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Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture

reviewed by Julian Tanner - April 06, 2011

coverTitle: Losing My Cool: How a Father's Love and 15,000 Books Beat Hip-hop Culture
Author(s): Thomas Chatterton Williams
Publisher: Penguin,
ISBN: 159420263X, Pages: 240, Year: 2010
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The book under review is a first person account by a young black man, Thomas Chatterton Williams, of his coming-of-age experiences growing up with, and ultimately, out of, hip-hop music and its attendant culture.

This book is, in other words, an autobiography, a series of “very specific anecdotes” about his personal life. However, it originated as a work of cultural criticism. In my judgment, it remains that. The author is a memoirist with an agenda.

Williams is an African American of mixed racial background, a black father and a white mother, with no doubts about his racial identity. He is black, a fact made plain to him, positively by both parents, and rather more negatively by the white classmates in the predominantly white community that he initially grew up in, his peripatetic parents refusing all efforts by real estate agents to locate them in an all-black neighborhood. The young Williams and his older brother, Clarence, are taught that being black is a cultural category not a biological one; that there is no such thing as being half white and that, in any case, white Americans would never accept them as being anything other than black.

And so it turns out. The Williams boys are treated predictably badly – beaten up and abused – by the white kids at school and in their neighborhood. The first part of the book describes how the teenage Williams responds to incessant racism by deliberately and purposefully taking on the persona of a racialized hard man. He quickly learns that looking the part of the young black male is not enough; he also has to play the part as well.

Hence a search for respect that begins and ends on the basketball court (“where I lived there was really nothing blacker you could do than shoot hoops” [p. 21]) and popular culture. He becomes an avid and largely indiscriminate consumer of rap music and BET. None of this pleases his father (“pappy”) very much. Williams senior is a central figure in his son’s narrative, a bookish man of outstanding character and integrity, leery in the extreme of the negative stereotypes embodied in black success in the sports and entertainment world. Williams junior describes an ever widening gap – more a yawning chasm – between the intellectual tradition represented by his father and his own involvement in the network of underachieving, misogynist, and violent friends.

Over time, however, things begin to change. Williams embarks upon the conversion from wayward youth to serious young scholar. He manages to graduate from high school and gain admittance to the more than respectable Georgetown University. After an uncertain start – he still maintains his single-minded allegiance to hip-hop and a black street culture – things start to pick up. He describes a series of epiphanous moments, such as discovering the work of James Baldwin, the philosophy of Martin Heidegger (a curious choice perhaps, given his links to Nazism) and an essay by Sheldon Steele in Harper’s Magazine. He is also exposed to dynamic and enlightening professors, and he begins to meet more appropriate women (literary types, like himself); crucially, he remembers, before it is too late, all the good advice that his father has given him, and tellingly, hip-hop music becomes much less important in his life: he is starting to lose his cool.

As I have implied, much of this book reads like a modern morality tale, a story of how a talented but indolent son causes his much loved father a boat load of grief in adolescence, but manages to redeem himself thanks to lasting paternal influences, the liberating experiences of higher education, and his own efforts. As such, it stands as a well-written and interesting personal history, albeit one written by somebody still in his twenties (I presume). But it also has an agenda, an agenda that, as a social scientist, I’m not entirely comfortable with.

The book’s title, and subtitle, suggests that hip-hop culture is responsible for the errant ways that characterized the author’s early life: his under involvement in schooling, and over involvement in a variety of disreputable and deviant activities. Williams thus joins ranks with cultural critics declaring that, like jazz and rock ‘n’ roll before it, hip-hop exerts a negative influence on the behavior of youth. He claims that hip-hop has debased black culture: “For more than 30 years the black world has revolved around the inventors of hip-hop values, and this has been a decisive step backwards” (p. 218), in part by limiting the range of cultural experiences that young black people are prepared to validate as authentic. (Another epiphanous moment: a trip to Paris effectively broadens his own horizons, thus allowing him to escape a similar fate.)

I don’t buy the argument; nor do I believe that I am alone in thinking that in any inventorying of the determinants of violence and misogyny among youth that music – any music – would be near the bottom of the list of plausible explanations. Social scientific research unambiguously supportive of the idea that listening to music has any direct bearing on adolescent behavior outside of the laboratory setting is extremely hard to find. For one thing, most studies are unable to determine which comes first, the music or the (bad) behavior. Secondly, research suggests adolescents use the same music differently; in the case of rap, while it is the case that some adolescents (such as the young Williams) may over-identify with its unsavory themes and content, others seek and find redemption in the music because it speaks to their sense of grievance and injustice. Thirdly, in terms of how the music is used, I’m not persuaded, as Williams seems to be, that white youth are more willing to listen to hip-hop ironically, and critically, than black youth. Their greater use of irony, Williams suggests, makes them less likely to have their whole lives determined by the music, less likely to have it mess up their academic careers, less vulnerable to its ill effects. Without supportive evidence, this appears to be a particularly patronizing view of hip-hop consumption amongst black youth.

Overall, the book is a strange hybrid, which might make it difficult to find an audience. On the one hand, it is a fairly straightforward piece of inspirational literature, with a simple story arc: prodigal son finds redemption and dumps hip-hop. On the other hand, it also reads as a work of cultural criticism: a warning about the shallow, and sometimes dangerous, pleasures of hip-hop music. As one person’s account of growing up black in the contemporary United States and the role that hip-hop played in his troubled teens, the book is a good read. However, I am more reluctant to endorse it as a critical commentary on the state of hip-hop culture.

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record, Date Published: April 06, 2011
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 16378, Date Accessed: 1/16/2022 4:46:37 PM

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About the Author
  • Julian Tanner
    University of Toronto
    E-mail Author
    JULIAN TANNER is a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto. A one-time high school teacher in England, much of his teaching and research has involved young people and, variously, school, work, deviant activity and youth culture. His most recent published work has been on popular music – including rap.
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