the new century, the majority of African-Americans still lived in the South, not the North. Six million moved north in the Great Migration between the two world wars. They came for industrial and manufacturing jobs. Yet starting in the years just after the great Civil Rights Act of 1964, the new migrants—shunted initially into ghettos in the least desirable parts of the Northern industrial cities, racing to reach the middle class—faced the cruelest Northern joke yet, at least since the withdrawal of federal troops during Reconstruction: sudden deindustrialization and factory job loss in the 1960s and 1970s.
For former industrial-economy workers, the new service economy possessed codes that discriminated powerfully against poor black men particularly. They had been acceptable in industry, where a learned ethos of strength and toughness was favored; but their toughness was viewed as frightening and hostile in service jobs. The best-paid service jobs rewarded docility, Northern white English, fake intimacy, and a minimum of visible pride or independence. Much of the service economy followed the sprawl out of the increasingly ghostly city to white suburbs and exurbs anyway, out of reach of urban public transportation, and therefore hard to reach for a former working-class in cities.
At risk of repeating what everybody knows, the subsequent war on these new jobless workers in the North came with Reagan and his war on the poor, called a War on Drugs, expanded and continued under Bush and Clinton. The federal power—formerly often the defender of African-Americans against the several states—now militarized local police, and state legislatures mandated long prison terms for simple drug possession and personal use. (Never hard to find among unemployed people pursuing self-medication with alcohol and street drugs in the absence of middle-class psychiatry, Valium, and Prozac.) Wherever local police forces had a particular history of racism and white supremacy—as especially in Los Angeles, not that the NYPD had a stellar record—the new “antigang” initiatives looked openly terroristic and antiblack. (These were the abuses that created the LA riots.)
So, the way hip-hop changed in the late eighties involved, if you like, a double response to this Reaganite (others would call it neoliberal) challenge. The double response went under a single name: in the word of the time, the “gangster” moment. In one dimension it mirrored and emulated the privatization, oligarchical temper, and militarization of Reagan neoliberalism. Gangsterization corresponded to the Wall Street fantasy of new private wealth through market economies and an entrepreneurship of pure will, not industry and productivity. In its other dimension, of course, gangster crime was a consequence and representation of the economic abandonment of the bulk of black America, everybody who had not yet reached the institutional uplift of higher education or the stability of middle- and upper-class wealth. Its drug was crack. Scholars have shown in the decades since the so-called crack epidemic that the instant addiction, violent madness, and “crack babies” attributed to the drug at the time were overblown or fake. Crack wasn’t very different chemically from the cocaine from which it was made. Crack’s significance was its business model.
This was a capitalist innovation, though one at the level of cottage industry. The crack decade, from about 1986 to 1996, was like the result of a discovery that one could take available but expensive sirloin and turn it into an enormous quantity of cheap, adulterated meatballs, for a tiny population of hardcore buyers desperate for access to meat. They would taste good for a minute and then leave you feeling hungry. The sirloin in this case was Latin American cocaine.
Less important than pent-up demand for such a lousy drug was huge pent-up pressure for an avenue of local entrepreneurship to employ jobless black and Latino youth and create a hope of wealth. Anyone ambitious, hardworking, charismatic, ruthless, and organization-minded—the virtues in demand for all capitalism—and not too afraid of police and prison, could afford to purchase a very small initial inventory of cocaine, cook it into crack on the kitchen stove, and begin putting together a network of salespeople. In a situation of 50-percent youth unemployment, one could “hire” as many underage subdealers, lookouts, and runners as one could manage. They didn’t cost much, they didn’t have other opportunities, and the sheer size of one’s organization could confer a competitive advantage.
These various new entrepreneurs were right on top of each other, however, in a tiny impoverished geography, selling to the same restricted markets of hardcore drug addicts; competition was experienced as constant street-to-street friction. And the product cooked up by different people was all but undifferentiable as a product. If you cut it enough to be profitable, all crack is said to be basically the same. One did not succeed, entrepreneurially, by making better crack. The real means of advantage, both to surpass other entrepreneurs and to forestall arrest, was the wise use of security and violence. Studies of the homicide peaks in American cities suggested that the killers and victims weren’t high on the drugs, but involved in aspects of sales and protection.
