Tolu Olorunda, This Is Real Music, March 16, 2009
In a recent study conducted by Virgil Griffiths, a PhD student in California, Hip-Hop music listeners are portrayed as unintelligent and intellectually deficient. The independent study, titled “Music That Makes You Dumb,” found that those who listen to Lil’ Wayne, T.I., Kanye West, Jay-z and Ludacris (the usual suspects) are, essentially, dumb. On the contrary, listening to Beethoven, U2, Bob Dylan, Counting Crows and Sufjan Stevens displays intellectual sophistication. Excuse my coarseness: B******T! We’ve been through this before. We need not pretend otherwise. For how long do we entertain these barrages of insults, before responding back?
From the early days of Hip-Hop’s christening, to this very moment, there have been those–and they are certainly in no short supply–who have tried to diminish its cultural value, and render it unworthy of critical evaluation. Their primary aim is to discredit Rap music as an art-form, by focusing squarely, and disproportionately, on the more negative elements it produces. Those detractors claim that Hip-Hop culture/music cannot be celebrated with the kind of scholarly discipline other music genres enjoy, because of its unorthodoxy and irreverence. Every conscientious musicologist is aware of this trend, as it concerns Black music. For those who think this uncritical obsession with Black art began with Hip-Hop, think again.
As far back as the early 20th century, critics of Jazz music were questioning its validity. An article dating back to August 1921, published in Ladies Home Journal, asked the question: “Does Jazz Put the Sin in Syncopation?” It began with the eerie suggestion that “an entirely different type of music might invoke savage instincts.” The writer sought to qualify her argument, with claims that Jazz “disorganizes all regular laws and order; it stimulates to extreme deeds, to a breaking away from all rules and conventions; it is harmful and dangerous, and its influence is wholly bad.” Sound familiar? Deriding it as “an influence for evil,” the article went as far as laying some unfound scientific foundation for its indictment on Jazz: “A number of scientific men who have been working on experiments in musico-therapy with the insane, declare that while regular rhythms and simple tones produce a quieting effect on the brain of even a violent patient, the effect of jazz on the normal brain produces an atrophied condition on the brain cells of conception, until very frequently those under the demoralizing influence of the persistent use of syncopation, combined with inharmonic partial tones, are actually incapable of distinguishing between good and evil, right and wrong.” It is imperative that Hip-Hop listeners are aware of this history, for it helps provide some context to the endless excuses given by those who regard Hip-Hop as musically insolvent.
Hip-Hop, since its inception, has worn a cloak of suspicion, and this makes it even more challenging to accept the sudden interest it has accumulated over the last decade. Those who, three decades earlier, characterized it as another variation of “Jungle music,” are the same suits who, today, sign the checks of many successful Hip-Hop artists. More than the question of legitimacy, however, Hip-Hop has been heavily criticized for its alleged anti-intellectualism stance. It is said to covet ignorance, unlimitedly. It’s most vocal antagonists are skillful in examining the extreme elements in the culture, and using those unfortunate seeds as the general evaluation of the fruits it bears.
What I hope to ask these esteemed scholars is if they ever heard of a Rapper by the name of Canibus. If they haven’t, it might help to familiarize themselves with him. They might be surprised to hear Canibus draw, without so much as breaking a sweat, on the essays of philosophers ranging from David Hume, to Socrates, to Michel Montaigne, to Descartes. They might find it curious to hear him mention the names of renowned physicists, such as Leó Szilárd and Niels Bohr. They might be dumbfounded by his of knowledge of historical landmarks, all the way from the Rose Line, to Mount Hermon, to the Library of Alexandria. Perhaps they might be amazed to hear his incorporation of Elizabethan poetry in his songs. I’m wondering if they might be astounded by his hypothesis that, “if you take a glass of water then add two cubes of ice,” because “you should see the cup’s water level slightly rise,” it begs the question: “if you remove every living animal out of the sea, then wouldn’t the world’s ocean water level decrease?” His theory that “this means the planet wasn’t three-quarters of water,” should invalidate all studies suggesting an intelligence-deficit in Hip-Hop listeners/artists. More important, is the reality that Canibus is but a sea in the vast ocean of Hip-Hop artistry, which, as KRS-One repeatedly contends, “reign supreme” in their philosophical depth and poetic proficiency.
What intentional/unintentional critics like Virgil Griffiths fail to realize, is that their inability to celebrate the educational contributions of Hip-Hop lies in the inherent assumption that Hip-Hop’s uniqueness is a bad thing. They fail to recognize that, as Dr. Janice Hale put it succinctly, “different DOES NOT mean deficient.” Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his essay on “The Poet,” dated 1844, makes a similar point, asserting that “the same man, or society of men, may wear one aspect to themselves and their companions, and a different aspect to higher intelligences.” These “higher intelligences” have, unfortunately, convinced themselves, that Hip-Hop’s refusal to adapt to the rigid mechanical standards of organized rhythm is a signifier of its inferiority. This tragic and misleading concept, is what inspires the kind of study Mr. Griffiths conducted.
The easiest thing to do, as Griffiths proudly did, is reduce Hip-Hop to the stereotypical representations and dialogical presentations seen on entertainment TV channels, and heard on radio stations. It’s convenient to summarize Hip-Hop by the loose antics of Lil’ Wayne, Ludacris or Kanye West. It’s effortless to see Hip-Hop through the prism of the one-sided, mono-syllabic, unilateral content entertained on mainstream channels. Alongside being convenient and effortless, however, it’s also a cowardly deed, and, according to a Hip-Hop scholar, an indicator of unfettered ignorance. Wake up Griffiths, the bells are calling!
[Editors Note: Virgil Griffiths’s article “Music That Makes You Dumb” can be read here.]