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It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation

reviewed by Arielle Greenberg - October 16, 2008

coverTitle: It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop: The Rise of the Post-Hip-Hop Generation
Author(s): M.K. Asante, Jr.
Publisher: St. Martin's Press, New York
ISBN: 0312373260, Pages: 288, Year: 2008
Search for book at Amazon.com

As I write this review, the rest of the country and I are preparing to watch the first-ever U.S. presidential debate in which one of the candidates is African-American. Race, though clearly a factor in this historic election, has still been mostly underplayed: as Americans, we have much work to do in bringing a deep, more holistic discourse to the mainstream conversation about Blacks in America. Perhaps It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop, an engaging collection of essays by M.K. Asante, Jr., a poet, filmmaker and professor in his mid-twenties, will help us along in that effort.

It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop is, as its title states, more than a book about a music or cultural youth movement: to help readers along with their “self-education” (a term that comes up often) about the Black experience, Asante provides historical timelines that cover slavery to the present, along with personal anecdotes, etymologies, amusing “interviews” with “the ghetto” and “hip hop” itself, and numerous illuminating quotations from Civil Rights leaders, public intellectuals, and hip hop lyrics. Despite being broken into chapters around topics like Black film, prison culture, and the generational divide, the essays look back and forward into one another, and the result is a free wheeling read that sometimes repeats itself. Because of the youthful, often colloquial narration, this feels appropriate, and part of the book’s value lies in an appropriately unconventional stylistic approach to a topic largely defined by style. And It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop serves as an entry point for readers who may put down this book to go find out more, and read more deeply, in important texts by folks like Angela Davis, Marcus Garvey, Frederick Douglass, and others. For example, although I consider myself relatively familiar with the Black Panther movement, I learned a lot by seeing its Ten Point Program reprinted here, from its demand for “free health care for all Black and oppressed people” to an “end to all wars of aggression”--and to sadly find, as Asante and his students at Morgan State University do, that “We don’t even have to make a new list” (p. 61).

For the most part, It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop is a call to action: a cry for the need for a post-hip-hop generation, as its subtitle states, rather than a claim that such a generation is already in place. Most of the evidence presented in the book—Black entrepreneurs designing prison-derived fashion for Black youth; unending police brutality; widespread poverty that keeps children from having the clothing, shelter or nourishment needed to become successful students; the author’s own brother’s incarceration and drug use (and this despite being raised by their mother and father, and that father being Dr. Molefi Kete Asante, largely responsible for bringing Afro-Centrism into the academy through his post at Temple University, where he started the first-ever Ph.D. Program in African American Studies)—is depressing and infuriating. But the book’s message is one that invokes those two current buzzwords, hope and change, through knowledge and activism and art, and it reclaims the role of popular music for organization, revolution and unity, a role Black music has long served. “Post-hip-hop,” Asante says, is happening right now, and it’s dominated not by music but by “an assertion of agency” in “a broad range of abilities [and] ideals” that include feminism, anti-globalization, and gay rights (p. 7). This is important and refreshing to read in the context of the notoriously heterosexist hip hop culture, but only anti-globalization gets further exploration: it would have been wonderful to see a young, heterosexual Black man take on the problems of misogyny and homophobia in his community and beyond. I was also disappointed that an important section on the need for brotherhood with the Latino-American community is one of the slimmest chapters, only eight pages long.  

Likewise, while Asante claims that there are uplifting hip hop emcees broadcasting the kind of constructive message he’s after, he admits they are underground and inaccessible to most youth, and never really addresses how to solve this problem, since he also adamantly opposes corporate radio and does not seem to put much stock in its ability to transform. As he says, “There are heavy profits to be made by living down to white expectations,” so how can disenfranchised youth resist the pull of those profits? It would be too much to ask Asante to solve this incredibly complex network of problems, but at times one gets lost within his simultaneous pull towards telling the cold, hard truth and wanting to lift up his people.

There are a few other problems: while the prose is always fresh, accessible, and smart, it sometimes feels overwritten, as in Asante’s bad habit of distractingly showy dialogue tags such as “she proverbed” or “she quizzes.” And a few ethical questions arose for this reader: why does Asante neglect to mention Amiri Baraka’s Israeli conspiracy theory mongering when he first tells the story of Baraka’s poet laureate downfall, only to discuss it separately in a later, less defensive, chapter? Asante says he trusts “artivists” and musicians to replace “thug” culture, but then admits when pulled over by a bad cop in one of the book’s most powerful anecdotes, that he is in fact carrying a gun, a handgun he bought for his own protection. Such personal contradictions are part of life, sure, but they keep the thesis of the book, which seems to veer between change enacted “by any means necessary” and those by nonviolent means such as filmmaking and reading, a bit ungrounded. These same contradictions, though, seem to represent much of the current thinking on race, and could make for lively, if heated, classroom debate.

The book’s success, I imagine, will lie in whether it can find a readership beyond its own ideology or whether it will only preach to its choir. It’s Bigger Than Hip Hop may work as an introductory text in an African-American or other cultural studies college course, or for advanced high school students, but it is not scholarly enough for serious scholars of the subject, who will likely be all too familiar with the obstacles and painful truths contained herein. That’s ok, because the audience it seems to want to find are young adults who may be lured by the book’s title and engaged by its witty, vivid, compelling prose, and the book is a powerful example of how one does not need to muffle one’s voice or hide one’s cultural background when writing academic, argumentative papers. But since, as Asante himself discovers when speaking at a local high school, many Americans of this age simply do not read much outside of what is assigned in school, I fear that those best served by this powerful introduction to the legacy of injustice and the need for change around race in this country and the world may not find their way to it.  

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: October 16, 2008
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 15412, Date Accessed: 1/28/2022 3:49:29 AM

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About the Author
  • Arielle Greenberg
    Columbia College Chicago
    E-mail Author
    ARIELLE GREENBERG is the author of two collections of poetry, co-editor of two anthologies on gender and poetry, and editor of a college course reader, Youth Subcultures: Exploring America’s Underground (Pearson Longman, 2006). She is an assistant professor in the English Department at Columbia College Chicago, and has been recently writing nonfiction about the homebirth subculture and about the new back-to-the-land movement.
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