I hadn’t known very much of this until I encountered Craig Reinarman and Harry G. Levine’s great Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice, itself a book of the late 1990s. But as soon as you understood the social scientists’ picture of the suppressed truths of crack and its economic opportunities, you could see right away that the history matched, and surely explained, misunderstood changes to hip-hop, too.
The unexpected genius of the gangster moment and everything that came after it, from 1988–89 forward, was in effect the reorganization of the themes, metaphors, ethos, and authenticity of rap lyrics around business, property, and violence—usually from crack drama. From its mid-1970s beginnings to the late 1980s, the topics of rapping had really been boasts, partying, romance, the celebration of inexpensive luxury goods (principally clothes and sneakers, like “My Adidas,” plus the occasional car), neighborhood shout-outs, and memorable, occasional stateof-the-postindustrial-city plaints like “The Message.” In the late 1980s, however, the topics mutated. Why? Well, each of the changes occurred in step with changes in police violence and the new structure of drug sales. This is how and why rap truly becomes a capitalist music, and also a music so emotionally effective about the situations and dilemmas of the present day. In 1990s lyrics, crack is the source of the cash that funds the first champagne, cars, and jewels. It’s also the source of the pathos of being able to enjoy these for only a short time before you are shot to death or imprisoned.
Or, really, crack is only the initial reason the metaphors and ethos turn to business and the chase for money. What soon enough supplants crack dealing for pay is rapping, itself, for pay, as its new grandiosity of subject matter made hip-hop, justifiably, ever more salable to white America and the world. One of the most important things to note about the corpus of music about crack is that practically no MC smokes crack. At least, not a single MC uses crack in the limited songs I know. But Biggie sells it, Jay-Z sells it, Nas sells it, Raekwon sells it, 50 Cent sells it, and with the proceeds they relax with liquor and marijuana (drugs of choice for all classes and identities of turn-of-the-twenty-first-century Americans, black and white and rich to poor). The passage back and forth between the two activities (“If I wasn’t in the rap game / I’d probably have a key knee deep in the crack game,” says Notorious B.I.G.) animates the new drama since 1988. You aren’t always sure any longer when an MC is talking about one activity or the other, so overlapping do the two become. The greatest MCs can authenticate elaborate and purely fictional dramas with the biographical fact that any ghetto-born MC of the period was likely to have had a chance to be, at fifteen or sixteen years of age, one of those lookouts or runners on the block. Plus, drugs do have that curious effect, because of their illegality but also their oily quality of slipping into every cranny of private life, of making everyone young, across all strata, feel like an outlaw. “I was there,” the crack-selling songs declare. And while the police really are lethal—and one’s competitors are lethal—the rewards are material and universally appealing. In the end, this is what made hip-hop grand, operatic, titanic, embracing ranges of emotion and expression distinct from previous popular music. Crack business made it cinematic, too, as rappers integrated the American mythologies of previous eras of gangster capitalism celebrated in the movies of Coppola and De Palma and Scorsese.
