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A conversation with Mark Anthony Neal

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Culture critic Mark Anthony Neal, who speaks at Carnegie Mellon University on Sept. 23, dares to do for hip hop what some say has killed jazz: make space for it in academia. Neal argues that hip hop, like jazz, is so much bigger than its musical and aesthetic elements denying it scholarly examination would also deny its full impact on the world.

 

 

Neal, black popular-culture professor at Duke University (previously at the University of Pittsburgh -- Bradford), speaks on "Teach the Bourgeois and Rock the Boulevard: The Making of a Hip Hop Intelligentsia." He recently co-edited That's the Joint! The Hip Hop Studies Reader and has written What the Music Said: Black Popular Music and Black Public Culture, Soul Babies: Black Popular Culture and the Post-Soul Aesthetic, and Songs in the Key of Black Life: A Rhythm and Blues Nation.

 

It seems hip hop, a once anti-establishment and anti-commodification art form, is now embracing those things it opposed.

This art form that was so marginal to mainstream sensibilities has now become part of the machine and quite proficient at creating more markets for itself, as witnessed by the recent fascination with so-called street literature. But part of what I'll be wondering aloud [at CMU] is whether or not politically active and intellectually sophisticated hip-hop artists have a vital role to play in popularizing oppositional thinking, precisely because they are commodities.

 

Many works by you, Tricia Rose, Joan Morgan, Todd Boyd and Michael Eric Dyson have formed a legitimate canon for hip hop, but are they reaching urban black and Latino youth?

Even though much of our work is born out of a deep concern and love of black youth, even when we're critical of them, the reality is that we write for largely "literate," educated and quite often white audiences. I think we all find ways to make sure that our ideas go beyond our core audience, whether it's Boyd doing his thing on ESPN or Dyson lecturing and preaching. In my case, the very reason I've been committed to writing for online journals like Africana.com is to reach a different audience than those who traditionally read serious non-fiction.

 

How do you answer those who say one has to actually live hip hop -- be a rapper, deejay, b-boy -- to write or teach it?

Hip hop has fascinated people over the last 35 years, not simply because of banging beats and emcees with great flow, but because it has had a meaningful impact in the world that we live [in], culturally, politically, economically, socially. To reduce the ability to critically engage hip hop to its technicians is to deny its full impact. Hip hop is the cultural expression in which my ideas, and many of the hip-hop intelligentsia, have found resonance.

 

You consider yourself a feminist. How difficult is it for young men of the hip hop generation to make this same claim?

I don't think there's really an available language yet to get the young men in hip hop to rethink their gender politics. Too often these young men see hip hop as a haven to articulate their frustrations with women -- girlfriends, mothers, baby-mamas, groupies -- but are often incapable of offering the kind of self-critique that would allow them to interrogate their own roles in creating and maintaining these often dysfunctional relationships with women.

 

Critics like John McWhorter sometimes castigate hip hop as being a culprit for breeding anti-intellectualism in black youth.

McWhorter, who is much more brilliant than a lot of us are willing to give him credit for, is of a class of black pundits who clearly holds very hateful views of black youth and anything connected to black youth culture. Disagree with the hip-hop generation if you must, but at least acknowledge that these folk are trying to make sense of the world that was handed to them. And much like our foremothers and fathers, they are trying to make a way out of no way.

 

Where's the line between fronting hip hop to uphold the established political parties or capitalism and having hip hop be a tool for real political and economic empowerment?

I worry about Russell Simmons' motivations in this regard, because he has race man ambitions and I get the sense that much of what he is doing is in an effort to deliver bodies to the political operatives most in position to help him realize those ambitions. I think ultimately it will be about educating hip hop generation voters about the voting process and organizing them to use those votes in the spheres where they will have the most impact. That means not driving them to vote only because it's a presidential election year, but driving them to vote locally and on a state level where they can directly affect policies that impact their everyday lives.

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