Straight Razor

Very of the moment convergences going on with this Roxanne Shante controversy. A few weeks back, the New York Daily News published this deeply heartwarming story detailing Shante's unlikely road from mid/late-80s rapper--the Golden Age of shady contracts--to a Cornell PhD. Rap nerds had heard this story before but never from a source as "credible" as the Daily News. A writer at Slate--annoyed at how Tweet-ready the story was, it seems--did some follow-up work and claimed it was bogus, and then yesterday Jeff Chang and Wayne Marshall went in on the Slate piece, attacking the writer's motivations and accusing him of shoddy reporting.

Slate is, by nature, a fairly contrarian but smart, rigorous outlet. (Who knows--maybe next week they'll redeem Roxanne.) I don't see anything wrong with their attempt to debunk the Shante story, even if the writer could have (should have) dug deeper. There's a dismissive, occasionally cruel tone to the piece--one that might be called for were this an act of true villainy, rather than a presumed hoax-gone-awry. I won't get into the ethics of lying about one's credentials, though I will point out that we've often looked the other way when hoaxers have interesting or even noble reasons for their deceptions. Sometimes we even make movies about them. All of which is to say: the "why" here matters, if only on some ephemeral or philosophical level.

Anyhow, I agree with the spirit of Jeff and Wayne's criticism of the Slate piece--it wasn't as thorough as it claimed to be and it is fair to ask why anyone would/should care to debunk something with pretty much zero negative social consequence, when we don't bother verifying that Rapper X indeed performed Immoral Act Y. I'm not really convinced by their attempts to defame the writer, though. If the Shante story boils down to whether or not she has a PhD, then most of the evidence suggests she is lying--and if the PhD is all that's at stake, then it's an indefensible deception.

What does dismay me, though, is that it is merely about the PhD, rather than the broader, intangible, less material reasons that inspire one to lie about having one. We eventually gave folks like Stephen Glass or Jayson Blair the benefit of our doubt--or at least the projection of our fantasies. We imagined the pressures and anxieties they must have felt; we allowed them to stand-in for the Greater Troubles facing journalism in a new age. Discrediting Shante's claims is one thing--but if that's all we do, then we ignore this opportunity to wonder why someone would do this, why we care to doubt her, how far we've traveled since the days when Presidents could philander/have polio with press protection, why 2.0 web journalism's preferred voice is a contrarian one, the effects of the news cycle being compressed to 140 characters or less, and why the debunking of one woman's claim is more legible, more instantly gratifying, faster-traveling and stickier than the debunking of claims about wars, birthplaces and Socialist indoctrinations.

By the way, my favorite Shante cut (with "Brothers Ain't Shit" a close second):

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Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. More

Hua Hsu teaches in the English Department at Vassar College and writes about music, sports, and culture. His work has appeared in The Atlantic, The New York Times, Bookforum, Slate, The Village Voice, The Boston Globe Ideas section and The Wire (for whom he writes a bi-monthly column). He is on the editorial board for the New Literary History of America.

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