This all could escape casual white listeners at the time, I think—it certainly escaped me in the early 1990s. Only now does it seem glaring, the endless rhetorical focus in the “new” hip-hop on business, organization, “the Firm” (the name Nas chose for his collective of rappers), or “the Commission” (one of the names Notorious B.I.G. used for a hip-hop crew, along with his official crew “Junior M.A.F.I.A.”). It was a way of thinking about the smallest sort of business with the trappings of the biggest, cutting out all the intervening layers and middle classes of employment and job-holding institutions. So, too, did I fail to understand the ambition evinced by successful rappers to gain places in the increasingly corporate white labels that distributed 1990s hip-hop. (Jay-Z went from his own Roc-a-fella Records to become head of Def Jam Records for a period; Def Jam had once been a black-owned independent label, but in the Jay-Z era was already a division of Universal, who own everything from hip-hop to Decca and Deutsche Grammophon). Sometimes a rationale was articulated, as by Jay-Z himself, as revenge for historic exploitation of blacks by white capital and owners and music producers, and to create new role models:
I do this for my culture,
To let ’em know what a nigga look like when a nigga in a roadster
Show ’em how to move in a room full of vultures
Industry’s shady, it need to be taken over
Label owners hate me, I’m raising the status quo up
I’m overcharging niggas for what they did to the Cold Crush
Pay us like you owe us for all the years that you hoed us
We can talk, but money talks, so talk mo’ bucks.
But the rewards of success at escaping the crack game and becoming a musician, artist, and star existed in the same exceptional, private, neoliberal framework to which “gangsterism” was, surprisingly, such an incredible compelling analogy. A hundred ordinary citizens might perish, but one “innovator” would get out and all the way to the top. The kingpin, become a rapper, would acquire and exhibit the same unattainable properties known to be the toys of a high-status equities trader or corporate CEO. He’d have a private jet, a Bentley, Louis Vuitton bags, Armani suits, top-shelf whiskeys and cognacs—the things being sold in the pages of magazines seen by all of us, but directed to the white ultra-rich, as they have pulled away from the rest of the country in America’s new runaway inequality.
Another thing I’ve been able to see clearly only with time, however, is how much post-punk, supposedly disobedient and destructive and nihilistic, actually spoke on behalf of its own compensatory perspective on capitalism, associated with a falling but sincere long-term middle class and an older “producer ethic.” The punk ethos that middle-class whites got from the early 1980s had identified Reagan-Thatcher–era neoliberal winner-take-all capitalism as the problem for everyone. Reagan’s “supply-side economics” was the reason hard work sent money to the top, not the middle. Globalized corporate capitalism was the reason good jobs dried up or were sent overseas. Consumer capitalism was the reason a life of products and trivial luxuries was weightless and ultimately worthless. Racism might cause the black working class to be liquidated first. But the changes were coming for all of us eventually.
So white middle-class youth in its 1990s No Logo moment was against conglomeration, deregulation, upward redistribution. And the post-punk achievement, frankly, was almost less its music and more its vision of “alternative,” rival systems of performance, production, and distribution. This was the meaning of DIY, too—do it yourself, that other long-lived descriptor of post-punk. Every region and city generated its own small, marginal record label: SST, Dischord, Touch and Go, Taang!, Triple X, Homestead, Sub Pop, Matador, etc. If you were a young person of good taste who cared about rock music in the 1980s and 1990s, you might listen to the Minutemen, Big Black, the Replacements, Hüsker Dü, the Butthole Surfers, Sonic Youth, or, later, Fugazi, Mudhoney, Pavement, Bikini Kill. And before 1991, not a single one of them could be purchased through official capitalism, as incarnated in the despised “major labels.”
Were middle-class whites going to lecture black entertainers that brandies and consumer goods wouldn’t buy happiness? I hope not. Yet the consumer exaltation in one music, and the hidden producer ethic in the other, placed a chasm between the potentially like-mindedly political post-punk and hip-hop cultures.
The white middle-class rebellion, in its political anti-corporateglobalization and anticonsumer movement, confronted a hip-hop that seemed to evince a conspicuous will to capitalism—with an extremity that no black American music, which had sometimes spoken of getting ahead in business or needing to make a buck, had quite shown before. What stood out most to non-fans was the naming of white-owned luxury products, consumer logos and brands, curiously mixed with a new and unfamiliarly textured sexism: “Life ain’t nothin’ but bitches and money.” Women seemed to be for sale, too, in the lyrics; white rock has always been super-misogynist, directly, but somehow this lyrical equivalence of women, cash, and consumer goods could be read as alien.
But black artists, from communities that had last been economically stable in the North when tied to systems of larger capital (as workers and employees, not small owners), had to win big at the game of official capitalism, through its new, giant conglomerations, or have no public voice at all. They didn’t necessarily come from the classes of petty-bourgeois stability and entrepreneurship. There was no backstop of middle-classwhite small capital, accumulated over generations.
If the money ethos was mostly scandalous in N.W.A, and grim and ironic in the Wu-Tang’s “C.R.E.A.M.” of 1994 (“Cash Rules Everything Around Me / C.R.E.A.M., get the money / Dollar dollar bill y’all”), it was also becoming increasingly tragicomic as the music advanced—or gleefully comic. It reached some of its great narrative heights in the elaborate tales of the Notorious B.I.G. (“Gimme the Loot,” 1994; “I Love the Dough,” 1996) and acquired an absurd triumphalist flavor in Jay-Z songs like “Money Ain’t a Thang” (1998) with Jermaine Dupri (“In a Ferrari, a Jaguar, switchin’ four lanes / With the top down, screamin’ out, ‘money ain’t a thang!’ ”). As the luxury names were worked in with always elaborate rhythmic dexterity, a highlight, after some years, was Busta Rhymes’s embedding of the four-syllable cognac Courvoisier to a chorus in 2001: “Give me the Henny, you can give me the Cris / You can pass me the Remy, but pass the Cour-voi-si-er!”
The best summary I know, within hip-hop, of the paradoxical history that made the music attain such intensity of artistry and prominence, comes late—in the 2000s—from Kanye West. West belongs to a postcrack generation. He is part of the line of artists that comes after the gangster triumph, but is not entirely done with its metaphors. (This also characterizes the duo Outkast, and Lil Wayne. The hip-hop historian Jeff Chang points out how few new rappers broke through to commercial success in that short generation, when label consolidation and collapse stalled the careers of some of the most talented.) West’s history comes in a song called “Crack Music” (2005). The lyrics are framed by invocations of a history of state conspiracy and deception that includes Reagan’s repressive rise as governor of California in the 1960s (“How we stopped the Black Panthers? / Ronald Reagan cooked up an answer”) and the Reagan–Bush–Bush II arming of Saddam’s Iraq before making war against it, twice (“Who gave Saddam anthrax? / George Bush got the answers”).
But the main idea Kanye conveys is of a ruse of history by which the poison of crack, addicting the black ghetto, gave rise to the serum of hip-hop, by which black artists thrived and to which they have now addicted a white listening audience. He even adds a poem, spoken at the end by Malik Yusef:
We took that shit, measured it, and then cooked that shit
And what we gave back was crack music
And now we ooze it through they nooks and crannies
So our mammas ain’t got to be they cooks and nannies
And we gon’ repo everything they ever took from granny.
Now the former slaves trade hooks for Grammys.
This dark diction has become America’s addiction.
Those who ain’t even black use it.
We gon’ keep baggin’ up this here crack music
I imagine someone could object: This isn’t really how you listen to popular music, is it? How you choose it? How your taste works? You don’t really put it into a blender and siphon the messages off from it and sip them like red blood cells—do you? You’re inhuman! Do you really judge art by a criterion of its politics—as if you had to hear an editorial, backed with a beat?
Of course the answer is: not really. But I do sing along. When I sing along, I hear myself singing along. That is, I know I’m saying these words with my own tongue, my own spirit, that I’m doing it. Listening to music is doing something. It’s important that you don’t listen, with pop, without moving or singing along. There’s a profound pleasure in saying, with the singer of a song, words you might never utter in real life. Sometimes the pleasure is even in part because they seem opposite to your opinions—to who people think you are in straight life—or because they upend all respectable norms. So I like singing along to “Okie from Muskogee” and “Stand by Your Man,” and also “Run for Your Life,” “I Wanna Be Your Dog,” “There Is a Light that Never Goes Out,” “They Saved Hitler’s Cock,” not to mention, apropos of hip-hop, “10 Crack Commandments” and “A Milli.” But it can kill my enjoyment if I’m singing lyrics that are dumb and conformist, truly stupid and cynical—basically, lyrics that indicate, in a convincing way, that the person who created them is shallow, lazy, or untalented, or racist or corrupt, especially if they’re also proud of themselves. It’s a bummer— though of course it happens.
I’ve met real fans of pop music who tell me that they honestly never listen to the lyrics, and don’t hear them. This is an entirely different phenomenon, which I respect, though it seems to me a bit like the fact that some people don’t dream, or that I’m color-blind to some shades of pink and green—a loss. Anyway, it leads to a different conversation, about timbres and rhythms.
In rap, though, words are the music. Because it speaks in whole sentences, indeed in stanzas, with extended metaphors, quotations, puns—and especially jokes, often jokes that make you think before you laugh—hip-hop is complexly articulate in a way that separates it from the rest of popular music. This doesn’t preclude trying to tease out musical genealogies: obviously, in its fund of formulae and oral tradition it is like blues and toasting; in its structure of (verbal) solos, arrangements of soloists, habits of phrasal quotation and sequential improvisations around head-tunes, it’s like jazz; in its presentation and distribution, it’s often like singles-based “pop” (also called Top 40). But in the wider history of the traditional arts, it seems more or less the re-eruption of the whole tradition of metrical, rhyming poetry that ended around 1920. Hip-hop develops capabilities on one side, the lyrical, beyond anything that has ever been developed in the musical arts before. It communicates as language does, because essentially it is language, not just song.
The pleasure in American democracy has always found expression in a pleasure in the American language. Its pleasures include its extreme promiscuity, its mixed origins, its difficulty to learn “properly,” its greatness when most improper, its comic obscenity, and its redundancy and superfluity, continually renewed.
Our language is free. It is unprivatizable. The ability still to use words artfully has become the mark of poor people, minority people, everyday people, and writers and intellectuals: those who cannot afford the image, and exist in a shared older world without it, or who deliberately refuse it.
Hip-hop has its memory intact. The gat a thug pulls from his waistband reawakens the Civil War and the Gatling gun. The skrilla that Southern rappers accumulate in 2010, cash money, remembers the scrip in which blacks were paid under the sharecropping system. In the official United States, our presidents since John F. Kennedy and our public figures and broadcasters have taught themselves not to be able to speak the rich American language. What has come out of the mouths of recent leaders, until Obama, seemed like the result of brain damage. What is expressed on Fox or CNN, on the twenty-four-hour news, exalts the image above language. It puts the image above real news, which is, in a democracy, whatever transpires in the community of the people.
Underneath the stupefying official loss of the language, there has been an accumulation of riches kept on the wrong side of those redlines by which realtors and city developers kept blacks and whites apart. All the old American words were collected in the row houses, terraces, and projects. Here is what happens to the genius of the People when ignored.
My grandmother spoke at home an American English rich in allusion, quotation, joke, formula, words borrowed from native Yiddish and acquired from neighborhood Spanglish, brought home from popular culture and the street, a vernacular far richer than the trimmed-down English she used in her job as a switchboard operator and receptionist and the standard English her children and grandchildren learned. When she became most animated, telling a good story, her “he ain’t” and “I says” were let out most, her “errors” saltier and more precise than the proprieties she knew perfectly well.
I find it tempting to imagine the old language up on shelves at the tops of closets, in bottom drawers, between bed frames and mattresses, in the bins of old lumber rooms, and the small words tangled with the screws, switches, twine, and hardware of which every household has its collection, the pins and the buttons. But of course the words must have been in constant use, in the speech and stories that don’t make it onto TV: carried on in the Republic, in the world of whatever constitutes and sustains the true American People (and not the one evoked by the newscasters and spokesmen).
It may be better to think of the old language as belonging to one of those buildings one sometimes hears about, from an earlier phase of the last century, built in an era of a different conception of the People and its needs—or its deserts—or reclaimed from a rich elite who had earlier moved out. A decrepit or unassuming edifice with, in its basement, a swimming pool, there all this time, statued with classic Greek heroes and goddesses in marble, and gold-trimmed, and lapis-lazulilined between the pristine underwater tiles, marking the lap swimmers’ lanes. A public pool, remnant of the old metropolis, or a forgotten property turned over to new residents.
Here, in hip-hop, is a language spoken by ingenious people who can take some earned pleasure in America, by what she has left for us, and what We the People or our ancestors have made. Why should it be that those who were least cared for, most left behind, should find their way to making and keeping something most classical, valuable, intelligent for America? Why are they alone the bearers of our language when most everything official conduces to mutism?
I stopped practicing, in the end. I still listen, admire, and enjoy. I try to sing along, a bit (only when I’m alone, still). I could say that I listen with new ears, because I learned technical difficulties of the art. Really, I regained my old ears. Instead of it becoming easier to identify with hip-hop, I remember why it’s always been complicated as well as desirable. I remember where I am, in old uncertainties. They’ve gained historical ballast, but no resolution.
I also knew, even as I was writing, that I was trying to comprehend a history that had reached some completion and was being superseded. I could tell that Kanye and others had blown wide open what constituted the genre. I had Drake’s first EP on my iPod and didn’t know what to make of it. Soon even commercial hip-hop was drawing in electronic dance music, private musing, monomania, and gloom. The verbal art evolved away from dexterity, speed, and articulation, to rediscover slowed, slurred, and processed voicings, shouts, and chants. It seemed the new openness also obliged hip-hop to have to tolerate superstardom for Macklemore and Iggy Azalea, white rappers of dubious provenance. So five years’ passage have shaped a new constellation.
The hardest thing to explain is why this impulse came to me after Obama’s election—what that meant. I’m one of the people who felt that Obama’s presidency mattered also because he’s black. This was a gift beyond the rightness of his politics and the undoubted greatness of the man. It seemed miraculous in part because it seemed to mean that at least one half of my fellow voters weren’t as racist as I’d feared, or that racism in some places still allows advance in others.
The feeling I had at his election was that I ought to change, too. I ought to learn something. Admittedly, it took a strange form—even derisory: It doesn’t sound good to ask what practicing Slick Rick’s “La Di Da Di” had to do with the first American president of African descent. I hope it will take other forms. Obama’s silence over these eight years has inspired other black speech, I think, unveiling what he couldn’t say—in Black Lives Matter, most powerfully. Maybe I’ll have new chances to learn. I have some friends who are very sophisticated political thinkers; I think I’m a simple one. For me, I often think the only real political question is “Whose side are you on?” and I have to struggle always to remember it, as everything flows from that. 
* “Nigga” emerged as an alternate orthography so that rappers could write down what was being said in rap without printing the unprintable word. This spelling was supposed to speak of fraternity, not hatred, though at first it principally gave artists a way around record-company strictures for titles and track listings. It would become a word of its own, like “brother” (meaning, specifically, a black man). But it would remain unsayable for whites. (My Merriam-Webster’s Unabridged resolves the problem in this way: “nigga—n.; by alteration; plural niggas also niggaz: AFRO-AMERICAN—used chiefly among Afro-Americans; usually taken to be offensive when used by others.”)
Table of Contents
Afternoon of the Sex Children
Octomom and the Market in Babies
The Concept of Experience (The Meaning of Life, Part I)
Radiohead, or the Philosophy of Pop
Punk: The Right Kind of Pain
Learning to Rap
Gut-Level Legislation, or, Redistribution (The Meaning of Life, Part II)
The Reality of Reality Television
What Was the Hipster?
Anaesthetic Ideology (The Meaning of Life, Part III)
Mogadishu, Baghdad, Troy, or Heroes Without War
Seeing Through Police
Thoreau Trailer Park (The Meaning of Life, Part IV)